Nellie Ashford, 73, has a voice so soft you might need to lean in to catch what she says. But with her new show at the Gantt Center – a colorful, nuanced depiction of African-American life in Jim Crow Charlotte – this quiet artist makes a powerful statement.
Ashford, formerly a teaching assistant at Billingsville Elementary, has no formal art training, though once she began painting in her 50s, she quickly won a following. With 41 pieces, this exhibit, “Nellie Ashford: Through My Eyes,” is her first solo show in a major art museum.
“I’m just glad that we are taking time to embrace her work,” says John Foster, who represents Ashford at Foster Frames & Art Gallery in Huntersville. “I’m just grateful she’s being recognized while she’s still alive.”
On a recent morning, Ashford and I met in a Harvey B. Gantt Center gallery full of her mixed-media paintings. Every work here is new, created between December and June, during numerous all-nighters and despite arthritis that sometimes made it difficult to hold a paint brush. Actually, Ashford’s total output was even larger; these 41 were all the museum could display in the space.
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“I had no idea how many paintings there were until we began counting,” Ashford says. “I guess I could paint a lifetime and never finish the stories.”
Ashford jokes about her faulty memory – how she’s always misplacing her keys or glasses. But point to any work, and she tells a vivid story about the people and events that inspired it.
On one wall, for instance, there is “Quilting and Airing Out the Quilts on Miss Turzey’s Porch.” Look closely. Miss Turzey holds a handkerchief while she quilts. Ashford explains that a stroke has partially paralyzed Miss Turzey’s face. With the handkerchief, she periodically wipes away saliva. In other paintings, there’s little Mary Jones, a classmate whose rattling cough foreshadowed her early death, and Mr. Galloway, who took buses from Kings Mountain to give Ashford piano lessons. He wasn’t particularly good, and his nose always ran, but he instilled a love of music just the same.
The largest work in this exhibit is a weathered 19th-century door that Ashford fashioned into an homage to family and community. It features collaged photos of her parents and several painted scenes, including an entire family sleeping in a single bed – parents at the head, children at the foot.
A segregated childhood
Ashford grew up in Oakdale and Paw Creek, in rural western Mecklenburg County. It’s clear from her scenes of quilting and jump-roping, a church service and a May Day celebration, that her childhood held many happy moments.
Yet she regularly confronted cruel and demeaning discrimination and that, too, is reflected in her works. “When I hear people say we’re going to make America like it used to be, for me, I see those toilets that say ‘for white only,’ those water fountains that say ‘white only,’ ” she says. In one painting “Uptown at Kress, the Five & Dime Store,” black children with bags of popcorn stand outside while inside, whites sit at the segregated lunch counter.
Some works also depict slavery. When Ashford was young, she remembers her parents taking food to elderly former slaves who lived in shacks in the woods. She also heard stories about her great-grandfather, that he was born a slave and that his owners broke his legs so severely after he tried to escape that he spent his life walking on his knees. In “Miles to Go Before We Sleep,” Ashford paints African-Americans escaping a plantation, poised to cross a river to freedom.
Ashford’s distinctive folk-art style relies on old fabric to depict clothing. (She actually paints unclothed bodies first, then dresses them, like paper dolls.) As she affixes the fabric, making folds and creases, the works gain movement and energy. “You can see the wind just taking a dress and blowing it,” Foster says.
When she paints specific people, like Miss Turzey, she adds facial features. But she leaves blank the faces of figures who represent countless anonymous sharecroppers, domestics, mill workers. “It’s because it can be anybody,” she says.
With her work, Ashford figures she’s repaying departed African-Americans whose “blood, sweat, and tears” helped give her this moment, exhibiting paintings in a sleek museum named for Charlotte’s first black mayor.
What would these people think, I ask her, if they could see themselves on the gallery walls – if they could step up close, examine the paint, old fabrics, seed bags and string that Nellie Ashford has fashioned to immortalize them?
Ashford considers the question. “They would be amazed, probably hug themselves,” she says. “They would just give a very stern smile.”
Pam Kelley: 704 358-5271
The works in “Nellie Ashford: Through My Eyes” exhibit are for sale. The exhibit is one three new ones at the Gantt Center that explore the theme of “Redefining Art.” The two others are:
Quilts and Social Fabric: Heritage and Improvisation – Uses the works of renowned quilt artist Faith Ringgold as an entry point to consider both traditional African-American quilts and modern works inspired by the quilting tradition. Also includes quilts by members of Little Rock A.M.E. Zion Church and Friendship Missionary Baptist Church.
Shaping the Vessel – Features the work of master wood turners Avelino Samuel and John Mascoll, curated by Charlotte’s Charles Farrar, a wood artist who also has several works on display.
The exhibits remain through Jan. 16, 2017. Hours for the center, at 551 S. Tryon St., are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 1-5 p.m. Sunday.