Artists Take Public To School With Social Issues Exhibition in Beckley
Robby Moore usually doesn’t put his work in exhibits he curates. But this time he had something he felt he needed to express. Moore’s the executive director of the Beckley Art Center (BAC.)
“My whole life I've experienced sort of a silent racism,” Moore said. “Some of that is because we think of the civil rights movement in the distant past but it’s really close. My parents went to segregated high schools. I still live in a neighborhood that for many of my friends and neighbors when I tell them where I live you get a certain look and sometimes it goes beyond the look they just simply express that that’s ‘the bad part of town.
“I’ve lived here for 41 years and I think it’s a very nice part of town. It’s my home.”
The BAC's Dan and Cynthia Bickey Art Gallery is hosting the Social Studies exhibition. He says it’s meant to bring deep, thoughtful conversation about social studies and social justice.
“We have pieces that address mountaintop removal, poverty, women’s rights, voting, censorship, gun violence, racism and the Black Lives Matter movement,” Moore said.
The exhibition includes 14 West Virginia artists and one artist from Virginia/Pennsylvania. Some of the work was inspired during the pandemic, like finding something to do with all of the plastic bags that seemed to accumulate in homes across the country.
“Normally, I would go physically to the store and use reusable bags,” said artist and Tamarack Foundation programming manager Domenica Queen. “Because I wanted to stay out of the stores and not only protect myself, but also not add my risk factors to the situation. I ended up ordering, curbside pickup groceries pretty regularly. There were plastic bags coming in from that.”
She’s also an artist who creates with paint. During the lockdown of the pandemic, she felt uninspired so she sat down her paint brushes and picked up the Appalachian tradition of rug hooking with a modern, plastic, twist. Instead of using fabric, Queen used plastic in her rugs.
“You might not consider it, but art supplies do get kind of pricey,” Queen said. “It's really fun to be able to be really exuberant with my use of the material. I don't have to be conservative. I don't have to think, ‘well, I'm gonna have to buy another tube of paint or another canvas.’ I mean, it's trash. I'm playing with trash, so there's no waste that's going to happen.”
Queen learned the technique from fellow artist Susan Feller. Feller says it’s a forgivable craft.
“Take my five minute lesson in how to use the hook and go with it,” Feller said. “I don't care what fabric you use, use plastic bags for all I care.”
Feller uses rug-hooking pieces to create what she calls an honest view of her surroundings in West Virginia.
“I think there's a beautiful story to tell with our natural surroundings,” Feller said. “We live here in the Appalachian in the Potomac Highlands. I look out on a forest. So it's gorgeous.
“But as we're driving on the manmade highways that go scenically, we see the windmills and the turbine and that type of utility. We see the coal processing and down in the lower part of the state, certainly the mountaintop removal. Those things are just subtle awareness for people traveling through as tourists. But I do know that all of us live amongst it and are in conflict.”
Some of Feller’s work is also part of the “Social Studies” exhibition at the Beckley Arts Center. The framed pieces of carefully hooked fabric might look pretty, but the title has a much deeper story. It’s called “Mountaintop Removal Puzzle.”
Feller, like Moore and other artists in this showcase, hopes to create conversations around these social issues.
Domenica Queen hopes those conversations include questions.
“I’m not really looking for people to have a certain interpretation,” Queen said. “I’m just trying to fill their head with questions. Is that plastic? What was that before? Why did they make those shapes?
“I mostly want people to have questions because questions are really more useful than answers most of the time, especially when you're talking about hoping for change. Change only comes through asking questions.”
The artists shared some photos of their work for this story, but they suggest visiting the gallery to experience this exhibit and take in all of the textures -- in person -- to get a better appreciation for the show.
The exhibition will be up through June 19 in Beckley.