Community Folk Art struts its stuff in a retrospective exhibit covering the last 40 years
By Carl Mellor
Four decades is plenty of time to accumulate some impressive pieces of art. African Diasporan Treasures: 40 Years of Community Folk Art Center presents paintings, sculptures and other works surveying and sampling the permanent collection at the center, 805 E. Genesee St. That thumbnail description only begins a discussion of the exhibition. It heads down several avenues, documenting the center’s relationship with artists from Central New York and around the country, the collection’s vibrant nature, and ties between the center and its supporters.
For starters, the exhibit showcases several artists whose work was displayed at the center during previous shows. Jack White’s “Neo Totem 3,” another of his abstract expressionist pieces, is very much in the spirit of his recent works. He was one of Community Folk Art’s founders back in 1972, along with Herb Williams, the center’s founding director who led the gallery for more than 20 years. “American Soldier,” from Charly Palmer’s “Civil Rights Paintings” series, depicts an African-American soldier in uniform and holding an American flag. The work both pays homage to those who served in the military and references the struggle to end segregation in the armed forces.
Other noteworthy pieces include Tricia Bishop’s earthenware sculpture and Leonard Hayes’ print, “Dancing for the Lord.” In the latter work, worshipers sway in unison, and three of them seem to melt together.
In addition, the exhibition’s lineup makes a fundamental but important point: For four decades, Community Folk Art has consistently hung work done in various styles. The show displays figurative work such as Ellen Oppler’s “Noah’s Ark,” with its fresh take on a familiar subject; Kamiiron Pritchard’s portrait of Marcus Garvey; and Clarence Shiver’s print depicting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and several people mourning his death.
There are also works like “Beautiful Struggle,” Frank D. Robinson Jr.’s mixedmedia piece on an acrylic panel. He merges text from several sources, a publictransit card from New York City, a human figure and other images. In Ron Brewer’s untitled oil, purple, orange and red colors swirl around glimpses of people. Najee Dorsey’s mixed-media work, from the “Climbing the Ladder Series,” offers social commentary.
And the show recalls a time during the 1970s when several people associated with Community Folk Art taught art classes at Auburn Correctional Facility, in a program sponsored by the Everson Museum of Art. Joel Gaines took one of the classes, later left prison and earned two college degrees. The exhibit displays his large painting, “Chain Gang,” which depicts prisoners digging a ditch and being watched by a guard holding a shotgun.
Over the years, the center has opened its walls to emerging artists and folks who didn’t have a traditional fine-arts background. The current show displays two fine pieces by Smiley Summers. His oils, distinctive and full of color, touch on Native Americans’ culture and current-day life.
The exhibit acknowledges contributions by people who supported Community Folk Art over several decades. Evelyn Washington has several paintings on display. She and her husband, Dr. Henry Washington, attended many receptions and supported the center in others ways.
The center’s collection has several artworks created in Africa, and the show presents a wood, metal and thread work created in Bambara, Mali, as well as a Malawi decorative sign.
Finally, Community Folk Art supplements the main show by displaying a series of posters referring to various exhibits from the past 40 years. They include Latoya Frazier’s intensely personal photo show, several exhibits displaying objects from Alejandro Garcia’s collection of Mexican folk art, and a retrospective of Elizabeth Catlett’s artworks. From time to time, the gallery has displayed works by nationally known artists such as Catlett, Benny Andrews and James Vanderzee.
African Diasporan Treasures does a nice job of presenting a survey, highlighting several themes and displaying individual artworks that stand out on their own. The exhibition hangs through Dec. 10. Community Folk Art is open Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 442-2230.