The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture’s newest exhibit, “A Woman’s Work,” comes as the museum is about to celebrate its 45th anniversary.
The Observer was interested in the story behind local art exhibits and what a select number of pieces could tell us about the show. At the Gantt, we asked Alexys Taylor, the collections exhibitions manager, to be our guide.
Inside the exhibit
“A Woman’s Work” is a selection of 25 pieces by 11 artists from the John and Vivian Hewitt Collection of African American Art, donated to the Gantt Center in 1998 by Bank of America.
“We wanted to honor women in many different ways,” Taylor said. “Even without looking at the room closely, you can see there are lots of portraits in here. You can see some women working. You can see families, as well.”
Taylor studied art history and art leadership at Queens University of Charlotte. She started at the Gantt Center as a college intern in 2013 and has since filled several roles within the museum.
Taylor worked with a team that included Gantt Chief Operating Office Bonita Buford to determine the theme and title of the show..
“The 45th anniversary inspired us to do something about women,” Taylor said. “What pieces do we want to bring out? What story do we want to tell? Bonita was inspired by a song that she heard about woman’s work.” (‘This Woman’s Work’ )
Head of a Woman, a lithograph by Elizabeth Catlett, 1967
“Head of a Woman” is intended to be the first piece in “A Woman’s Work.” It addresses the show’s theme and introduces the relationship John and Vivian Hewitt developed with the artists. Elizabeth Catlett signed this piece personally to the Hewitts, a treat seen frequently in several works in the collection.
Although the Hewitts came from modest means, they made the decision to collect art instead of giving each other gifts. For 50 years, they made it a priority to purchase pieces they loved.
The Hewitts met most of the artists in their collection, which is unusual, Taylor said. The couple kick-started many new artist’s careers by hosting art shows in their Manhattan home.
“We wanted to tell the story of John and Vivian Hewitt,” Taylor said. “Their story is just as important as the individual pieces.”
Catlett created this realistic portrait of a black woman in the height of the civil rights movement when “black power” and “black is beautiful” became important mantras. With this representation of cubism and realism, she illustrates how hair texture, lip size and shades of skin are beautiful, Taylor said.
“The piece is powerful,” she said. “You see the woman looking directly at you. It shows that she’s aware of the audience. It shows that, ‘I’m here, I’m present and you need to look at me and see me for who I am.’”
Catlett grew up in Washington, D.C., born to two teachers in 1915. After being denied admission to Carnegie Institute of Technology, she attended Howard University for design, drawing and printmaking. She was the first student at the University of Iowa to receive a master of fine art in sculpture in 1940. Throughout her career, she advocated for black artists to be represented in art galleries and museums.
“Elizabeth Catlett was a powerhouse artist,” Taylor said. “She really paved the way for a lot of African American artists and a lot of African American women.”
Family Tree, a lithograph by Alvin Hollingsworth, 1977
When Alvin Hollingsworth met the Hewitts for the first time, he told the couple they needed to put his artwork on their walls, Taylor says. Hollingsworth convinced the couple to host an art show in their home featuring his work.
On a Sunday afternoon in the 1970s, he sold more pieces at that show than he did in one year. It worked so well, the Hewitts adopted this practice to support artists’ careers.
“Family Tree” hangs in the center of the gallery. It’s one of four works in this exhibit by Hollingsworth and demonstrates his intricate use of ink. His style – delicate gestures – is recognizable around the room. He was heavily influenced by strong black women, their role in the family and the progression of black people.
“Without knowing anything about Alvin,” Taylor said, “you can see what’s going on here. Sometimes I ask people to look at the piece by itself; sometimes I say, ‘look at the title first.’ If you look at the piece by itself, you can see that the tree is definitely going in this upward motion, but when you look deeper in it, can you see people in there? Can you see the woman at the center?”
Homage to Mary Lou, a lithograph by Romare Bearden, 1984
The inscription, “To Vivian and John” personalizes the bottom of Romare Bearden’s “Homage to Mary Lou.” Bearden created this piece a few years before he passed away in 1988 as a tribute to jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams. It also characterizes the shift in his practice after a visit to St. Maarten in the 1970s. The music, color and sounds of the Caribbean influenced him and provided the energy he needed to continue his work, Taylor said.
Like the other pieces in the exhibit, “Homage to Marylou” tells a story. Imagine it’s your grandmother’s house, Taylor suggests. The bright colors, musical notes and intricate patterns give movement to the piece. The typical household items such as a lamp and picture frame, make it easy for viewers to insert themselves into the room.
The careful details in the shoes alongside the simplicity of the table exemplify Bearden’s collage and cubism techniques. The women’s clothing may possibly be items Bearden saw a teacher, his mother or grandmother wear when he was a child, Taylor said.
Taylor challenges museum guests to tell their own story when they view this piece: “Am I in this house? Am I joining them? Do I feel like I’m with them listening to this music? Or am I watching them from outside of the window?”
Adults and children experience the art differently. Often adults need to know the story, rather than make it up for themselves.
“If I ask a child to tell me about this art piece, they can tell me a whole story,” Taylor said. “If I ask an adult to tell me about this art piece, they often hesitate, and they don’t know if they’re right or wrong. Sometimes you have to let go of that notion of being right or wrong and input your own story into the art pieces you see in here.”
Fine Art Fridays
What: “Activate the Image.” After touring the “A Woman’s Work” exhibit participants can choose an image to write about and create a written work that might tell the story of the scene in the painting, express the participant’s feelings, or explain the artist’s viewpoint.
When: Oct. 18. 11 a.m.–1 p.m for ages 4–8; 2–4 p.m. for all ages.
Where: Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture, 551 S. Tryon St.
Cost: $9 for adults; $7 for children over age 6; free for children 5 and under
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.
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