In the Gallery: Mickalene Thomas

Bold, glitzy, and exaggerated, Mickalene Thomas’s paintings reference 1970s-era popular culture, as well as a current celebrity culture that simultaneously romanticizes and stereotypes female beauty and power. Her subjects, such as the women featured in Three Graces, are empowered, emotive, and fearless. They know what they want—and are unafraid to acknowledge it to the viewer. Thomas formally emphasizes this self-assuredness through the brash colors and patterns that surround these women, as well as in their glamorous outfits and the commanding poses they strike. In her portraits she positions sensuality and beauty as positive attributes, tools of strength and power.

In this work Thomas has re-created the traditional image of the Three Graces, usually presented in art-historical iconography as three women, representing conventional values of charm, beauty, and creativity. Here the Graces are updated as modern African American women, dressed up and ready for a night out on the town.

Mickalene Thomas (artist site, @mickalenethomas)
American, born 1971
Three Graces: Les Trois Femmes Noires
Rhinestone, acrylic paint, and oil enamel on wood panel
Purchased with funds from the North Carolina State Art Society (Robert F. Phifer Bequest), 2011 (2011.10)

Art in a New Light

I was first drawn to lighting design by the way light can shape the setting and emotions of a place—simply through color, intensity, and angle. I began my lighting career in theater, where I worked on plays, musicals, concerts, and dance performances. This varying experience gave me an appreciation for how light shapes both the emotional and the physical side of a production. In architectural or museum lighting, you are not offered the same range of options for color and angle, yet you do have the ability to shape the emotional reactions of a visitor and highlight the physical attributes of a piece of art.

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Art Speaks: Remembering Hurricane Katrina

Christ Appearing to Saint Martin in a Dream by Francesco Solimena

As Hurricane Isaac approaches the Gulf Coast, I am reminded that seven years ago this week Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the same coastline. It also reminds me of a story from 2005 that made one work of art in our collection become especially meaningful to me.

Each time I teach new volunteer orientation, I encourage the volunteers to find a work of art in the collection that “speaks” to them and to learn more about it. It can be for any reason: the landscape brings back memories of childhood vacations, the thick brushstrokes and colors amaze them, whatever it is. I suggest this so they will be able to share the permanent collection with visitors with real, heartfelt enthusiasm. When we share our own stories, it draws the visitor in and helps make art more meaningful.

For me that work of art is Christ Appearing to Saint Martin in a Dream by Francesco Solimena, a painting given to the Museum by Florence G. Montgomery in 1959. The painting refers to the legend of the Roman army soldier Martin of Sabaria. One cold day at the gates of the city Amiens in Gaul, Martin came across a shivering, half-naked beggar. Martin removed his cloak and cut it in two and gave the beggar half. In Solimena’s painting Christ appears to Martin while he sleeps, wearing half of Martin’s cloak as if he were the beggar transformed. The image alludes to Matthew 25: 40, “The king will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ “

Why does this work speak to me? Like most of the nation, on Monday, August 29, 2005, I sat glued to the television screen. Hurricane Katrina had crashed into Louisiana, then Mississippi, with 125 mph winds pushing walls of water miles inland. When the waters retreated, the devastation was unthinkable. I had never seen anything like it. Over the next week, I was torn emotionally by the scenes of destruction: piles of matchsticks that once were homes; cars and boats in piles miles inland; skyscrapers with their windows blown out; and, worst, people in the streets crying over loss and need. I felt compelled to do something to help.

Two weeks later I was on a small plane to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, as a newly trained disaster relief volunteer with the American Red Cross. I had never done anything like this before, and I was nervous. Another volunteer from Raleigh and I hopped a ride from the airport to Biloxi with a nurse heading that way. As we drove south, and the destructive path of Katrina became more and more obvious, my head swam with questions: “Have I made the right decision? How can I make any difference here? Am I really meant to be here?”

After a restless night on a cot among hundreds of volunteers in an aircraft hangar in Gulfport, I met my group leader to head out for our first day of work. A dozen of us piled into a van. As we approached the building that would be our Family Services assistance center for the next two weeks, I saw the sign out front—Saint Martin’s Community Center.

