While she was working on a mural (“Zolas Embrace”) at Pink Dog Creative, Asheville native and multidisciplinary artist Jenny Pickens got to talking with painter Joseph Pearson “about the changes through Asheville, the obstacles we’ve been through and what we’ve seen through the years,” she says. “It took me back to some old ideas.” That conversation led Pickens to join the roster of artists featured in Asheville Through Brown Eyes, an exhibition curated by Pearson and focusing on the work of artists of color based in and around Asheville.
The show opens Friday, Dec. 7, in the Asheville Area Art Council’s Thom Robinson and Ray Griffin Exhibition Space.
“There are not a lot of black artists around here, and if there are, nobody knows about them,” says Pickens. A self-taught creative who discovered the joy of making art as a young person (“That was my therapy … my escape from all the crazy things at home,” she reveals), Pickens — who is also a doll maker and a regular vendor at The Big Crafty — became serious about art in high school when others began to take notice of her skills. But despite roots in Asheville, it was a challenge for her to find footing in the local art scene.
“From my experience, in the beginning, they looked more for a background,” such as formal training or a resume of prestigious shows, Pickens says of gallerists and curators. But as new waves of makers relocated to the area, “there are so many varieties of art, so many mediums, so now it’s more welcoming and more open to different people, as well as people who live here.”
Pearson is a transplant. As he shares in the notes for Asheville Through Brown Eyes, “I, like many people we have met since moving to Asheville 2 1/2 years ago, asked the same question, ‘Where are the black people?’ … I have seen many different races and ethnic people, so my conclusion is that the diversity is here [but] a lack of integration of that diversity into mainstream Asheville is what I perceive as lacking.”
“Black artists and the mainstream art scene in general have always had some distance between them,” Pearson explains. “I don’t know if the black artists that I know [in Asheville] are making an effort or interested in being part of the ‘mainstream’ art scene here. … [But] I have not seen as tight a rein by the ‘gatekeepers’ on black artists [in Asheville] as I’ve seen in other places.”
To increase opportunities and visibility, Pearson submitted a proposal to the local arts council. Asheville Through Brown Eyes is the latest in a number of exhibitions — including A Contemporary Response to Our Changing Environment at the Pink Dog Gallery and Trigger Warning at the YMI Cultural Center — that Pearson has curated around controversial topics and involving artists from diverse backgrounds.
Along with Pearson and Pickens, Valeria Watson, Noël Jefferson, James Love, Viola Spells and Cleaster Cotton will be represented in the upcoming show. Cotton’s solo exhibit, Winged Narratives: A Social Study, a collection described as “whimsical caricatures of birds with body language depicting their relationship to each other and their place in time and space,” will hang in the arts council’s Lounge Gallery, Friday, Dec. 7, to Friday, Jan. 25, with an opening concurrent with that of Asheville Through Brown Eyes.
Jefferson, who lives in Hendersonville, will exhibit a number of pieces in acrylic, mixed media and encaustic wax. A photographer, filmmaker and screenwriter (she teaches the subject at Blue Ridge Community College), Jefferson began to study painting when she relocated from New York City because she found fewer opportunities to show photography in local galleries.
Though Jefferson considers herself to be one of the least experienced painters in Asheville Through Brown Eyes, she’s already placed work in exhibitions such as Nasty Women (which benefited Planned Parenthood), where she sold four pieces within the first 40 minutes of the opening. “Most of the time, my paintings show faces unexpectedly,” she says. Her teacher told her, “Just let your inner self out” — advice Jefferson took to heart: “I don’t judge myself and I don’t expect others to judge me.”
Some of Jefferson’s pieces incorporate her photography; others juxtapose images, such as groups of boys from African tribes and groups of boys from urban U.S. neighborhoods. Her canvases are bold and graphic with textures incorporated by using various instruments. “It’s intuitive,” Jefferson says. “As an expressionist, abstract artist, [my] art is coming from my spirit. Oftentimes my palette is my mind, and my paintbrush is my soul, and I just let it flow, as I’m directed, spiritually.”
Jefferson exhibited with Pearson at The BLOCK off Biltmore and, through that connection, was invited to take part in Asheville Through Brown Eyes.
“The artists were selected based on their interest in the theme and their willingness to present their own unique point of view based on their experiences,” says Pearson. “The Church Hat,” his contribution to the show, “is a traditional headdress for black women of a certain age. Because it’s such an important tradition and historic part of our culture, I wanted to pay tribute to all black women through this icon.”
Pickens plans to show three or four paintings “of my ideas of my childhood growing up here and what Asheville meant to me,” she says. “I’m glad someone is actually doing this [group exhibition], and we need more of it. By having these shows, other people are coming in, networking and [saying], ‘Let’s do another.’”
As for the exhibition’s title, Pearson makes an important note. One of the show’s artists reminded him that not all black people have brown eyes. “To which I replied, ‘This is true,’” he says. “But enough of us do to allow me to make a generalization that I believe everyone can identify with.”
WHAT: Asheville Through Brown Eyes
WHERE: Thom Robinson and Ray Griffin Exhibition Space in the Refinery Creator Space, 207 Coxe Ave., ashevillearts.com
WHEN: Opening Friday, Dec. 7, 5-8 p.m. with an artist talk at 6:30 p.m. Exhibition remains on view through Friday, Jan. 11