Ocracoke Island, permanent population 600, is only 17 miles long. Its width varies from half a mile to all of … two miles.
And yet a recent Semi-Public poster announcing an exhibit of five Ocracoke artists at the gallery is littered with a bountiful assortment of provocative words — OCOCK, WOCCON, WOKOKON, CROATOAN. All are names that were, at one time or another, assigned to this important island, the southernmost link in North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
Similarly, the work of these featured artists, all year-round residents of Ocracoke, shows no sign of becoming homogenized.
Bob Ray’s voice fills the gallery’s long wall. One large piece of his is created on a found seamstress’ pinning board and echoes, with its tiny brush strokes, some of the shapes and sensibilities of his own small, pristine collages. Ray’s “Summer Drawings” series, meanwhile, was created on used computer paper and combines his sketches with images taken from print advertising. The “Drawings” are all quite small, 2.5-by-3 inches. Some are abstract, some figurative, and some are made up of text.
As arranged at Semi-Public, they create an enticing whole — but they also stand on their own as individual works.
Roy Revels’ installation, on the other hand, aggressively moves around and through the other works in Semi-Public’s small space. Revels’ piece addressing war occupies the whole floor of the Hillside Street gallery’s main room: Hundreds of small, plastic soldiers march toward a bright-yellow Tonka dump truck carrying a large wooden cross.
Revels’ “Would You Like Ice Cream With That?” is a white-painted tree branch held upright in a stand made for a very small Christmas tree. The stand is also white, and entwined in one of the uppermost limbs is a green-and-yellow rubber snake writhing toward a single green apple.
Though the featured female artists in Semi-Public’s current exhibit are less artistically flamboyant than their male counterparts, these women nonetheless evince a clear and serious interest in the spiritual.
In her artist’s statement, Debbie Wells confesses to years of painting O’Keeffe-style landscapes — but her displayed work is much more reminiscent of Kahlo. Crosses, hearts, eggs and fire all make appearances in Wells’ elaborate, carved, Mexican-style wooden panels.
Ann Ehringhaus pays homage to the ocean surrounding Ocracoke in her “Holy Sea,” which boldly combines photography with word play. Yet the piece also alludes to the Roman church and the papacy, implying an ecological carelessness from those in control.
In lesser hands, this kind of work often winds up being didactic. But Ehringhaus has turned pieces such as this one into passionate visual prayers.
Ultimately, though, Barbara Hardy Ray quiets the show with a handful of particularly serene paintings. Her textured surfaces, organic shapes and subtle colors are in some ways similar to Ocracoke itself — a tranquil place set in a climactically vulnerable hotspot.
Ray’s works provide a calm interlude in an otherwise charged exhibit.
[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based artist and writer.]
Semi-Public (305 Hillside St.) presents Five Ocracoke Artists through Monday, Oct. 11. Shown by appointment only: Call 253-5048.