I had always admired Solimena’s painting, but now when I see it, I am reminded that I was exactly where I needed to be.

Robert L. Mlodzik is visitor services manager at the NCMA.

Aerial Views from 13,500 Feet

The small plane took off. I was tightly strapped to my dive instructor and packed in with 15 other skydivers. It was a clear day with clouds spotting the sky like marshmallows. I could see the central North Carolina landscape for miles in every direction.

There is something so wondrous about aerial views. You get a vast, uninterrupted view of the landscape below. Being 5’4”, I see the world from this average-height view—unless, of course, I lie down on the ground. I usually don’t get any higher than my kitchen stepstool! It felt like a privilege to be this high up.

In the plane I could see how the land had been divided between highways and streets, treelines and hills. When I wandered through the Modern and Contemporary Galleries the other day, I was reminded of this landscape while looking at Richard Diebenkorn’s Berkeley No. 8. Curator John Coffey says in the Museum’s cell phone tour that this painting “was inspired really by [Diebenkorn] flying over the Southwest on a commercial airline and just seeing the way that the land was all parched and also broken up into large fields and meadows, bisected by roads, and interrupted by streams and things.”

The plane reached 13,500 feet, and it was “go time.” People scrambled in an orderly fashion to jump out of the plane. They fell so fast they were gone in an instant, hurtling to the world below. (To give you a hint of what it looked like, push your pen to the edge of a table. Push it off the edge and notice how quickly it’s gone from view. It’s like that—but human beings are the pens, and the table is 13,000 feet tall.) It was my turn; the instructor counted “1 … 2 … 3 …,” and we jumped. I learned later that we averaged 123 miles per hour in free fall.

During free fall the instructor spun us around, and the ground became blurred. He released the parachute, and the immense rush of falling 7,000 feet in about 60 seconds came to a halt as we gently made our way back to earth. The ground now looked less like the abstracted landscape view of Diebenkorn and more like the landscape in Hans Thoma’s Wondrous Birds. The land below was lush with trees and calm. I saw a few cars rumbling down roads, but all I could hear was a breeze as we circled down to the ground.

It took another few minutes before we landed on the grass about 50 feet from where the plane took off. I was back to my normal 5’4” vantage point, still catching my breath, but looking forward to my next opportunity to see the world from a different perspective.

Emily Kotecki is associate coordinator of teen and college programs at the North Carolina Museum of Art.

A Close Look at El Anatsui

Rarely do we get the chance to stand in another’s shoes, and almost never do we get to see what they see.

When I first saw Dave Rainey’s video, it struck me as a profound commentary on interactions between visitors in the gallery. In the video Dave shares with us how he looks, what catches his eye. He follows skeins of color cascading downward. Then, a bending, warping edge leads the way. A field of crumpled texture dissolves into cracked paint, which fades into metallic lace. These are all personal discoveries, but they are shared with us on the screen. I wouldn’t have noticed them otherwise.

This is just what happens in the galleries. “Come, look at this … look what he used here … see what I found.” Look for yourself, then share, and see through someone else’s eyes as well.

El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa closes July 29.

Teens in Museums: Filmmaking Edition

I had been working at the North Carolina Museum of Art for about a month when my colleague asked if I wanted to lead a summer workshop for teens the following the summer (my first clue that everything happens months, no, years, in advance!). I said yes, of course! My background in broadcast journalism and video lent itself to constructing a filmmaking workshop for teens, using the Museum as their backdrop.

Flash forward eight months, when six teens, ranging from a rising 8th grader who had no experience in filmmaking to a rising 12th grader preparing his portfolio for NYU film school, sat in the conference center ready to learn. The diversity of ages and experience startled me for a minute, but there was no time to waste! Three hours a day for one week is not a lot of time. The best way to learn video is not by sitting in a classroom reading a textbook. It’s by getting out, learning the technology, drafting scripts, scouting locations, and collaborating with your group. This is exactly what we did. Read More »

All the Materials

The exhibition El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa (open through July 29) is a retrospective, and sometimes I think these are the best kind of exhibitions. They offer us insight into the career of an artist and a chance to glimpse a broad span of development in a very special way. It is almost as though you can see a mind at work.

