February 7, 2020 | By Jake-ann Jones
Visions by Carrie Mae Weems and Amy Sherald
Exploration of artists and their work kicks off
The Curious Collector: A Conversation Café with Celeste Davis
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The Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum and Celeste Davis kicked off The Curious Collector series on Saturday, January 25, with an event focusing on two impactful African American artists.
Colored People: Visions by Carrie Mae Weems and Amy Sherald was Davis’ inaugural presentation of what Woodson director Terri Lipsey-Scott announced would be a monthly event. With a pre-talk period that allowed guests to gather their coffee and pastries, the room was filled by the time Davis began — and as more people continued to file in, seats were added.
Celeste Davis was the mastermind and host of the event. She holds an MFA from George Washington University and a certificate in Fine Art and Furniture Appraisal from NYU — and her passion for, and love of, the transformative and transcendent nature of art was evident in her almost reverent tone toward the two artists.
“I had volunteered at the Woodson in many capacities over many years — putting out chairs, cleaning up after events, curating events, hanging exhibits, lots of things. And in the course of that work, I’ve always enjoyed and valued the conversations that happen within these walls that extend out into the garden,” shares Davis.
It was those conversations, says Davis, that sparked the idea for the series — discussions “about the artwork and what that artwork actually means to us as a race, as a culture, what does it say about us as a community,” that led her to want to create a “mechanism” for those conversations to happen.
The community experience and sharing, in other words, adds to the experience. The selected art topics, for Davis, provide way to ponder our own experiences and existence. “I think that’s what artwork does when it’s done really well. It gives us insights into who we are,” she muses. “I titled it ‘The Curious Collector’ because it’s art that then stimulates us to be curious.”
She began her presentation with a quote from Henry David Thoreau that prepared the audience for what came next: “The question is not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
She then passed out sheets of paper — with spaces allotted for personal responses at the beginning and the end of the talk — assuring audience members, “This is not a test… you will not have to share!” Davis then asked viewers to look at two slide images and write down a few words for each.
On the left was an image from award-winning photographer Carrie Mae Weems’ Kitchen Table series, of a woman and man seated together.
On the right, a portrait by painter Amy Sherald, the artist who painted First Lady Michelle Obama’s official portrait at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The portrait in the slide Davis showed was titled The Boy With No Past.
Davis began her talk with a little history on Weems, who was living in Massachusetts between 1988 and 1990. “After work every day she took pictures of herself around her kitchen table,” explained Davis. “What was so revolutionary about the Kitchen Table series is that it was the first time that an African American woman had taken the opportunity to not let someone tell her own story, but boldly tell her own story.”
Davis related that, as the kitchen symbolizes the center of family, Weems explored universal relationships with herself and others through her staged photos that are illuminated by one large overhanging light and simple props.
Davis also showed a short film about Weems and presented 20 slides that make up the Kitchen Table series. “As a curious collector, there’s always that question out there that everyone wants to know — how much?” Davis smiled as the slide show ended. “This painting sold for $70,000,” she informed viewers, noting one of Weems’ untitled images from the series.
She then moved on to talk about artist Amy Sherald. “What is the Amy Sherald effect? I went to the Portrait Gallery and I saw the painting of Mrs. Obama,” Davis explained.
‘I had seen it online and I had seen it in print — but nothing prepared me for seeing the piece face-to-face. There was something powerful and moving in the image.”
Recalling the numerous articles about the little African American girl who couldn’t pull herself away from the Michelle Obama portrait, Davis acknowledged, “I know what she was feeling.”
“I have to be honest, when they first showed the portrait, I thought, ‘why?’” she continued — referring to Sherald’s hallmark of painting skin tones in shades of gray. “I didn’t understand it, I didn’t get it.”
“But when I saw the portrait up close, and then I began to read about Amy Sherald, and look more deeply at the work she does, my appreciation for her and her work grew profoundly. It’s really amazing,” stated Davis.
After showing a short film about Sherald, Davis discussed Sherald’s choice to use grayscale for African skin, pointing out the painter’s decision to attempt to “take race out of the conversation.”
“The skin color can sometimes get in the way of us being able to see each other as people. So, her way of dealing with that, is not to deal with it,” Davis noted, referring Sherald’s choice to focus on her model’s features, hair and clothing — allowing you to see their portrait without immediately taking in their skin color. “I think that is a very powerful technique that she has perfected.”
Davis ended by stating she feels both artists create work that has a timeless quality — which adds to their superlative ability to impact viewers.
Celeste Davis will be back with another installment of The Curious Collector on February 22 from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson Museum.
The topic of the conversation café will be, Celebrating Black History Month by way of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, focusing on the world-renowned quilts that have come out that community.
The Carter G. Woodson Museum is located in
St. Petersburg’s historic Deuces neighborhood,
on the African American Heritage Trail.
The museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 12-5 pm or by appointment — and open late the second Saturday of every month from 5-9 pm for ArtWalk.