Tales of the New South

Before Obama speaks, artist Nellie Ashford remembers

A folk artist’s bright paintings evoke a segregated period

By Elizabeth Leland
eleland@charlotteobserver.com

More Information

  • More: Tales of the New South
  • Nellie Ashford

    • Education: B.S., psychology and social science, Shaw University.

    • Jobs: Teacher assistant for 25 years. Official artist of the CIAA in Charlotte.

    • Influences: John and Jim Biggers, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, G.C. Cox, Sam Gillum and David Driskell – and children everywhere.

    • Galleries with her work: Foster’s Frame & Art Gallery in Huntersville, Coffey & Thompson in Charlotte and Red Piano Gallery Too on St. Helena’s Island, S.C.

    Silent Auction of two of Nellie’s paintings

    Barium Springs Home For Children in Troutman, Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Art show and fundraiser.


  • About the series

    Before 35,000 outsiders arrive in Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention, the Observer is taking a look at some of the people, places and events that might surprise visitors about the region.


  • 10 New South Tales

    June 17: Southern Drawl

    June 24: Livermush

    July 1: Jewish life

    July 8: Globalizing city

    Today: Segregated past

    July 22: Rural poverty

    July 29: Gateway to city

    Aug. 5: Still Bank Town?

    Aug. 12: Flying the flag

    Aug. 19: Booster gene

    •  For DNC visitors, the series will be featured online at charlotteobserver.com.


  • 10 New South Tales

    June 17: Southern Drawl

    June 24: Livermush

    July 1: Jewish life

    July 8: Globalizing city

    Today: Segregated past

    July 22: Rural poverty

    July 29: Gateway to city

    Aug. 5: Still Bank Town?

    Aug. 12: Flying the flag

    Aug. 19: Booster gene

    • For DNC visitors, the series will be featured online at charlotteobserver.com.



When President Barack Obama makes history in Charlotte by accepting the Democratic presidential nomination for a second term, Nellie Ashford hopes we won’t forget there was a time when our city might not have welcomed a person of color.

In her pretty folk art paintings, Ashford reminds us of the ugliness in our past.

I first saw her work during a tour of the Democratic National Convention Committee headquarters uptown, where nine of her pieces are on loan. One painting in particular captivated me. She calls it “So Near But So Far.”

From a distance, it looks like a cheerful piece of folk art with a big yellow-orange school bus filling most of the canvas.

Up close, Ashford’s message becomes clear. Inside the bus are white children, being driven to school through a neighborhood of lush green lawns and a tidy picket fence. Walking in the opposite direction are barefoot African-American children who were not allowed to study in the same schools as white boys and girls. A chain-link fence separates the two.

“You always walked in a group because you didn’t want to be out there alone,” Ashford said about black schoolchildren in the segregated 1940s and ’50s of her childhood. “Sometimes people would throw things at you. Sometimes the bus would go by fast and splash water. They may take a dog and let the dog get to you. There was no regard to the little people walking to school.”

Behind many of her paintings are similar stories about her roots in rural Mecklenburg County – some of them good memories, some not so good – all told through extravagant bursts of color and collage.

“I paint about things I remember as a child,” she said. “It’s a part of history that made us who we are. Without those humble people that I paint about, there would not have been a Harvey Gantt or a Mayor (Anthony) Foxx or a President Obama even.”

Little house in the woods

A few weeks after we met, I visited Ashford at her home. It’s a whimsical spot tucked in the woods – the porch overflowing with plants, the rooms brimming with paintings hung on walls and propped on tables, the piano, the sofa and chairs.

“This,” she said proudly, “is the house where I grew up.”

Ashford is a soft-spoken woman with a warm smile. She was painting that morning and apologized for splatters of color on her black shirt and pants.

She said she moved to the house as a child, and there’s a story about that, too, in a painting she calls “The Unwanted Journey on a Wagon.” Her father farmed in the northern part of the county and sold vegetables to families in the Dilworth neighborhood near uptown, working out of the trunk of his 1950 Dodge.

When development threatened, he left his fields and moved to 7 acres on the westside where Ashford lives “at the end of a road where life is very, very simple.”

The story behind her art

Ashford, who is 69, is a self-taught artist. She began painting in her 50s when her 6-year-old grandson asked her to teach him.

His interest shifted to old cars, but Ashford kept painting.

Patrick Diamond, an art collector and former development director for the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, owns half a dozen of her paintings. “I feel as strong about Nellie’s work as I do about Romare Bearden’s work,” he said. “She’s a hidden treasure. Nellie has never taken an art class, and trained artists have encouraged her never to do it. They don’t want her to spoil the original creativity that comes out of her mind, out of her heart, out of her soul.”

The power of Ashford’s art lies in its simplicity. She paints with bright acrylic colors and glues fabric, string, sawdust and other objects onto the canvas. In most paintings, people’s faces don’t have features.

“I call it folk art with a story,” said John Foster of Foster’s Frame & Art Gallery in Huntersville, which sells Ashford’s paintings. “She’s one of those artists who can work outside the box and get away with it.”

Ashford spreads her canvases on her bed, working on several at once, one color at a time, beginning with brown faces, arms and legs. “When I hang them up, it’s almost like going to another world,” she said. “It feels like they move.”

‘I paint lest we forget’

Not so long ago, Ashford said she was talking with a friend from Buffalo, N.Y., who was upset by a TV documentary about the Ku Klux Klan.

“She was just learning a lot about the ways of the South and how our rhythm had been,” Ashford said. “To hear it in a documentary is one thing. But to have lived it is a whole other thing.”

Ashford lived it.

“I paint lest we forget,” she said. Her art gives voice to cooks, maids, gardeners, carpenters and field workers. “You know their work, but their voices were quiet.”

In one painting, a couple and two young children are dressed in their Sunday best – the little girl in a pretty pink frock as they wait by the shore. Though you can’t see their faces, you feel their yearning to cross to the other side.

Ashford remembers that feeling.

She left Charlotte in 1962 for New York City and the promise of a better life, part of a great northern migration of African-American men and women. “I didn’t want to work in the kitchen scrubbing floors,” she said. “I knew that I wanted something better.”

After 16 years, she came back home. She discovered something she said the family in her painting doesn’t realize. “If they knew what I know, they would stay on this side,” she said. “You are coming from a carefree life here, going to a hustle and bustle racing kind of life. You find yourself coming back to your roots.”

Someone likes my work

In the beginning, Ashford gave away her pictures. Gradually, through word of mouth, she began to sell them.

“I’m honored when someone buys a piece,” she said, “but it’s more of an honor to know someone likes my work.”

The first things she paints are “naked bodies.” She dresses them with bits of fabric glued to the canvas. “When I talk with children,” she said, “ I tell them, ‘I paint like you. My little people look like your little people. They’re stick figures’ .”

Her little people decorate homes as far away as Sweden, each with a story about growing up in the segregated South. The message Ashford hopes they carry with them is this: “Remember from where you have come. Remember whose bones you are standing on.”

Leland: 704-358-5074
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