Black History Month exhibit featured at 20 North GalleryWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
Landscape painter Steven S. Walker said people are often surprised to discover he is young and black.
“They have a hard time tying [landscapes] into being African-American artwork,” said the 34-year-old Westerville, Ohio, resident. “It’s not only my race that throws people off. It’s also my age. I once met an art collector who looked at me and said, ‘I expected some 80-year-old guy painting like this.’”
Breaking stereotypes can be fun, said Walker, the featured artist of this year’s Black History Month exhibit at 20 North Gallery, 18 N. St. Clair St., in Downtown Toledo.
“I really do enjoy it,” Walker said. “I hope people will be pleasantly surprised. I hope this will help get the word out about me as I’m still new to the state and I also just hope they take away a broader scope of what African-American art is.”
“Black History Month 2013: The American Experience” opened Jan. 25 and features work from 10 local and regional African-American artists. The exhibition will be on display through March 2. Gallery hours are noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday or by appointment.
Other participating artists are Larenza Arnold, Aaron S. Bivins, Charles T. Gabriel Jr., Elizabeth V. Jordan, Ahavalyn Pitts, Brenda Price, Robert E. Shorter, Mack Walton and John Wade III.
The annual exhibit was founded in 1977 by Peggy Grant shortly after Congress designated February as Black History Month. This is the first year the show was not curated by Grant, art director emerita of 20 North Gallery; instead, it was self-curated by the participating artists.
“That is giving it a different feeling, a new direction,” said 20 North Gallery Art Director Condessa Croninger. “It’s not entirely our show and I think that makes it very exciting. The combined voices for this exhibit is just such a delight and such a wonderful change of direction for the show. [Grant] is just delighted the artists are so invested in it as she has been all these years.”
Everyone at 20 North Gallery was “awestruck” by Walker’s landscape paintings, most of which depict Midwestern vistas, Croninger said.
“We don’t often think of the Midwest as having these awe-inspiring scenes,” Croninger said. “We think, ‘If only we had mountains. If only we had the ocean.’ But he turns farm fields and stretches along the highway, these things that are part of our consciousness as Midwesterners, and really elevates them.”
Walker said he started painting landscapes as an escape from the stress of deadlines for children’s book illustrations, magazine covers and other commissioned work.
“I was an Eagle Scout and I remember camping was just such a great time for me. And taking road trips and just staring out the window and seeing all these beautiful scenes,” Walker said.
“It’s inspired by childhood memories, but I still go out and take references. I’ll take drives. I’ll go down a road I’ve never been down before. A lot of times what inspires me is the time of day and the light.
“When people think of black history or black art, there’s a stereotype people assign to that. It’s often a certain color palette. Bold colors. A lot of black, red, green, yellow. And certain subject matter that tends to be based on historical events. I think that’s what a lot of people have come to expect they will see.
“I can only go based on my actual experience. I’ve never been to Africa. I’m completely immersed in my own individual experience. People, I think, would be surprised how common or similar some people’s interests are regardless of your race.”
Because of sponsors — including Mayor Mike Bell and the City of Toledo, JN House Enterprises, Dale-Riggs Funeral Home Inc., Aaron S. Bivins and 20 North Gallery — the sale of artwork is not needed to fund the show, allowing the artists more creative license, Croninger said.
“Some wonderful community-minded sponsors have supported the exhibit and made it possible that it’s not a make-or-break situation that the artists sell their work,” Croninger said. “Sometimes it’s necessary to think beyond, ‘Will the public like this?’ and think instead, ‘What do I have to say?’ This year the exhibit is more about the artists sharing what is dearest and most important to them.”
Participating artist Bivins chaired the committee that organized the show. The 56-year-old retired junior high art teacher has been part of the show since the 1980s and a former featured artist. In this year’s show, he will have three watercolor paintings of jazz artists, a watercolor of Toledo Harbor Lighthouse on Lake Erie and an acrylic painting of flowers. He also paints with oils.
“My work is very colorful, very spontaneous, very impressionistic,” Bivins said. “When I look at different scenes, I can visualize them as paintings. Hopefully when the viewer sees them, it evokes some kind of emotion or memory as an opportunity to complete the painting. We all see things just a little bit differently.”
Bivins said he too has found people who are surprised he is black.
“My paintings aren’t really ‘black’ in theme or subject matter,” Bivins said. “I had a painting I was thinking of putting in the show, but didn’t. It’s a lady from Georgia sitting on a porch in the Deep South with a head rag, carrying potatoes. That would be more in line with a typical black subject. So have I done those types of things? Yes. But do I do them exclusively? Absolutely not.
“I don’t want to be known as a black artist,” Bivins said. “I’m an artist first and foremost. I just happen to be black.”
Bivins said he hopes people who come to the exhibition enjoy the artwork.
“It really is an American experience, not just for the minority artist, the black artist, but an American experience that hopefully everyone can be part of,” Bivins said. “Once you see the work, you’ll see it lends itself to anybody and everybody.”
For more information, visit the web site www.20northgallery.net.
Tags: 20 North Gallery, Aaron S. Bivins, Ahavalyn Pitts, Black History Month, Brenda Price, Charles T. Gabriel Jr., Elizabeth V. Jordan, John Wade III, Larenza Arnold, Mack Walton, Peggy Grant, Robert E. Shorter, Steven S. Walker