art

Tyler Calpin Completes His First Solo Show as an Artist by Alex Young

Tyler Calpin standing in front of his pieces part of the “Searching for Jenny” exhibit at Social Status on Jan. 25, 2019. | photographs by Alex Young

Tyler Calpin standing in front of his pieces part of the “Searching for Jenny” exhibit at Social Status on Jan. 25, 2019. | photographs by Alex Young

Mid-show, he stops the conversation to cross the room and adjust one of his art pieces that shifted out of position from the significant crowd moving about the exhibit. Tyler Calpin was living out his dream of achieving his first solo show at a relevant destination for culture and community in Pittsburgh, the Social Status streetwear boutique. “It’s very surreal right now,” he described his emotions.

Inside the shop’s Downtown location last Friday, Jan. 25, 2019, Slim Tha DJ spun records for the young audience of artists and tastemakers supporting Calpin in his moment. Calpin showed “Searching for Jenny,” a photography exhibition dedicated to his hometown Youngstown, Ohio.

“Jenny” was the name of the last working blast furnace in the United States of America. The steel industry was vital to Youngstown’s economy and once it was shut down on September 19, 1977 it left a financial depression in the city. “There’s still a lot of stuff left over from it in terms of architecture or structures that are remaining that were around from that time,” Calpin said of the deteriorating, midwestern factory settings he photographed for his art. Calpin’s great-great and great-grandfathers worked in the Youngstown Steel mills. The work in “Searching for Jenny” connects Calpin to his family roots. Though his images focus on a past dead and gone, the colorful collage aspects to his art breathe life back into the buildings and parts that were lively about the Youngstown community before.

Honestly, Calpin is grateful for being able to leave Youngstown for Pittsburgh and add something to the culture here. While he’s doing his job at Social Status literally as a sales associate, the Pittsburgh transplant is also aware of the opportunities he has at the business platform to advance his own brand.

“For me, it’s just bringing people in and furthering the idea of community,” he said. It feels that way when potential customers walk in feeling welcomed, observing the sales associates, who are often local movers and shakers like Tyler Calpin or rapper My Favorite Color, openly converse about contemporary culture. “Whether it’s through fashion, sneakers or art… It started for me through skateboarding,” he explained. “All of these communities, as I’ve gown older, I can see how they all blend in a lot of ways.” Calpin’s location at Social Status makes him a familiar face when it comes to linking with other artists in these various scenes. “It shows people that we’re accessible and that we’re human,” he said. Calpin made the decision to utilize the shop for his artwork once he saw his college peer and fellow photographer Sharimar Cruz display her work there.

I think consistency is important in photography whether it’s pictures of yourself or consistency in your content.
— Tyler Calpin

Now, Calpin makes it work for himself in a “do-able” climate that’s not too busy or overwhelming like in big markets such as Los Angeles or New York. He meets his goals in Pittsburgh by “building genuine relationships, being yourself, and being consistent around those people,” he said. One of the relationships he’s continued to cultivate is with rapper Choo Jackson of ForeverKool Records. Calpin shot cover art, and merchandise looks for Choo. Next, he worked on Choo’s “Anime 2” album art with another artist Travis Carter. “I like to work with people who trust my ideas wholeheartedly,” Calpin said. “Be on the lookout for ‘Anime 2’ because that shit’s about to be fire,” he promoted.

Calpin wants to be known as “The King of the Midwest” stressing the value in regional notoriety rather than the coolness you get from being internationally or nationally recognized. With features in more shows, like those at Artists Image Resource gallery on the North Side on February 15 and April 12, he looks to expand to other cities like Chicago or Philadelphia. “I just want to keep producing work at the highest level possible,” he finished.

Tyler Calpin behind the sales counter at Social Status | photograph by Alex Young   Read the transcript of Tyler Calpin’s interview below.

Tyler Calpin behind the sales counter at Social Status | photograph by Alex Young

Read the transcript of Tyler Calpin’s interview below.


InTheRough: You have the infamous selfie mirror over there. Please talk about that energy.

Tyler Calpin: So, I started taking the mirror pics everyday just to show off what I was wearing and to show people I was in the store. See if I could bring people in through my Instagram, which sounds so corny. It became one of those things that people started to respond to it. I was like oh this is actually kinda fun. It’s something I can do consistently. I think consistency is important in photography whether it’s pictures of yourself or consistency in your content. It was just one of those things. As soon as people would come in the store and tell me, “Oh, I saw your pic. I saw you were here. Oh, that’s a dope fit.” I was like okay I gotta keep doing this everyday. The daily fit pic (laughs).

