art

North Nashville “Parlour” Recalls When the Harlem Renaissance Came South

At October nips at our heels, Nashville art lovers may be hard pressed to choose between a plethora of events featuring artists, performers, and creative leaders this month. Saturday evening will be all about North Nashville as galleries, restaurants, and shops open their doors for the Jefferson Street Art Crawl, followed by Art History Class Lifestyle Lounge and Gallery’s first in a series of interactive talks dubbed “The Parlour.”  

Modeled after those of the Harlem Renaissance, the salon will include readings, discussion, entertainment, and cuisine. It’s no secret that the Harlem Renaissance brought the voices, stories, and artistic expressions of Black Americans to the forefront of cultural exchange in the 1920s, but few know the history of its migration to the South. According to the gallery’s invite:

Unfortunately, the Great Depression (1929-1939) dried up the financial wellspring of support it so need to thrive. Many of those MONUMENTAL figures of that period moved back to the South for the accommodating cost of living. North Nashville became the home of such notables such as James Weldon Johnson, Aaron Douglas, and Arna Bontemps.

The discussion will center around photographer Carl Van Vechten, the namesake of Fisk University’s art gallery, and the invitation suggests visiting the gallery to see an exhibition of Van Vechten’s work prior to the event as a “pre-study.” (Let’s pause to appreciate thoughtful study and dialogue right now.) Van Vechten was a patron of the Harlem Renaissance, and it’s likely that the iconic images you conjure of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston or Jacob Lawrence were shot by his camera. While you’re there, check out another event, Creatives’ Day.

Founding director and curator of Art History Class, Thaxton Waters, has become somewhat of an institution in North Nashville, especially since his gallery lost its brick and mortar location at the start of summer. Waters opened the salon in 2014 to provide what he calls a “Re-presentation of North Nashville” that’s dedicated to preserving the cultural and artistic history of Jefferson Street and the surrounding HBCUs while helping it thrive. After two years, the building couldn’t contain the gallery’s growth, and the landlord was unwilling to make necessary repairs. But fans soon realized that Art History Class is not one gallery or building but a spirit that has long existed in North Nashville; Waters just gave it a place to thrive.

It has been recognized with a Community Award by Spread Luv 615 and Jefferson Street Urban Merchant Partnerships with a New Business Award in 2014. Thaxton and the gallery have been written about in Native, BURNAWAY and Nashville Scene. In fact, I named it Best Culture Club in this year’s Best of Nashville, just released October 5.

Local activist groups have also taken notice. The group Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) got out the word for an Art History Class pop-up event last month and sold tickets, raising a total of $750 to go toward the fund for a new gallery. The group says it works “to mobilize white communities to support black-led liberation work.” To that end, it encourages its members to support Waters’ project “as a way to fight gentrification and contribute to the funding of black futures.”

SURJ steering committee member Marie Campbell says, “We recognize that current policies and practices in Nashville’s development projects and tourism industry are promoting gentrification in predominately black neighborhoods, displacing long time residents, while also minimizing black contributions to Nashville’s art, music, and culture both historically and currently.”

When I met Thaxton last year for a Nashville Public Radio story about North Nashville artists, he made his optimism clear: “It’s interesting at the time we’re living in now that the social awareness has risen so our voices are becoming more important. I think it’s a beautiful time right now…It’s a very fertile time for artists…we have a lot to say, a lot to speak about, and to do it through the arts is much more impactful in my opinion.”

As Nashville tunes in to the intersection of art and activism, Metro Arts Commission has been encouraging dialogue about the role of the arts in community building. They just opened up applications for the second Racial Equity in Arts Leadership cadre. The mission of REAL is to “cultivate a shared learning space for Nashville arts leaders to learn and practice new language about race, and to think through larger issues of systematic and institutional racism.”

Since Waters moved out of the Jefferson Street space, it’s been easy to make Art History Class an example of the real-world erasure of communities by gentrification — too easy, in fact. Instead, the salon could be viewed as an example of self-preservation and resistance to gentrification.

