July 7, 2020 | By Jake-ann Jones
A Conversation with Artist & Writer Gary L. Lemons
How his work inspired the upcoming film REFLECTIONS
July 14 at 8 pm
On Tuesday, July 14, The Studio@620 kicks off an expansion of their Social Justice Round-table series with a presentation of REFLECTIONS, a video performance with multiple collaborators. REFLECTIONS combines song, written word and African drumming — all inspired by the paintings of Dr. Gary L. Lemons.
Looking at Lemons’ vibrant, colorful paintings, it’s immediately clear how they would demand an evening of expression – and in fact, offer a limitless number of landscapes to “reflect” on. Lemons has created a name that captures the entire body and theme of his work: MYAFRIKA-ART.
Describing his work for a 2017 Carter G. Woodson exhibition, Lemons wrote, “MYAFRIKA-ART offers insight into my own personal vision of creative spiritual transformation. My artistic longing has always been to connect to my cultural history rooted in African principles of color, shape, patterns and designs that are as old as the creative Spirit of humankind.” Lemons noted that the unifying idea in his paintings is “the power of movement within a context of geometric configurations.”
That dynamic quality of movement pulses outward from Lemons’ work, inducing an almost rhythmic seduction – his use of circles, curves and angles pull the viewer into a canvas that feels both ancient and contemporary.
A self-described “abstractionist,” Lemons shares, “The boldness I bring together in my paintings — as an ‘African’ American artist — challenges viewers of my work to take a deeper look into that which I seek to represent.
“My desire is that each viewer comprehends the meaning of the colors, shapes and patterns in ways that speak to the liberating power of Black artistry.”
And considering the current heightened awareness regarding violence committed on Black bodies, Lemons states, “Even in this contemporary moment of visual, racialized trauma, I maintain that in my paintings in REFLECTIONS, Black lives not only still matter, but are still artistically beautiful.”
The idea to develop a theatrical presentation of that beauty came about when Lemons and his wife – actor, writer and director Fanni Green – invited songstress Sharon Scott and 620’s artistic director Bob Devin Jones to lunch. The afternoon spent sharing “(her)stories and (his)tories” led to the vision of creating a video performance based on the stunning visual energy of Lemons’ paintings. It was Scott, Lemons acknowledges, who suggested calling the event REFLECTIONS.
“I personally witnessed the visionary power of Black artists joining and communing together,” Lemons adds. “That day, we felt the Spirit of art in the room.”
The project ultimately came together to weave the music created by Scott and master drummer Papa Malik Faye around five of Lemons’ paintings. Poetic expression by Jones and Studio@620 artist-in-residence Erica Sutherlin along with performances by Green round out the video presentation.
A full professor of English at USF, Lemons has himself won acclaim for his writing, which melds the academic and theoretical, personal and cultural, critical and spiritual. In 2019, two of his books were published – Building Womanist Coalitions: Writing and Teaching in the Spirit of Love (University of Illinois Press) and Hooked on the Art of Love: Bell Hooks and My Calling for Soul-Work (BookLocker).
Other publications include Black Male Outsider, a Memoir: Teaching as a Pro-Feminist Man (SUNY Press, 2008), Womanist Forefathers, Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois (SUNY Press, 2009), Feminist Solidarity at the Crossroads: Intersectional Women’s Studies for Transracial Alliance (Routledge 2012), and Caught Up in the Spirit! Teaching for Womanist Liberation (Nova Science Publishers 2017).
Being a multidisciplinary artist himself, Lemons explains, “I believe that art should inspire all individuals to connect to the creative gifts the Creator has given all of us — whether they be through our voices, our physical movement, our writing, and/or our hands – to envision that which lies beyond the limits of visual perception.”
Lemons says he uses mirrors and other two-dimensional forms and mixed media in his work to “bring the one-dimensional surface of the canvas to life.”
“Mirrors in my paintings allow viewers to become a part of the art itself. My paintings perform to connect to all people — across differences of race/ethnicity, gender, class, sexuality, generation, abilities, religions and nation-state affiliation (in and beyond the U.S.).”
His intention to spur viewers to reach outward and find universal connections are evident in his painting Let Love Lead.
Multicolored hands decorated by buttons of various shapes extend across a blue-sky-world.
The use of buttons conjures something that feels
familiar and historical – maybe harkening back
to Lemons’ own childhood in Arkansas. Or, maybe reminding the viewer of something in their own
personal herstory/history. The buttons seem to tell us: “Connect. Find what is shared. Touch. Go beyond.”
“Art should challenge us to see beyond the material world — opening us up to the place of imaginative realization. It is in this place we begin to see worlds of creative power we have never witnessed before,” Lemons shares.
Lemons continues to paint, teach and write, balancing the demands of all three while firmly grounded in a gratitude and acknowledgment to a higher power
“Art allows us to be present in these new worlds where we can live in, love freely and lavish joyfully in the creative inspiration of Divine calling” he muses. “Through the Creator’s gifts of imaginative power — our mind, body and spirit unite in one to express the inexpressible across all our differences.”
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