In 2012, Cleaster Cotton — a painter, writer, photographer and inventor — was the featured artist at Monte Vista Hotel in Black Mountain. She invited gallerist John Cram to her show and remembers that he arrived, walked through the exhibit and offered a single word: “Brave.”
This month, Cotton’s work appears as part of Into the Blue: Artist Invitational 2018, at Cram’s Blue Spiral 1, the “most diverse annual exhibition presenting artists that have never before shown in the gallery,” according to a press release.
“It’s a big deal with me being at the Blue Spiral — to represent a population and bring that diversity is really big,” says Cotton.
Into the Blue also includes contributions from Colorado-based glass artist Robert Burch, local textile and collage artist Sondra Dorn, painter Aimee Farnet-Siegel of New Orleans; glassblower John Geci from Bakersville; local sculptors Nina Kawar and David Kenton Kring; encaustic artist Christine Sajecki, who splits her time between Savannah, Ga., and Baltimore; and Greenville, S.C.-based mixed-media artist Katie Walker. Each of those creatives will bring something different to the show, which is not thematic beyond being the Blue Spiral 1 debut for each artist.
Cotton, at least, doesn’t require the suggestion of a theme or other parameters. Her work, she says, is constantly evolving as she is growing and changing in her thoughts and approach to living. “I use layers. I do several layers of paint, applied with different technique and methodology,” she says. “I love color, so I do an underpainting [where] I paint the main characters and the background … so that it forms the texture.” Working with acrylic on recycled paper, tar paper or wood, Cotton often employs metallic paint so the pieces interact with light.
Some botanical works are described as “living still life” because, as a naturalist, Cotton says, “to just call them a still life would be to leave out a whole aspect.” On other pieces, such as a whimsical, chicken-type figure, color bleeds, auralike, beyond the black outlines. To get out of her own way, Cotton explains, she decided to literally paint outside the lines: “That takes courage — to not have to have control of everything.”
But even as the artist’s active imagination leaps from idea to idea, there is a through line to her work. Cubist forms, tactile qualities and bold hues inhabit each piece in varying configurations. Cotton calls her style “contemporary primitive,” which means, she says, that she’s living in modern times, but the techniques she uses are coming from ancient and primal sources.
There’s a balance of old and new, past and present: “I’ve just introduced to the world what I call ‘millennial tech art,’ where I use these texting abbreviations,” Cotton says. Text-speak phrases like “omg” and “bff,” in layers of texture and color, rise from the canvas.
Another new focus is a series Cotton calls “The new great migration,” inspired by the move of African-Americans — whose parents or grandparents left the rural South for better opportunities in the urban North, Midwest and West between 1916 and 1970 — back to the South. Bold blocks of black, red and green depict those relocation patterns.
The painter is guided by her ancestors via history, stories and direct transmissions from her familial predecessors. The work, says Cotton, reflects her life.
But, as much as the artist’s creations seem to come from within, she’s also dedicated to reaching out, especially through education. A certified teaching artist since 1998, Cotton has worked with students through such institutions as the Museum of Design Atlanta, the Georgia Council of the Arts, Teaching Artists Presenting in Asheville Schools, LEAF Schools & Streets (for which she was also a board member) and LEAF’s Easel Rider. In 2002, Cotton invented ALNUGE — which she describes as “an education curriculum, based on a method of teaching communication logic and art through a combination of alphabets, numbers and geometrics” — that she introduces to classrooms.
It’s important to Cotton to bring art into the educational system. She’s also concerned with setting an example for students — especially those of color — of what is possible.
“I’m a part of the diversity [in Asheville] because I will go to businesses downtown, and I will go to events,” she says. “I’m not intimidated that everywhere I go … I may be the only black person there.”
She continues, “I’m not afraid.” Instead, Cotton has spent her seven years in this city aligning herself with mentors, projects and organizations that support her vision — including an early, 60-painting exhibition at Pink Dog Creative and a recent move into a studio in The Refinery Creator Space.
“When you consistently do your craft and your business, that’s really key,” she says. “[I’ve been] making relationships here and growing and nursing relationships … now it’s my time.”
Cotton adds, with warranted triumph, “I’m glad I didn’t leave.”
WHAT: Into the Blue: Artist Invitational 2018
WHERE: Blue Spiral 1, 38 Biltmore Ave., bluespiral1.com
WHEN: Opening Thursday, Jan. 4, 5-8 p.m. The exhibition remains on view through Friday, Feb. 23