MYSTIC — Paula and Bill Mitchell of Westerly had been collecting art for decades when a chance visit to the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture in Charlotte, N.J., changed everything.
It changed the way they viewed art, it changed the way they understood art, and it changed the way they collected art, said Paula Alice Mitchell, a Westerly native who graduated with the Westerly High School class of 1966.
It also left them with a number of questions, said Bill, a Stonington native who graduated from Stonington High School with the class of 1966. Questions that have been challenging them ever since.
One afternoon last week, the Mitchells — who have been married for 52 years — stood inside the Mystic Museum of Art surrounded by pieces from their impressive collection of African American art now on display at the museum in an exhibit called “Missing Narratives,” and discussed their journey, their evolution and those challenging questions. They were joined by V. Susan Fisher, the museum’s executive director, and Amelia Oronato, the museum’s exhibition manager.
Their collection — 27 prints, paintings, and sculpture by 19 African American artists, including the works of Romare Bearden, Gwendolyn Knight, Valerie J. Maynard and Robin Holder — are on display at the museum through Sept. 18.
The exhibit includes Holder’s bleed image stencil monograph called “They Damaged Us More Than Katrina” and four pieces of Holder’s six-piece “Reclamation Series” — including “Yes We Can,” a hand-printed and collaged stencil monotype on paper that highlights Barack Obama’s run for the presidency in 2008.
The Mitchells — who returned to Westerly two years ago after living in St. Mary’s City, Md., for decades — said they hope to eventually gift the four pieces to the Obama Presidential Library in Chicago.
Holder, an artist and activist whose work often focuses on themes of spiritual and racial identity, class and social justice, will give a talk at the museum on Sept. 6 at 5:30 p.m., Oronato said.
My first ‘Oh my God’
As the Mitchells walked around the museum, they paused here and there to tell a story about the artist or the art work or how they came to buy the piece or meet the artist.
“This was my first ‘Oh my God’ moment,” said Bill, standing in front of a stunning piece called “Asymilate?”, an enormous stoneware figure created by Atlanta-based artist Kimmy Cantrell.
Cantrell, according to his website, often uses his pieces “as a platform for political, and social commentary. His titles are notable as they are often powerful and poignant reflecting turbulent times.”
“There are ‘Ohs’, ‘Oh mys’ and ‘Oh my Gods,” Bill said with a smile. “This was my first ‘Oh my God’.”
“This one might be the most personal to me,” said Paula as she walked toward a black and white linoleum-cut print on paper by Steve Prince called “Period,” which honors the life and work of late poet Lucille Clifton. Clifton was the poet laureate of Maryland, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and a colleague of Paula’s at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
‘Absorbed and amazed’
Paula, a graduate of the College of New Rochelle, began her career as an elementary school teacher and finished it as a college administrator. She was the director of major gifts in St. Mary’s development office while Clifton was serving as distinguished professor of humanities and where she held the Hilda C. Landers Endowed Chair.
“Period,” one of the Mitchells’ most recent purchases, was inspired by Clifton’s poem, “To My Last Period,” from her “Quilting: poems 1987-1990.” When the viewer looks carefully at the print, the words of the poem are revealed.
“Paula and I have always shared a deep passion for the arts in all forms,” said Bill Mitchell, a Rutgers graduate and longtime volunteer basketball coach who ran a successful landscaping business in Maryland for more than 40 years. “From early in our marriage to a little more than 10 years ago, we purchased art we could find and we could afford: namely landscapes, marine paintings, still lifes and genre scenes.”
That all changed with the visit to the Gantt Center on June 18, 2011, said Bill, which only happened as they were on their way to tour Charlotte’s Mint Museum of Craft and Design.
As soon as they arrived in the city that fateful day and parked the car, Paula said, Bill noticed “a stunning three-story, narrow building across the street.”
The building turned out to be the Gantt Center. Intrigued, the Mitchells went inside, where the John and Vivian Hewitt Collection of African American Art” was on display.
“Absorbed and amazed” by what they saw on the walls,” the Mitchells spent the next three hours immersed in the exhibition, Paula said.
The work they saw “energized us with vibrant colors, told us stories, and evoked intense emotions,” Bill writes in “Missing Narratives: Introductions to the Stories.”
“This art was different,” he writes. “It required us to look in new ways, and we loved it!”
“The art we viewed that afternoon in Charlotte changed the way we viewed and collected art from that day forward,” Bill writes. “A number of factors contributed to this change, but none more so than the way the artist approaches his or her art.”
Many African-American artists take a “decidedly non-Western approach to making art,” he explained. Often the art is “rooted in everyday lives and beliefs of African-Americans, not a series of abstract concepts.”
It is art based upon a relationships, he said, relationships with everyday people, “rather than on the ideas of a few intellectuals,” and art that is “understandable, relevant, and accessible to the average person.”
“There is always a story being told,” Bill writes. Much of it is “art that reflects how African Americans view the world around them.”
“A good piece of art has to make you look, then make you keep looking,” Bill said. “These artists have had to work even harder just to get you to look.”
After being wowed by African American art, the couple starting asking themselves why they hadn’t seen these powerful works before.
“Why had we not learned of, read about or seen this art, given all the years that we had been actively collecting? Why had we not seen it in galleries or at art fairs? Why had we not seen it exhibited in museums?” Bill said. “We would come to learn that this was by design.”
“With very few exceptions,” writes Bill in the “Missing Narratives” program, “African American artists and their work have been systematically ignored outside the African American art community. It has only been in the last five to ten years that this situation has begun to be reversed.”
“How can the history of American art be considered complete without the inclusion of art created by African Americans?” Bill said, “Or, for that matter, art created by women, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and those of Hispanic descent?”
“Missing Narratives,” he writes, “is an attempt, albeit a small one, to address this problem.”
The Mitchells, who have three children and three grandchildren, have spent much of the last decade educating themselves, seeking out mentors and immersing themselves in African American artists and curators.
“We were taken under so many wings,” said Paula, “and were invited to so many places.”
The reception and kindness has been “just incredible,” she said. “Half the fun has been meeting the people who created the art.”
One of the people who engaged with the Mitchells was Curlee Raven Holton, the executive director of the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora at the University of Maryland in College Park.
In addition to being an educator and arts administrator, Paula said, Holton is a highly regarded professor, painter and master printmaker who has exhibited his work throughout the world.
“It took us years to learn just how accomplished an artist he is,” said Bill as he pointed out Holton’s piece called “The Shadows That Are Hidden,” a digital relief serigraph and collage on paper. “This one really grabbed Paula’s heart.”
“Missing Narratives” is running concurrently with “Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post Covers: Tell Me a Story,” which was organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
The exhibits complement one another, said Oronato, noting that Rockwell, too had to deal with racism during his career.
“This has definitely been a wonderful collaborative effort,” Oronato said. “The four of us worked together on the concept of a ‘missing narrative.'”
“We’re thrilled with how it’s turned out,” said Paula. “Amelia has a keen eye and we love what she did visually and thematically.”
“We are only at the very, very beginning,” said Fisher. “The water is wide and there is so much to make up for.”
As Fisher, Oronato and the Mitchells wound up their walk through the exhibit, students from the museum’s summer camp filed into the gallery to look at the exhibit.
“I love this exhibit,” said one of the campers, 10-year old Marcus Smiley of Mystic, as he stood transfixed before Cantrell’s “Asymilate?” “I am half Cape Verdean and half Native American, so I am African-American too.”
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