Saturday’s Parlour will be a pop-up in McJimsey Center at 2506 Jefferson Street. Get your ticket the “The Parlour” here, and check out how you can support plans for Art History Class’ expansion.

 

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Red Arrow Gallery Kickstarter Closes in 2.5 Hours

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Installation shot of Daniel Holland’s Dirty Pictures. Red Arrow Gallery, 2015.

Red Arrow Gallery has shown exciting work at its Riverside Village location over the past year since it relocated from Joshua Tree, California to Nashville. The property they rented in East Nashville was sold recently, and they’ve got a new home at 919 Gallatin Avenue. But, the space needs a lot of work to outfit it as a gallery. Today is the last day of their Kickstarter to raise the reasonable amount of $10,000 in this effort. It ends at 5:00 p.m.

Red Arrow has worked with kids at Maplewood High School and Isaac Litton Middle, and its staff says they want the gallery to be approachable to people who have never stepped foot in one before. I hope they’ll continue their community outreach arm in their new location, because the arts are too often complicit in gentrification. They also do a great artist talk series hosted by Joe Nolan. I love artist talks and will definitely make more of them in the coming year.

In the meantime, OZ is hosting them until the end of the year.

They hope to re-open at the new spot in January. Give here if you’re able.

Modular Art Pods: Open Call for Submissions Closing in Fast

From the pod of Adrienne Newman.

From the pod of Adrienne Newman.

Remember last February’s Modular Art Pods show that took place at Abrasive Media and was created by my then-boyfriend-now-husband Tony Youngblood? The Nashville Scene called it the year’s best pop-up installation, and it’s returning next year and will be bigger and better! The show will be at OZ Arts from June 21-24, 2016, and the call for submissions is closing in fast on November 18, 2015. That’s Wednesday, people!

From the pod of Molly Lahym and Dylan Elhier.

From the pod of Molly Lahym and Dylan Elhier.

The MAPs website has everything you need to know about building a pod. This time around, there will also be pre-built performance pods that will add a new dimension to the deal. Here’s my photo gallery and Stephen Trageser’s video from February to inspire you.  The application is pretty basic and he’ll definitely work with you if your project grows legs and evolves between now and then.

Apply here! Good luck!

Button Art Show Tonight

Button Art ShowSomething different for art seekers tonight: a couple dozen local artists will be showing (and selling!) artwork that is confined to the space of a button. Artists of diverse media will show their stuff in Button Art Show. Expect photographers, painters, designers, graffiti artists, illustrators, flower pressers, dead bug enthusiasts, and more. Organized by Helen Gilley, the work looks to be fun, irreverent, and punk. Artists include Jessi Zazu Darlin of Those Darlins, Stephen Watkins, and Logan Zane Hunt, who just the other day, according to his Facebook timeline, offered free coffee to all after Bongo Java confronted him about letting homeless folks hang on his porch. (Really Bongo? That’s fucked up.)

What? Button Art Show

When? Tonight, Saturday September 26, 8-10 pm

Where? 1223 Battlefield Dr. Nashville, TN

Bring cash to buy buttons.

Update from the Front: Seed Space Happenings

Hello reader! As I write this, I sit in a bakery eating an autumnal roasted squash salad and wearing an oversized sweatshirt. That’s right. Fall is here!

And with it comes lots of arty happenings from Seed Space. If deep inside you were a little worried about the fate of this artist-supporting, experimentation-friendly little nonprofit with the departure of founder Adrienne Outlaw for St. Louis, this news will put your fears to rest. Here’s the scoop:

Courtney Adair Johnson Joins Staff 

Courtney Adair Johnson. Photo by Tina Gionis via http://nashvilleartists.blogspot.com/

Courtney Adair Johnson. Photo by Tina Gionis http://www.tinagionis.com

Johnson has been blowing up as a visual artist and curator, and she joins Program Director Andri Alexandrou and Curator Rachel Bubis as Seed Space’s Program Coordinator. Johnson will assist in bringing nationally renowned artists, writers, curators and arts organizers to Nashville for workshops, talks, and exhibitions. Johnson just finished up a residency in Fergus Falls, MN with Hinge Arts, and she’s not wasting any time in continuing her social practice work in Nashville.