This exhibition does just that. Throughout his career El Anatsui has used a multitude of materials, and it is through their use that we can see thoughts emerging and forming. We can see these thoughts are not random or fleeting. Ideas and images of the artist’s life and culture are consistently involved.

On view now are works made with a wide variety of materials and techniques. Wood has been carved, assembled, painted, and burned. Metals and fabrics are brought together and blended. Acrylic paints are applied to Masonite and paper and wood. These paints have been applied in a loose and running style—and in other works he uses a more controlled technique and precise style. There are works of ink on paper that relate to works he made in other mediums. One example of this, titled Omen, is part of a series of drawings from 1980 and 1981 exhibited next to a work of the same title made of ceramic and manganese in 1978.

El Anatsui produced other drawings in the more esoteric method of drypoint and aquatint. These are exhibited next to a wall sculpture woven together with aluminum and copper wire. Very different, both are equally beautiful and demonstrate a mastery of materials.

The depth and breadth of materials in this exhibition is impressive, and all are held together by the steady, focused vision of El Anatsui.

—Kathryn Briggs led the design production team for the El Anatsui exhibition.

El Anatsui, Omen, 1978, ceramic, H. 15 1⁄2 x W. 21 x D. 16 1⁄2 in., Photo courtesy Museum for African Art / Kelechi Amadi-Obi

Getting into the Woodwork

As an art history student at UNC–Chapel Hill, I have always enjoyed learning about new types of art and new artists. However, my tastes until recently were pretty narrow. I stuck mainly to European art, was always drawn to paintings, and never really took the time to research beyond what I was taught in class. Last semester I decided to broaden my horizons by taking a course on African art, and it has turned out to be one of my favorites—mainly because of the short section on El Anatusi. Shown on the huge projector screen at the front of the lecture hall, the images of his dazzling metal wall hangings took my breath away. So I rightly expected these works to blow me away when I walked into the exhibition.

What I didn’t expect was to be equally, if not more, amazed by the artist’s wooden sculptures.

Like his metal pieces, Anatsui’s wooden works are intricate, beautiful, and imbued with a profound symbolism that relates not only to African culture but to humanity as a whole. I was most awed, however, by the way they echo the wall hangings’ sense of movement and dynamism. Wood loses all of its stiffness and takes on an energetic, lifelike quality: the sculptures that refer to cloth appear to crumple and fold, and another, titled Imbroglio, seems to be actually writhing.

These wooden treasures excited me in a way that sculptures rarely had before. I now have a more open mind about art and look forward to taking many more non-Western courses. I also recognize how important it is to take a deeper look into an artist’s body of work, because sometimes your favorite piece may not be the most well known. Finally, I see how even the most unexpected materials can be turned into something incredibly beautiful—and this, I think, was exactly El Anatsui’s goal in the first place.

—Elana Hain, an art history student at UNC–Chapel Hill and a curatorial intern at the NCMA, is working this summer on research for upcoming contemporary art exhibitions.

Image: El Anatsui, When I Last Wrote to You about Africa, 1986, wood, Private collection, Germany

The Africa Connection: Ashley Bryan and El Anatsui

This year has been a great time for Museum visitors to learn about the wonderful world of book illustrations through the work of author and artist Ashley Bryan. Bryan began writing while growing up in Depression-era New York and gained success as an artist in the late 1960s. After illustrating several books of American myths, he noticed a lack of books geared toward minorities, particularly African Americans. In response Bryan became interested in retelling original African stories for children. By interpreting these stories with boldness and vibrancy, Bryan provided a fresh perspective on traditional tales, inspiring a new generation of readers. A similar treatment of African American spirituals translated his love of music and dance into print.

