When President Barack Obama makes history in Charlotte by accepting the Democratic presidential nomination for a second term, Nellie Ashford hopes we wont 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, Ashfords 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 didnt 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. Its 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. Its 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 theres 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 Nellies work as I do about Romare Beardens work, he said. Shes a hidden treasure. Nellie has never taken an art class, and trained artists have encouraged her never to do it. They dont want her to spoil the original creativity that comes out of her mind, out of her heart, out of her soul.
The power of Ashfords 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, peoples faces dont have features.
I call it folk art with a story, said John Foster of Fosters Frame & Art Gallery in Huntersville, which sells Ashfords paintings. Shes 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, its 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 cant 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 didnt 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 doesnt 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.
Im honored when someone buys a piece, she said, but its 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. Theyre 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.