War and Rumors of War, opens October 3, 6:00 pm

Installation artist and political scientist Eric Dickson presents an interactive sound installation of documented footage about American foreign policy over the past 30 years. Viewers will trip motion detectors that activate audio, like presidential addresses, congressional hearings, and military and intelligence briefings. From the press release:

A variety of different computer algorithms driving the installation offer visitors distinct experiences of history that are determined in large part by visitors’ own movements through the gallery.  At times, visitors may simultaneously hear speeches on Iraq from a diverse array of US presidencies; at other times, they may need physically to pursue a single voice around the gallery to prevent that voice from falling silent.

War and Rumors of War will be in Seed Space’s gallery through November 16.

NORF Wall Fest: Saturday, October 24, 2:00 pm. 

Seed Space partners with Jay Jenkins, Art History Class, and Televise the Movement to put on a street art festival. Thaxton Waters is selecting artists to paint sections of the North Nashville neighborhood, specifically 18th Ave North and Herman Street and Buchanan Street. Artists will work for three weeks, and the event will culminate in a day of festival programming including poetry, music, food, and live arts activities on October 24. NORF Wall Fest is funded by a Metro Arts Thrive grant given to Jenkins, who is spearheading the project.

Edgehill Muses, The Curb Center, opens October 29

Rachel Bubis curates “Edgehill Muses” at The Curb Center, an exhibition which “aims to look inward at the neighborhood where the Curb Center resides, a neighborhood on the border of both Vanderbilt and Music Row, providing a brief glimpse into its rich history and cultural influence while considering its future in a time of flux.”
Bubis states in her curator’s essay, “Selected works include imagery inspired by the neighborhood, work by past and present Edgehill artists, and work from artists outside of Nashville that address timely concepts pertaining to gentrification, boundaries and utopia.” Selected artists are William Edmondson, Alan Lequire, Scott Wise, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, John Baeder, James Threalkill, Courtney Adair Johnson, Macon St. Hilaire, Skye Gilkerson, Andy O’Brien, and Jodi Hays.

Deep Play Fun House, Track One, October 31.

 Brent Stewart puts on his curator hat for this All Hallow’s Eve videoart show. Stewart will choose 10-15 works to display from an open submission call. From the press release:
As an immersive video and sound environment, the viewer defines the narrative sequence by negotiating labyrinthine pathways in a large, formerly industrial environment alongside live sound performances for a one night event on Halloween.

The night will convene in Track One’s vast warehouse, tapping into the artist proclivity for going into abandoned spaces and appropriating them for artmaking. Alexandrou tells me that deep play is the phenomenon of when a group of people engage in an activity where the risk of loss is much greater than the risk of gain. When artists agree to terms of unknowability, they create. On November 3, Seed Space will host a traditional screening of the films.

They are still accepting submissions through September 30.

The Cloud Story Project 

Jana Harper‘s “The Cloud Story Project” remains on view in Track One until October 3, and you can duck in to see it any time or catch the closing reception at the October art crawl. During her residency with Seed Space, Harper interviewed people about clouds, and a variety of folks shared their experience. Drawn to the project by the memory of her mother’s obsessive relationship with photographing clouds, Harper’s innocuous question becomes an exploration of dreams and entrapments, desire and confinement. Blown up photographs of the interviewees are hung alongside their clipped responses. “The Cloud Story” may have a basic premise, but the human investigation that grew from it is anything but simplistic. The Seed Space Residency Blog has images and snippets of interviews.

Grace Goad’s Abstract Wonderland

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Grace Goad’s “New Works” is showing at Gordon Jewish Community Center in Nashville through July 31.

