Local artist Joseph Pearson is not interested in small talk. The 70-year-old painter views his work the same way he views all creative endeavors: as a catalyst for change. Art, says Pearson, helps facilitate conversation, which can lead to a better understanding. The challenge, he notes, is getting people to address and discuss the issues in the first place. “We tend to sweep certain subjects under the rug,” he says. “We don’t want to talk about sex, we don’t want to talk about race, we don’t want to talk about war. These are things that we are dealing with every single day.”
On Friday, July 7, Pearson’s latest show, American me: self-reflection; thoughts on different issues will open at the YMI Cultural Center. The work, which looks at the impacts of social media, injustice and war will run through Monday, July 31.
Many of these topics have inspired Pearson throughout his career. And since arriving in Asheville in 2015 by way of New Orleans, his paintings have been presented at a number of local galleries. In June 2016, Pink Dog Creative hosted his and fellow River Arts District artist Jessie Whitehead’s Perceptions — The Black Male, Images of Dignity. In February, Mars Hill University welcomed Pearson’s collection Figure-scapes and Figures into its Weizenblatt Art Gallery.
As with small talk, Pearson has little interest in echo chambers. He encourages and hopes that people from all walks of life will attend the opening of American me: self-reflection; thoughts on different issues. “It doesn’t matter if folks agree with me or not,” he says. “I want folks to talk. And I do want folks to think — to look at the work and hopefully raise some questions. Not just look at it and pass by.”
Pearson, who grew up in Pearl River County, Miss., says living in the segregated South left a lasting impression on the way he views the world and, by extension, his role as an artist. He remembers drinking from the colored-only fountains and having to enter certain businesses through back doors. As a child, Pearson also witnessed a cross burning on his school lawn. These experiences, he says, “made me sensitive to the plight of those who are considered on the fringe of society.”
Tonia Plummer, administrative assistant at YMI Cultural Center, helped organize the upcoming show. She considers Pearson’s mission to engage those with opposing views as an essential step in healing a divided country. “The way America is today, you have people in separate groups, and no one is trying to get along,” she says. “But you have small pockets of people who are willing to work together to make things better for everyone else.”
Pearson maintains that part of this healing requires confronting divisive issues. Immigration, for example, is prominent in his work. He notes that the U.S. — excluding Native Americans and those whose ancestors were brought here by force — is a nation of immigrants. But even as such, the current outlook on immigration has shifted. This disturbs Pearson. One question his work aims to raise is what exactly has changed? What makes the Pilgrims who fled England in 1620 due to religious persecution different from modern-day Syrians seeking refuge from war? What distinguishes the poverty-stricken Italian immigrants at the turn of the last century from present-day Mexicans seeking similar opportunity?
Pearson isn’t suggesting that American me: self-reflection; thoughts on different issues will provide the answers to these and other such questions. But if his paintings encourage further discussion about the issues, he will consider it as a step in the right direction. “My work is about communication [and] conversation,” he says. “Conversation opens minds to a different perspective that may affect positive change.”
WHAT: American me: self-reflection; thoughts on different issues
WHERE: YMI Cultural Center, second floor, 20-44 Eagle St. josephart.net
WHEN: Opening reception Friday, July 7, 6-8 p.m. The exhibit will remain on view through Monday, July 31. Free