By J.A. Jones, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG – The Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum kicked off The Curious Collector series hosted by Celeste Davis last month with an event focusing on two impactful African-American artists.
“Colored People: Visions by Carrie Mae Weems and Amy Sherald” was Davis’ inaugural presentation of what Woodson’s Executive Director Terri Lipsey-Scott announced would be a monthly event. With a pre-talk period that allowed guests to gather their coffee and pastries, the room was filled by the time Davis.
The mastermind and host of the event, Davis holds a Masters of Fine Arts from George Washington University and a certificate in Fine Art and Furniture Appraisal from NYU. Her passion for, and love of, the transformative and transcendent nature of art was evident in her almost reverent tone toward the two artists.
“I had volunteered at the Woodson in many capacities over many years – putting out chairs, cleaning up after events, curating events, hanging exhibits, lots of things. And in the course of that work, I’ve always enjoyed and valued the conversations that happen within these walls that extend out into the garden,” shared Davis.
It was those conversations, said Davis, that sparked the idea for the series. Discussions “about the artwork and what that artwork actually means to us as a race, as a culture, what does it say about us as a community,” that led her to want to create a “mechanism” for those conversations to happen.
For Davis, the community experience and sharing add to the experience, and the selected art topics provide a way to ponder our own understanding and existence.
“I think that’s what artwork does when it’s done really well. It gives us insights into who we are,” Davis mused. “I titled it the Curious Collector because it’s art that then stimulates us to be curious.”
Davis began by inviting her audience to record their thoughts about two slide images:
on the left was an image from award-winning photographer Carrie Mae Weems’ Kitchen Table series, of a woman and man seated together.
On the right, a portrait by painter Amy Sherald, the artist who painted First Lady Michelle Obama’s official portrait at the National Gallery; the portrait in the slide Davis showed was titled “The Boy With No Past.”
Davis began her talk with a little history on Weems, who was living in Massachusetts between1988 and1990. “After work every day, she took pictures of herself around her kitchen table,” explained Davis. “What was so revolutionary about the Kitchen Table series is that it was the first time that an African-American woman had taken the opportunity to not let some tell her own story, but boldly tell her own story.”
Davis related that, as the kitchen symbolizes the center of family, Weems explored universal relationships with herself and others through her staged photos that are illuminated by one large over-hanging light and simple props.
After a short film about Weems and gave a slide presentation, Davis moved on to talk about artist Amy Sherald.
“What is the Amy Sherald effect,” mused Davis. “I went to the Portrait Gallery, and I saw the painting of Mrs. Obama. I had seen it online, and I had seen it in print – but nothing prepared me for seeing the piece face-to-face. There was something powerful and moving in the image.”
Recalling the numerous articles about the little African American girl who couldn’t pull herself away from the Michelle Obama portrait, Davis acknowledged, “I know what she was feeling. When I saw the portrait up close, and then I began to read about Amy Sherald, and look more deeply at the work she does, my appreciation for her and her work grew profoundly. It’s really amazing.”
After showing a short film about Sherald, Davis shared insight into her hallmark of painting skin tones in shades of gray — the painter’s attempt to “take race out of the conversation.”
“The skin color can sometimes get in the way of us being able to see each other as people. So, her way of dealing with that is not to deal with it,” Davis noted, referring to her choice to instead focus on her model’s features, hair, and clothing – allowing you to see their portrait without immediately taking in their skin color. “I think that is a very powerful technique that she has perfected.”
Davis ended by stating she feels both artists create work that has a timeless quality – which adds to their excellent ability to impact viewers. You can learn more about them at CarrieMaeWeems.net and AmySherald.com.
Davis will be back with another installment of The Curious Collector on Feb. 22, from 10:30 to 11:30 at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson Museum, 2240 Ninth Ave. S.
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