Many in Nashville already have had the pleasure of discovering local artist Grace Goad, who is showing new works at Gordon Jewish Community Center through July 31. She’s been active for many years, producing paintings that celebrate the joyful process of art making. I attended the show’s opening last week and was impressed by the young artist’s sense of composition and color. The 21 year-old wunderkind paints in acrylic, watercolor, and ink in a broad palette of colors. In some of her works, she uses bright pastels: salmon pinks and maizy yellows. In others, she opts for dark greens, deep reds, and navy blues. Her abstract work runs the gamut of emotional states with a depth and purity unusual for an artist of her age.

Watercolors by Grace Goad.

Watercolors by Grace Goad on display at Goad’s solo show in Nashville, TN.

Goad has moderately severe Autism. Because Autism affects the muscles of her grasp, she paints in broad strokes and draws in long scribbles; I suspect that this is one reason her paintings feel so driven by emotion. It may be that Goad pushes paint around in a way that’s led by subconscious instinct. Many artists attempt this deliberately, but something about Goad’s brush strokes and water play are both more sophisticated and authentic. But don’t be mistaken: it’s not a free-for-all. Goad also has the instincts for remarkable restraint. Just check out these delicate, airy watercolors above.

Grace Goad, Untitled; original ink print on paper.

Grace Goad, Untitled; original ink print on paper. Image courtesy of the artist.

She began painting when she was four years old, and her parents immediately noticed her talent. She has continued to develop as a painter as she’s come of age, working with a variety of art therapists and mentors as she explores the infinite possibilities of paint. Above is one of my favorite pieces in the show. I suspect that Goad used water marbling for this and two others, wherein she’d paint in a shallow pool of water and lay the paper on top. It’s an ancient technique that can easily end up looking like one of those Magic Eye posters from the 90s. But with Goad’s love of color and talent for composition, the painting is lush and joyful.

Goad has received a lot of well-deserved press over the years. She’s been featured in an array of publications like The Tennessean and Nashville Arts, as well as in many Autism magazines, journals, and books. She’s also appeared on The View and Al Jazeera America, and her work is in private collection at the Tennessee State Museum.  If any other artist had such success before turning 21, I’d doubt they could keep it up. Unlike a lot of us, Goad is unhindered by ego; she has no desire to make work that pleases critics, gallerists or buyers, so she’s been able to steadily progress. It was an immense pleasure to take in her passionate work, and I’ll be keeping an eye on her from now on, and you should, too.

Grace Goad’s mother, author Leisa Hammett, manages her art business and is an advocate for people with disAbilities, working across platforms to deepen our understanding of Autism through workshops, seminars, and conferences.

Gordon Jewish Community Center is located at 801 Percy Warner Blvd, Nashville, TN 37205. Their hours are Monday – Thursday: 5:30am–8:45pm; Friday: 5:30am–5:45pm; Saturday – Sunday: 8am–5pm.

Black Artists Respond to Confederate Flag Imagery in Artwork in Nashville Scene

Laura Hutson, arts editor for Nashville Scene is publishing interviews with Black artists from the region. She asks them to respond to the controversy around Sheila B.’s “Southern Motel” painting, which was taken down at Acme Feed & Seed two weeks ago.

First, she talks to Donna Woodley, a Memphis-born, Nashville-based artist who is currently pursuing an MFA in Boston. Hutson asks Woodley what she would say to Sheila B. if she could attend Friday’s forum. “If she were there,” Woodley says, “I would like to think that she’d give a little about her background. I would like to know what the Confederate flag as a symbol meant for her growing up. Just to kind of get an idea of where her head is as far as including the image in her work. I would really listen closely to that.”

(Hutson also reports that Sheila B. will not be attending the forum, as she will be out of town.)

John Sims',

John Sims’, “The Proper Way to Hang a Confederate Flag” at Schmucker Gallery, Gettysburg.

