By Simone Ebongo Bayehe
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
The Baltimore arts scene is a growing force in the country as local painters, writers, sculptors and others are getting their voices heard, four critically acclaimed artists said in interviews over the past two weeks.
Oletha DeVane, Espi Frazier, Leslie King Hammond and Joyce J. Scott said the prominence of black culture in the city and life has long inspired them. They said that as black female artists, they believe their voices are an important part of the national debate about gender, race and culture.
King Hammond, a writer, curator, historian, graduate dean emirata and founding director of the Center for Race and Culture at MICA, said there is no world without the artist.
Born, raised and educated in New York City, she has dedicated her art to creating sculptures and paintings that give purpose, meaning and joy to her work. A joy which she insists she must stay close to in order to maintain her sanity.
“Everything that you do, that you touch, is created by an artist, and we are never recognized for that,” King Hammond said. “You need an architect to design a building, you need a designer to design your clothes, you need somebody to mix the chemistry for the colors. There’s somebody that has to design plastic cups and tissue paper. Nobody ever thinks about them as artists, creative people, and that’s who we are, we run this world.”
Per her profile on MICA, King Hammond has won Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Studio Museum in Harlem (2002), Lifetime Service, MICA (2005), The DuBois Circle (2006), Women’s Art Caucus-College Art Association (2008), and the James A. Porter Colloquium, Howard University (2008). In 2008, she was granted an Andy Warhol Curatorial Fellowship. Currently, she sits on the Baltimore Board of Creative Alliance for the Artists.
“You can’t have this world without us,” King Hammond continued. “We know we’re essential; it’s the rest of the world that’s clueless. We’re central to everything that is important in life, and we do it just simply because we love the challenge of solving problems with the most ridiculous conditions, with the most obtuse materials. Always leave it to an artist to find a brilliant solution to a difficult problem.”
Frazier, an illustrator and art teacher at the Friends School, Creative Alliance and Howard University, finds inspiration in everything. From people, to film, to magazines, the Chicago native believes art is an integral facet of life.
“For me, art is therapy,” Frazier said. “It’s not something I see as I choose to do, it’s something I must do.”
She has lived in Baltimore for the past 20 years.
According to her website, she developed “a ‘wood graphics’ process over 25 years ago that uses colored inks on relief wood carvings.” She also works with mixed media like mosaic tiles, glass, beads and copper nails, the website said.
Frazier said she finds inspiration in African, Carribean, Egyptian and Japanese Art. Her creative themes include both the female as goddess/life/giver and the integral beauty of African people. Her work speaks to the universal quest to understand who people are beyond race, age and gender.
Scott said Baltimore remains a fertile ground for her art, though her sculptures can be found in Washington, Italy and New York.
Born and raised in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhoods, she was naturally thrust into the art world by her mother, former folk artist Elizabeth Talford Scott.
“I’m someone who’s really influenced by pop culture, by things that are happening around me and stuff in the news,” Scott said. “I like beauty and I like doing work on all those prosaic things, but a lot of my work is politically and socially oriented because that’s what keeps me up at night. That’s what haunts me.”
A studio artist, Scott is primarily known for her bead work, a skill she learned from her mother around the age of 5.
In 1976, she learned diagonal weaving, also known as the peyote stitch. It became a vehicle that allowed her to use a medium that purveyed light, that used her mother’s technique of sewing with needle, thread and bead, and that would allow her to be sculptural, serpentine, and flat while maintaining artistic control.
“It is a way of working that is mesmerizing, very calming,” Scott said. “And I’m using a system that has been used for thousands, not hundreds, thousands of years. This is something pretty amazing to be involved in, creating work that has that kind of history involved with it – and not just African history, everybody.”
A recipient of the local $50,000 Mary Sawyers Imboden Prize and named as a 2016 MacArthur Fellow, Scott admits the pressure to handle her $625,000 prize and live up to the title of MacArthur Genius does get to her.
“I have had panic attacks, and actually I threw up a couple of times,” Scott said. “Not only is it a lot of money – but it is, once again, it’s no longer just Joyce in Baltimore. I’ve had a global outreach for a long time, my practice and I’m represented in museums around the world, and I’ve travelled and performed around the world, but when someone says ‘this is this’ then other people look at it. So I’m not supposed to be out there acting. Well, I act up all the time, but not being a negative influence as it were, which I try not to be.”
As a black woman, Scott acknowledges the importance of her ethnic identity, but does not use it as a driving force in her work.
“I don’t leave myself to make work, I am this artist,” Scott said. “Of course I’m motivated by beauty, by the grace of what I’m doing, by having this ability and this skill that’s God-given in my opinion, but it’s being driven as an artist, period. Although I will never refute my identity, if I had been born Chinese, I’d still be the same wiseacre that I am right now.”
For DeVane, her passion can be found in her custom beaded clocks, sculptures, and paintings and videos reflecting social issues. Per her websits, DeVane, the current head of visual arts in the Upper School at McDonogh Shool in Owings Mills, finds inspiration from her faith, Greek mythology, Yoruba religion and biblical references.
Currently residing in Ellicott City, she was born, raised and educated in Baltimore, becoming a self-proclaimed artist at the age of 9.
A visual artist driven by underlying spiritual meanings and the connections between the physical and spiritual world, she is currently working on a piece entitled, Prison Monologues. Her latest project takes an introspective look at women in prison through interviews, and analyzes the institutions which neglect marginalized people.
The monologues are being done as a way to provide healing for those who have been hurt or broken by the system, and as a Baltimore native, she recognizes the importance of providing a voice to the voiceless.
“There’s a validity to art making because really, it’s always about how we interpret, how we see, how we reflect the culture in which we live,” DeVane said. “I look at art not necessarily as one ethnic group or another. I feel like it’s important to be able to have your voice heard in some way. Whether it’s through writing or dance, all those things to me are the way, I think, that you begin to understand yourself as a human being – that creative impulse.”
The racial identities of the four black, female artists plays a major role in their presentation, naturally shapes their culture, but does not serve as a crutch for sympathy, derision or celebrity.
“Black women are a big part of society,” Frazier said. “We raise the children, we educate everybody, how come we can’t be a big part of the art world?”
For King Hammond, the black female artist is not only a vital force in Baltimore, but in the nation.
To her, it is the city’s unique character and identity that allows it to be a great place for the exceptionally gifted, brilliant, inspired and compelling artist hailing from anywhere.
For natives like DeVane and Scott, Baltimore holds a special place in their hearts.
“We’ve always been here, and I think the recognition is still growing,” DeVane said. “It’s just been a wealth of friends, contacts – people that I’ve known for years supporting each other, artists that support each other.”
The black Baltimore arts scene will continue to grow, and make room for those who seek place to express themselves, and this incoming evolution excites Scott.
“Black artists, I believe, are not just working in sites where they are just black, they are mixing with other artists because that’s where the availability is,” Scott said. “Pennsylvania Avenue, which used to be a place where everything was happening, is different, and there used to be dance studios and other smaller places, or larger places that have gone the way of the dodo, but we are coming back.”