The Fourth of July Artists for Justice outdoor show, comprised of 26 paintings of African-Americans who died of police or vigilante violence, drew a steady stream of viewers at the new Aurora Street location of organizer Nancy Tankersley’s art studio. An estimated 300 visited the outdoor gallery.
The paintings, all roughly one-foot square, were displayed along a wooden fence enclosing a courtyard next to the studio at 11 S. Aurora St., formerly home to Atelier 11, an architectural firm now on Dover Street. Twenty or so masked and socially distanced perusers followed yellow directional arrows past each portrait while consulting handout binders containing the stories behind each fatality.
One of the African-Americans who attended was Yolanda Acree, a Federalsburg collagist—”digital and analog,” she says, referring in the latter to works on paper. She heard about the show on the Social Action for Racial Justice site on Facebook. “I wanted to see the artists’ rendition of these faces I’d seen only on the news. I’m happy to see this support of Black Lives Matter. And surprised,” she added, citing the Eastern Shore’s racially checkered history.
All the works in the show are solo portraits except for the painting by Katie Theeke of the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing victims in Birmingham. Theeke depicts Carol Denise McNair, 11, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all 14, strolling carefree outside of what may be the church where they died at the hands of four Ku Klux Klan racists, the last of whom was convicted in a long-delayed prosecution led by current Democratic Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama.
That painting was haunting to gaze upon no more than, except by a factor of four, as the visage of Tamir Rice, clearly a child, as painted by Mignonne La Chapelle. He was 12 when shot to death by a Cleveland policeman who fired within seconds of his cop car arriving on the scene. Tamir was holding a plastic toy gun, menacing no one.
Of the two portraits by Tankersley—one of Michael Brown shot to death by a Ferguson, Mo. policeman—the joyful face of Hattie Carroll, wearing what looks to be her Sunday best ladies church hat, bright pink, evokes a tragic irony. As a barmaid, she was clubbed to death by a Charles County drunk at Baltimore’s long-gone Emerson Hotel.
Other paintings incorporate bits of text, including that of George Floyd by Sara Linda Poly. It bears the words, “When George was young he said I want to touch the world,” to which was added as an epitaph, “and so he has.” One of two Philando Castille portraits is Laura Kapolchok’s framed by the inscription “Son father friend cousin. Honor student mentor.”
A local teenager who died in 2018 at the hands of police is Anton Black of Greensboro. While many of the victims painted here appear to relive happier times, Lori Yates captures him in a pensive mood, almost as if anticipating trouble ahead.
The one piece that’s not strictly a painting is a collage by Maire McArdle of Stephon Clark. Among the images, besides that of his face, is a reference to a helicopter pilot who directed cops to his location and mistakenly reported that Clark was pointing a weapon. He held a cell phone instead.
Meanwhile, an accordionist provided unobtrusive background music suitable for muffled conversation through masked mouths. Ordinarily, there might have been refreshments and finger food, as customary at art gallery openings. But buffet-style noshing is out of the question as long as COVID-19 prevails.
The show, however, is likely to reappear, Tankersley says. “All the artists I contacted after the first Black Lives Matter rally in Easton on May 30 were eager to jump right in. Now we’re looking to take the show to Dorchester in September.”
Although the portraits are not for sale, certain galleries, she acknowledged, might take on such a newsworthy show to draw potential customers to other art that carries a price tag.
Steve Parks is a retired journalist, art writer and editor now living in Easton.