Sunday, August 14, 2016

Nellie Ashford: Through My Eyes

Downtown Charlotte, NC
After being out of state for some much-needed vacation time last week it's nice to be back in the blogosphere.

It's unusual for me to go over ten days without blogging but it can take some time to ease back into the routine of writing.

At a post-funeral gathering at my cousin's house after the the passing of my Aunt back in March, members of my extended family on my father's side kept remarking how nice it was to see one another and get together.

But we kept on lamenting that it seemed too often that it was after funerals rather than happier occasions that our family gatherings were taking place.

It was there sitting at a table next to my uncle that the idea for another family reunion was born, and I've spent quite a lot of my personal time over the past four months helping to organize one with two of my cousins.

Suffice to say it all came together and we held it down in Charlotte, North Carolina starting last Friday over the first week in August.

Now I've been to rural and coastal North Carolina many times during my life, but it was my first time in Charlotte, a bustling and growing southern city with a vibrant downtown area and a rich history.

Plaque honoring Ishamel Titus & Dempsey Reed 
The downtown streets feature a number of plaques on the sidewalk or adjacent to certain buildings that highlight the historical relevance of the city and some of its local residents.

For example the plaque pictured at left pays tribute to two of the more than 5,000 African-Americans who served in the Continental Army, various state militias and navies during the Revolutionary War - a fact that was left out of the history books that were given to me in elementary and high school.

I can definitely recall being taught about Crispus Attucks in elementary and middle school.

The son of an African-American slave and a Native-American mother, Attucks is widely considered the first American to die at the hands of the British Army on March 5, 1770 during the Boston Massacre.

So it was uplifting to see a plaque recognizing Ishmael Titus (pictured above) and Dempsey Reed, two former slaves from Rowan County and Mecklenburg County, NC respectively, and the many other African-Americans who fought during the Revolutionary War.

Interestingly, like Reed, Titus agreed to serve in the army in place of his white slave owner Lawrence Ross, in exchange for his freedom; he served in a number of battles and later applied for a military pension at the age of 89 while living in Berkshire County, Massachusetts - he died at 110 years of age.

The eastern part of North Carolina was also an important region for the Confederacy during the Civil War as well.

For example the coastal city of Wilmington was one of the most important ports for importing critical supplies for the Confederate Army during the war.

The original capital of the Confederacy was established in Montgomery, Alabama in February, 1861, but within three months the oppressive heat and humidity prompted the Confederate Congress to move the capital north to Richmond, Virginia.

If you've ever seen Ken Burn's remarkable PBS documentary, 'The Civil War', you probably remember the many quotes taken from the fascinating and detailed Civil War diaries of prominent Montgomery socialite Mary Boykin Chestnut - of the decision to move the Confederate capital from Montgomery to Richmond she famously observed:

"I think these uncomfortable hotels will move the Congress. Our statesmen love their ease."

As the Civil War neared it's end and Federal troops closed in on Richmond, the Confederate capital was moved to Danville, Virginia before being moved to Charlotte, NC - where, as the plaque pictured above notes, the last cabinet meetings were held on April 24, 1865.

"Miles To Go Before We Sleep"
But for me the highlight of our family reunion group walking tour of the uptown section of Charlotte was  a visit to the Harvey B. Gantt Center For African-American Arts and Culture; named for the former first black mayor of the city.

We were fortunate that our visit coincided with an exhibit of the fascinating works of folk artist Nellie Ashford; which are on display at the Gantt Center through January 16, 2017.

As a helpful and knowledgeable volunteer museum guide explained, Ashford is a gifted artist who grew up in rural North Carolina who uses her extraordinary talent to explore the imagery of her upbringing and life in a small African-American community.

As you can see from the example pictured at left, Ashford intentionally leaves the faces of her subjects of many of her works intentionally blank.

The painting pictured above is titled, "Miles To Go Before We Sleep", this is only one part of a much wider painting showing a  line of men, women and children making their way across the southern terrain - on the far right (which isn't shown in the image above) is a figure holding his arm outstretched, pointing towards a lush green valley in the distance; the blue skies are kissed with sunlight.

The subjects are far from the valley, but they can see it in the distance; suggesting Ashford's depiction of the African-American struggle simultaneously tinged with the struggle and a colorful sense of optimism.

Her desire is that the viewer or observer look at her paintings and use their own imagination to picture the kind of expression on the faces of the subjects she depicts.

Ashford's works explore an interesting range of rural southern life based on her own experience.

She paints in acrylic and one of the most interesting aspects of her work is that she painstakingly cuts out actual pieces of fabric which she layers over certain subjects in the paintings,  so that the clothes they're wearing are real fabrics.

While I'm not an art critic, the technique lends a kind of 3-D realism to her abstract folk art.

So for example when you stand close up to paintings like the one above depicting people harvesting crops in the field, the colorful patterns of the clothes in the three subjects in the foreground of the painting are real fabric carefully shaped.

It lends an authenticity to the painting that's hard to convey from the photos I took with my iPhone.

The backs of the subjects bent over while they labor under the hot sun captures an iconic image of the rural American south.

Her paintings capture various stages of the southern black experience.

One painting shows a woman taking her restless daughter to school for the first time.

Another shows a child getting a music lesson from an older woman in a home.

The one pictured at left shows a group of women going to the local courthouse to vote.

The prominence of the angles of the imposing government building have an almost intimidating aspect, effectively symbolizing the "power of the institution" but the subjects are not dwarfed by the structure.

They move toward it with determination and purpose.

Keeping close together as if for comfort and reassurance.

If you notice the darker green fabric of the woman on the right holding the pink parasol, the bolder pattern seems more African than American; as if Ashford was linking the American flag on the building with the roots of the African culture from which these women's ancestors come from.

That's how I interpreted it anyway.

I was quite moved by Ashford's paintings which balance struggle, life, optimism and beauty in equal measures against the background of the segregated south of the artist's upbringing.

The exhibit is well worth a visit if you're going to be in Charlotte before January 16th.

It was a really amazing experience to visit such a diverse, modern and vibrant southern city with members of my extended family, one populated with so many genuinely nice people who embody true southern charm and culture.

It's a place where manners still matter.

But equally important to me was the opportunity to use the lens of artistic expression to look back at aspects of southern life and culture which must be remembered and recognized.

In the pages of my blog I often refer to the history of racism in the literal or factual sense; citing dates, names and places.

But looking back on that history through the eyes of Nellie Ashford helped me to see things that can't be captured in the pages of a history book, a newspaper or a Website.

Things that can only truly be captured and conveyed through art.

Ashford's work helped me to recognize that beauty can exist within struggle; and infuse it with hope.

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