Hutson will be publishing interviews with John Sims and Brandon Donahue soon, so keep checking in with her on Country Life. Sims is a fascinating artist; check out his Recoloration Proclamation, in which he re-colors the Confederate flag and others. Sims is bold and meticulous. According to Stephen Tragreser of the Scene, he used Dred Scott’s What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag? piece from the 80s as a springboard for a new work called The Proper Way to Hang a Confederate Flag. Sims hung it from a gallows with a noose. Once you start looking, examples of Black artists using the flag to make statements about racial strife in America abound. I hope this will be part of the discussion at Friday’s forum.

This evening, a few of my friends posted an essay on social media called “I, Racist” by John Metta. Metta delivered the essay to a white congregation at Bethel Congregational United Church of Christ on Sunday, June 28th. If I could name a required reading for the forum on Confederate flag imagery in artwork, this would be it! Metta breaks down white privilege and white fragility so simply, even for us thick-headed white folks who don’t spend much time considering ways that we’ve benefited from the oppression of people of color in America. Metta’s sermon hits its crest with this point:

“Here’s what I want to say to you: Racism is so deeply embedded in this country not because of the racist right-wing radicals who practice it openly, it exists because of the silence and hurt feelings of liberal America.”

This calling of white America has been happening for years. Black people have been telling us this our whole lives, but we haven’t listened. Let’s stop being offended and start listening. Props to Laura Hutson for her contributions to the conversation.

Julia Martin Moves Discussion to Larger Space to Accommodate All + Thoughts on Art Criticism

Lots of great news here. Julia Martin has planned a panel discussion for Friday, as I wrote about last week. Martin wrote to her mailing list yesterday:

What was initially planned as an intimate open forum discussion, with members of our local arts community coming together to discuss the How’s and Why’s behind the removal of a painting by a prominent local artist from a prominent local business, has taken on a life of its own. And rightly so considering the current social climate.

She announced today that the talk will be held at White Avenue Studio: 2517 White Ave, Nashville, Tennessee 37204 at 5:30 pm. 

Also, Martin has asked Stephanie Pruitt to moderate the discussion. Stephanie is an established poet and artist from Nashville. She is also an advocate for artists and a public speaker, and she’s been helping Nashville artists learn how to be self-sustaining with their work.

Martin has sought out a larger venue to accommodate all who would like to gather and discuss racially charged imagery in art. In my opinion, Martin is acting as a leader in our artistic community. It takes courage to pull off something like this, as well as to take criticism as well as she has. Hope to see some of you there.

I think this opens up a different debate that I’d like to engage as well (later on.) We have some wonderful arts writers in this town. Laura Hutson’s art reviews in the Scene get better and deeper every week. Sara Estes is bringing serious art criticism to the Tennessean and providing her crazy art knowledge in her column over at BURNAWAY. Joe Nolan is a tireless foot soldier who helps us all connect more with the art around us. Megan Kelley’s insights have shaken me to my core. Tony Youngblood’s column in Nashville Arts shines light on arts organizations and initiatives that would otherwise not be in the public eye. There are others, too.

Some people have pointed out that it’s not the role of the art critic to discuss social issues like these. If we believe art is necessary to experiencing the full range of human emotion, that artists should seek to further their skills and conceptual basis, and that an arts community includes dialogue about the art itself, then arts writers should feel a calling to comment on social issues. When we begin perceiving art in a vacuum, we miss the point. Or rather, there is no point. Without the human experience, we have nothing to say. It’s the lived experiences of human beings that contextualizes art objects and makes us feel, when looking at a painting by Sheila B. or Khalo or de Kooning, that there is a greater story to tell than our own, that we exist in a continuum of voices, and that we are not alone. I will continue asking questions of myself and others that enrich my human experience and create a more just and equitable city, and I ask my colleagues to continue doing the same. We are producing good work in Nashville. Let’s keep at it and be even better.