In some ways Rhythms of the Heart: The Illustration of Ashley Bryan is an ideal exhibition for the NCMA, allowing viewers to make associations between it and El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa. Both are retrospectives of the careers of prolific men—one from North America, the other from Africa. Both El Anatsui and Ashley Bryan are true artistic masters with firm grasps of very different mediums. In El Anatsui’s case, visitors can explore wood sculptures, metal wall sculptures, and drawings, noting that the artist understands and has talent for each mode of creation; Ashley Bryan’s illustrations shine whether made from construction paper cutouts, linoleum prints, or poster paint. And finally, both artists share a deep connection to Africa, which comes across in the colors, subject matter, and design in each of their works.

While you’re visiting these exhibitions, don’t forget to ponder how these exhibitions connect to our permanent collection in West Building, too—the African Gallery and the Modern and Contemporary Galleries provide great starting points for comparison.

Have you visited Rhythms of the Heart yet? What other connections to our permanent collection or Spring–Summer 2012 exhibitions can you make? Leave us a comment below.

Jennifer Dasal is associate curator of contemporary art.

Rhythms of the Heart: The Illustration of Ashley Bryan is organized by the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature. This exhibition is made possible, in part, by the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources; the North Carolina Museum of Art Foundation, Inc.; and the William R. Kenan Jr. Endowment for Educational Exhibitions.

Image: Ashley Bryan, Mountain View, 1967, from Moon, for What Do You Wait? (Atheneum, 1967), linoleum print, 16 ½ x 8 in., Courtesy of the artist, © 1967 Ashley Bryan

Remembering Doc

George introduces Doc Watson at Eno River in 1978. Ralph Rinzler is in the background.

It was a heavy blow to receive the first e-mail from my old friend David Holt, informing me that Doc Watson had been hospitalized after falling at home. I’m well aware that at age 89, a bad fall can be catastrophic. I first saw Doc perform on the National Mall in Washington at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival; I hope it’s not too trite to say the experience changed my life.

Who knows how many guitar players Doc inspired? While I played a little, I knew I could never achieve anything close to his level of skill. Doc was as much a virtuoso as any great musician you can name. All I wanted to do from that point onward was to create similar opportunities for people to discover such amazing artists who seemed so utterly modest and matter-of-fact about their genius.

I had the fortune to come back to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 1973 as a paid summer intern after my junior year at Duke University. So enthralled was I that I took a leave of absence from school to work for the festival through the fall. The following year, the university gave me funding to organize the first North Carolina Folklife Festival on the Duke campus. I wasn’t able to present Doc then, but we featured a number of his talented relatives from Deep Gap.

In 1976 I was invited to direct the festival on a grander scale at Durham’s West Point on the Eno Park as part of the bicentennial celebration. Afterward the Department of Cultural Resources hired me (with help from NCMA Director Larry Wheeler, who was deputy secretary of DCR at the time) to document and promote North Carolina’s folk arts and culture full time. It was a dream come true, but I didn’t feel I’d fully succeeded until I finally had the chance to present the great Doc Watson at the second North Carolina Folklife Festival in 1978. It was especially meaningful to me that my mentor Ralph Rinzler, the director of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the man who brought Doc into the wider world, came down from Washington to introduce him.

Since then I’ve had the honor of presenting Doc in various festival and concert settings, and he appeared at the NCMA three or four times. He was 87 on his last visit, but you wouldn’t have known it. He was strong in voice and playing as impressively as ever. But after that the years began to exact their toll, and the man I thought to be possibly immortal grew frail. We were set to present what we knew (though we couldn’t say it) would be Doc’s public finale on June 30.

The event was never meant to be just another Doc Watson concert, but rather a Doc Watson celebration, a chance for all of us to express our appreciation for the wonderful music and example he provided over five decades. We planned to surround Doc with his closest friends and picking partners and take a day to reflect on his remarkable life and career and contribution to our national culture.

When I spoke with David Holt within a few hours of Doc’s passing we knew we needed to carry on with our plans, now more than ever. We hope you will join us Saturday for this day of stories and song and celebration of a North Carolina treasure.

George Holt is the NCMA’s director of performing arts and film programs.