Local artists celebrate Black History Month
story by ramsey harris
photos by angelina bellebuono
A dignified older African American man, wearing a tailored suit and a fedora, walks down a dirt road toward a small, white chapel in the distance. He leans on a cane, a bit hunched over, beside a field of cotton. His steps are measured and slow– his demeanor heavy with memory.
This image of George William, Sr., a 94-year-old Morgan County native, is among the many authentic, original works of art that will hang in the Pantheon Fine Arts Gallery through February as part of an art exhibit celebrating Black History Month. The artist who painted it, Eugene Swain, is among the many Morgan County artists represented in the exhibit.
Swain, a 47-year-old folk artist, was born and raised in Morgan County. His paintings of dilapidated barns, rusty pick-up trucks, hound dogs, and washtubs are based on his own memories of a childhood spent in the rural South
“The art is a representation of life,” says Swain. “If you grew up picking cotton, you can relate to it. If not, you can imagine what that life was like.”
Although Swain never attended art school, he has practiced and refined his art since he was eight years old. A distant relative of the internationally renowned artist from Morgan County, Benny Andrews, Swain’s talent is God-given. His aunt detected his talent when he was a young boy and challenged him to draw.
“My aunt asked me to draw a red bird when I was little,” he recalls. “I didn’t think I could do it, but the picture just came.”
Swain also credits Claudia Davis, his art teacher at Morgan County High School, for helping him recognize and hone his talent. She encouraged him to enter art contests, which he usually won.
Since then, Swain has painted at least 3,000 works of art that he can recall. He has sold most of them and now works primarily on commission. He says that people are drawn to his honest interpretations of countryside life, because that lifestyle is fading away. “It’s a different place and time now. Some kids don’t even know where eggs come from,” Swain says. “My art helps people to remember.”
Black History Month is about remembrance, but it’s also about rectifying centuries of socio-economic oppression. By remembering the great strides they have made, African Americans can look forward to a brighter future. Art can help to tell their story.
Watkinsville-based artist, Margo Candelario, detected a need for an African American art exhibit in the region and suggested the idea to Pete Muzyka, fellow artist and manager of the Pantheon Gallery. Partnering with the Morgan County African American Museum, Muzyka contacted area artists and quickly organized the exhibit.
Muzyka has collected over 30 works of art from regional artists including Doris Lewis, Jan Whillson, Karen Strelecki, Kareen Davis, Carol Fox, Catherine McIntyre, and Bunny Lawton. The William Tolliver estate will also loan three works to the exhibit.
“This exhibit will celebrate the positive impact that African American people have made on our community,” says Muzyka.
Candelario will be displaying several of her pieces in the exhibit. An artist from Harlem, N.Y., Candelario explores the African American migration from the South to the North and back down to the South in her artwork. She grew up during the Harlem Renaissance, but she also heard stories about her ancestors’ tough lives in the South. Now she sees gentrification driving black people out of Harlem and back down South.
“We always return to our roots,” says Candelario. “And on the bright side, there are so many advantages to living in the South– cleaner air, less congestion, less crime, and fresher food.”
Since she moved to Watkinsville, rural subjects and scenery have crept into her work. In “The Greenspace Rooster,” a Georgia bird stands proud on his land in the midst of encroaching suburban sprawl. Her work stresses the importance of treasuring the natural beauty that initially drew her to Georgia.
In this way, Candelario’s art is not specifically African American, but rather universal in nature. She hopes that blacks and whites will relate to the subject matter. “I’m not willing to label my work as ‘African American.’ In life it’s not black and white, that’s why my pieces are so colorful. There are so many shades. The story is never what it seems to be,” Candelario explains.
One of her pastels that will hang in the Black History Month Exhibit is “The Last Act.” Like many of her pieces, the abstract figure tells a story. “The figure in that piece represents the two sides of me, because I’ve had to learn to be both a mommy and a daddy. That piece is about the balancing act– being everything to everyone and doing it gracefully.”
“The Last Act” resonates with single moms, regardless of race. “My pieces are always about life. They may be abstract, but most people can relate to the stories that inspired the art.”
Candelario hopes that this won’t be the last time she exhibits her work in Morgan County. She also hopes the exhibit will encourage other African American artists to get their work out in front of the public. “I think every town should have a place where the art reflects the people who live in the area. Why should I have to drive all the way to Atlanta to see some black folks? If they’re living and breathing here, than why can’t I see them on canvas?” she asks.
Doris Lewis is one local artist who looks forward to showing her work to the public for the first time through this exhibit. “This is my first exhibit. I’m very excited about it, because my son has always tried to get me to show my drawings.”
Lewis, who has lived here her whole life, sketches portraits of friends and family members. She pays special attention to her subjects’ eyes, as she believes the eyes are windows into the soul.
One of her portraits shows her husband, a Vietnam veteran, in uniform. Lewis commemorates the African American experience by depicting the people she knows most intimately.
For those who would like to meet the artists, there will be an opening reception this Friday between 6 and 8 p.m. at the Morgan County African American Museum. The exhibit at the museum and the Pantheon Gallery will run between February 8-29.