Two Weekends of Art Crawling in July

This month, a tiny dream of mine is coming true: Nashville’s Downtown art crawl and its Wedgewood-Houston sister will happen on different weekends! Downtown kicks off tomorrow, Friday July 3 at 6:00. Make sure you hit COOP Gallery’s exchange exhibition with the New Orleans collective Staple Goods. The press release says that the collective functions out of what used to be a grocery store in the St. Claude Arts District, which shows how much the city has changed since I lived in there in 2005. (Arts district you say? Do tell!) I love COOP’s exchanges with other cities (you can read Laura Hutson’s article about its Nashville artists exhibiting in Brooklyn here), and I’m thrilled have some NOLA blood in the Arcade this month.

Earlier this week, I posted an interview with Briena Harmening, a textile artist and painter from right here in Tennessee. Harmening has a solo show at Blend called “I Bet You Think This Show Is About You,” and it will feature many of her crocheted paintings and sculptures. Also in the Arcade, Earbellum will have a group show including work from Ben Griffith. Ben brought us Tiny Galleries, which by the way is a great thing to do when you’re downtown (hint hint.) I was lucky to do a segment on WPLN about Ben, and working with him was tons of fun. He makes me happy.

The Arts Company opens Americana, an exhibition of LIFE Magazine photographers, including Ed Clark, Loomis Dean, Alfred Eisenstadt, John Loengard, and John Dominis, as well as sketches by artist and illustrator Ernest Hamlin Baker, as well as other gallery faves. WAG will have work from senior Casey Payne. Make sure to make your way over to Hatch Show Prints’ Haley Gallery, which will have monoprints by Master Printer Jim Sherraden. 40AU will have local printmakers Megan Kelley and Lindsy Davis.

Arts & Music @ Wedgewood/Houston will be Saturday July 11, and I’m looking forward to several show openings there.

It would sweet if everyone collectively is like, “It was so wonderful have two weekends of art. We should do it all the time!” (looking over at you, Zeitgeist and Fort Houston. ❤ <3) But I’ll take this month for now.

Bring an umbrella. xoxo

Julia Martin Gallery to Host Discussion on Confederate Flag Imagery in Artwork

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Sheila B., “Southern Motel.” Photo courtesy of Nashville Scene.

Julia Martin invites you to her gallery for a discussion in regard to the recent controversy over Sheila B.‘s painting “Southern Motel” (pictured above), which was removed from the downtown Nashville bar/restaurant Acme Feed & Seed at the request of the restaurant’s investor and mayoral hopeful Charles Robert Bone.

The painting in question is of a blonde, white woman with a Confederate flag bikini bottom bending over next to the Southern Motel, which advertises a swimming pool and exclaims on its hand painted sign: “Every kind-hearted soul welcome! Mean people stay away.”

Julia Martin is hosting an “open forum discussion” about the painting’s removal. She wrote in Tuesday’s press release:

I personally want to provide an opportunity for folks to see and discuss the piece first hand. And to talk about the many issues surrounding this particular situation along with the use of powerful symbols, like the confederate flag, in works of art.

I’m not sure if it’s an open forum (where visitors will be able to have the floor) or a panel (where just a select group of people talk.) She calls it both things. She’s invited Lux-o-matic, the white burlesque performer who modeled for the painting, as well as songwriter Jason White (who is white). Artist Dane Carder will be a panelist (also white and I guess qualified because his paintings reference Civil War imagery), and Nashville Arts editor Paul Polycarpou will join him (whom I love but is also white [CORRECTION: Polycarpou is from Cyprus, which might make a difference to some folks.]).*** And thank goodness Martin has the sense to include one person of color in this event, the writer TJ Jarrett who will perform a poetry reading (BTW, her performance alone is worth the trip; she’s sooo good.) It’s unclear if Jarrett is intended to be on the panel; she must be because otherwise it would be incredibly awkward to have the only person of color billed to perform and not have a part in the discussion — right?.

I’m skeptical of Martin’s intentions because there are plenty of Black artists, writers, and scholars living in Nashville whom Martin could draw out if she were so inclined. Since this conversation is about Confederate symbolism in art, I’d say it’s kind of important that we hear from people of color in the arts, and a visual artist would be especially appropriate. It’s possible that Martin sought a more diverse and relevant panel and came up short, but let’s face it: she obviously didn’t look very far. For me, her choice of panelists doesn’t bode well.

I’m going to be generous and say that Sheila B. has a message in “Southern Motel,” although many I’ve talked to disagree. The message is that an establishment claims to be welcoming while it allows bathing beauties to prance around in Confederate bikinis. There’s a clash of ideologies that is not terribly clever to point out. We’ve all heard versions of it. (“Bless your heart, if you’re a Christian.) If “Southern Motel” says anything at all, that’s it.

Sheila B. has shown work at Julia Martin Gallery in the past. She paints mostly portraits of country musicians and big-bosomed women in that Americana style that Nashville never tires of: pin-up style bodies, random words associated with Southern roots, nostalgic scenes, and I’ll say it again, big-bosomed women. (Somebody pass her a copy of The Ways of Seeing, please.) So I’m not a big fan of her work, but she surely should keep doing what she’s doing because a lot of people love it. Good on all of them.

What’s not so good is her shock and surprise that a Facebook group called for the painting in Acme Feed & Seed to be taken down. I want to be 100% clear in that Sheila B.’s painting is a small offense in comparison to the multitudinous Confederate images in many, many other places. But her response to the controversy shows her to be irresponsible and tone deaf. In an interview with the Scene, she says, “My artwork, it’s pretty obvious that my message is very progressive. And it is a Southern progressive.”

Let’s hold it right there.

When the Scene asks her about her intention with the painting, she can’t give a real answer. She says:

It was a Southern motel, and it said, “Every kind-hearted soul welcome, mean people stay away.” My artwork doesn’t always knock people over the head. I like to gently prod people.

If the prod is so gentle that people don’t notice, is it still a prod? Meanwhile, I’m stuck twiddling my thumbs about how her work is progressive. Her (also unprogressive) paintings of Patsy Cline and burlesque beauties aside, in this specific painting, she’s casually dropping in a loaded symbol and not judging it. Contradiction does not equal critique. In the Scene interview, the artist says that the restaurant’s decision to take the painting down “was so far out of left field — I’ve never experienced anything like that. It was so shocking.” Frankly, it made me wonder if shirking responsibility and disavowing criticism is part of the Southern progressive mindset she touts. Sheila B. says her piece is “about the New South.” If we are to believe this, it seems the New South is not much different from the Old South. Clearly, the Confederate flag is part of the way she defines the South, and she doesn’t want to jettison it as one of the region’s foremost symbols.

Here’s what I think is the trouble with Sheila B.’s painting “Southern Motel”: her work overtly celebrates Southern culture in way that some might call playful, whimsical, and above all nostalgic. Taken in this context, it is easy to understand why some folks are not cool with looking at the Confederate flag on the ass of a white woman in a five foot tall painting while they’re eating and drinking cocktails, no matter the ironic subtext. And let’s be clear: The contradiction is present in the painting. A critique is not. Persistent racist ideologies should not be summed up as some kind of trifling “meanness.”Nostalgia for Southern roots is perhaps the main defense of those who still want to fly the flag of the Rebel army. The message in the painting, therefore, is that although there’s a bit of a paradox in Southern ideologies, it’s really no big deal. 

Her response to the controversy gets more and more disturbing. She tells the Scene:

I don’t really feel censored. I actually wanted it taken down once I saw all this stuff happening. Because I didn’t want anything to happen to my artwork. People are such nutjobs, people are so crazy in this time we live in — look at what happened last week in Charleston for God’s sake, you know, crazy people do crazy things. So for me it’s not censorship. For me, I resent being co-opted into this mudslinging — it’s someone taking advantage of a situation.

Wow. There is a lot to unpack here! First, the artist shows a disturbing lack of priorities when she says that she wanted the work taken down because she was worried about it. A worse scenario might be a family from Nashville or from out of town walking into the restaurant and feeling unwelcome because of the presence of the Confederate flag, or someone not submitting a job application for the same reason.

And I’m unclear: Is she lassoing the people who wanted the painting taken down with Dylann Roof, the radical, racist terrorist and murderer of nine innocent people? Or, is she acknowledging the absolute crisis of racism in America, even while she defends her use of the flag? Or, is she excusing the Charleston massacre as an isolated incident committed by a “nutjob,” and not a symptom of an epidemic of racism in America? I’m confused. All of these options suck. Her response is blatantly tone deaf in the same way as your white uncle who says, “I’m not racist; I have black friends.”

And how about that swimming pool in the painting? Supposedly, Jim Crow ended with the Civil Rights Act, but we saw its legacy just weeks ago in McKinney, Texas when a police officer used excessive force and brutalizing language on teenagers at a pool party. As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” A Southern progressive should know this and be receptive to criticism surrounding the use of these symbols.

Stay with me; we’re still unpacking that paragraph! The “mudslinging” she’s referring to is the fact that Charles Robert Bone requested that the painting come down. It looks like Sheila believes that the FB group “Boycott Acme Feed & Seed” was started to smear Bone. (I have a hard time believing that any campaign manager would sign off on such a stunt.) But to chalk this up to political maneuvering seems to trivialize the situation. Politicians become a scapegoat for Sheila B. Casting this as mayoral mudslinging shows an unwillingness to take the critique constructively. In fact, her response is a dismissal of feelings surrounding the flag and what it stands for, even as she claims to be a progressive.

“This is a made-up controversy,” Sheila B. says.

Arist Sonya Clark unravels a Confederate flag

Arist Sonya Clark unravels a Confederate flag in her artwork “Unravelling,” which she completed in June 2015.

Actually, it’s not. The country is in shock and mourning. Activists and artists are making brave and critical statements about the confederate flag and its symbolism, like Bree Newsome who climbed the South Carolina State Capitol’s flag pole, and Sonya Clark who unraveled a flag as an artwork just prior to the terrorist attack in Charleston. Here’s an article from Hyperallergic called “How Artists Can Help Conceive of New Flags and Monuments for the U.S”, not to mention Southern artists like Fahamu Pecou, Fabian Williams, Dustin Harewood, Princess Simpson Rashid, and Overstreet Ducasse. Sheila B. would do well to consider some of their thoughtful, and in some ways monumental work and see how her use of the Confederate flag is not isolated in her own imagination or repertoire. The call to take her painting down did not happen in a vacuum, but she insists it was another display of people being “knee jerk crazy.”

I credit Martin with wanting to explore this issue as it pertains to art, but for some reason, I’m not hopeful for a very productive conversation, in part because Sheila B. doesn’t seem open to one, and in part because there’s an inherent support of the artist in coordinating such an event with a white-dominated panel. On one hand, it seems like an opportunity for people, probably majority white people, to grapple with these issues; but more so, it’s likely to do little more than give Sheila B. a broader avenue for excuses. Maybe I’m wrong about that. You can see for yourself Friday, July 10 at 5:30 (for cocktails) / 6:00 (discussion) at 444 Humphreys.

Let me conclude with one thing: I don’t tear people down for amusement or self-gratification. I invite you to try to find another post on this blog — or in my publication history — that is so negative. But I’ll die on the hill of getting other white people to examine their intentions and actions, and I’ll take them to task when they don’t.

***I was incorrect in stating that Polycarpou is white. The CEO of Nashville Arts Magazine is from Cyprus, and he moved to England as a child with his parents. He experienced a great deal of discrimination there and has had to overcome the weight of prejudice ever since. I was wrong about his background and I apologize. I was not trying to say anyone is white so much as I was trying to say that no one was African-American. It seems (as you can read in the comments below), that TJ Jarrett will be part of this discussion, and I’ve heard that artist Sam Dunson will also be involved.