ITR: How do you try to use your role at Social Status to further your brand?

Calpin: Ultimately, I’m just a sales associate, so I’m just here to help customers and make sales. For me, it’s just bringing people in and furthering the idea of community whether it’s through fashion, sneakers or art. That’s really important to me because all of those things are tied together in a lot of ways. It started for me through skateboarding. All of these communities, as I’ve gown older, I can see how they all blend in a lot of ways and how they take things from each other to kind of further itself. I always use the example of “clout bags.” You know, the shoulder bags. People in skateboarding were using those two or three years before hypebeasts or anyone like that.

ITR: Before rappers.

Calpin: Yeah, it’s something you can throw your camera, a bottle of water, your phone or your wallet in. Sling it across your back and just go.

Basically, my role here is bring people around and get them hip to shopping here. For me, I’ve always wanted to work here since I came to Pittsburgh. I bought my first Bape tee here. I was hooked. Being able to do that for other people makes me feel very validated in a lot of ways, which is crazy to say just working a retail job, but making someone happy through a material good is super awesome.

ITR: It feels like the new-age barbershop in here. You guys are in here choppin’ it up and when you come in that’s really happening.

Calpin: That’s how it is and that’s what’s really important to me. I want people to feel like they can come in here and just say hi and hang out for a little bit. Have a conversation whether it’s about personal things or they want to chop it up about the culture, sneakers or whatever. That’s basically what we’re here for and that’s what’s really important to me. It shows people that we’re accessible and that we’re human.

[Playboi Carti’s “Yah Mean” plays in the background.]

ITR: How does it feel to achieve a goal? That goal being your first solo art show at Social Status because you’ve been striving for this for a couple years.

Images from Youngstown, Ohio by Tyler Calpin

View more work at his “@lil35mm” Instagram handle.

Calpin: It was one of the first things when I was living in a dorm room at Point Park [University] and I started coming here and being able to look at this stuff I couldn’t afford it then but it was so nice to be able and come and look and not feel like I wasn’t welcome here. Once I started to see they were part of the gallery crawl and it doubled as a space that was not only for sneakers and fashion culture, but for art as well it was important for me to get my work and myself in here. What really inspired me was seeing Shar [Sharimar Cruz] do her work here. She went to Point Park and I was in classes with her. Seeing how accessible it was to people that are around in the Downtown area, but Pittsburgh in general. I came here, I saw what I could do, and I set out to get that goal. It took longer than I wanted it to, but that’s how things go sometimes.

ITR: Yeah, time.

Calpin: Time is really important. Believe me, when I was 17 years old, I would’ve loved to have solo shows. But I didn’t have the knowledge. I didn’t have the resources. I didn’t have any idea of what it really took. Now, five years later I’m 22 years old and I have that knowledge. I have those resources and I have the capabilities and the ability to cultivate the opportunities to make those kind of things happen. Being able to have my first solo show here means a lot to me. It was that first place that really struck me I was like, “I gotta do it.” It’s very surreal right now. Seeing it on the walls is just crazy right now.

ITR: What does it mean to debut “Searching for Jenny” in Pittsburgh? Obviously you go to school here and you lived close by being from Youngstown. When’s the first time you saw Pittsburgh as an opportunity?

Calpin: I would say I saw Pittsburgh as an opportunity the second I started coming here. My friend Ben and I would come out on random Saturdays. We would come out when it’s this cold outside. For the record, it’s like single digits right now. We would come out we’d go to the South Side. Go to the skate shop. Get Primanti Bros. Go to the Strip District. Stuff like that. It just seemed like one of those cities that it was do-able. It’s bigger than Youngstown, but it’s not like L.A. or New York where things are so overwhelming or super busy. Once I got to Pittsburgh in 2015, I started to see people who I was close with getting opportunities. I was friends with a lot of the juniors and seniors when I was a freshman. That was when they started to get their solo shows and group shows and their opportunities. As soon as I started to see it work for other people, I knew it could work for me too. All it took was talking to the right people and being genuine. If I could tell myself that years ago, I would run with that information. Truthfully. If all I knew it took was building genuine relationships, being yourself, and being consistent around those people…

ITR: That’s the big part about it.

Calpin: Yeah, it’s really important to continue to cultivate those opportunities. It goes back to that community that we have here. When people stop in once or twice a week that’s awesome. We have people that come in if they’re Downtown they’ll stop in just to say hi. That’s really important because those are people that I know that care about us as human beings and they know we’re something more than just sales associates. We’re human beings and creatives as well. When people can see that about you and they’re more interested in your personal life than what they can get out of you at the store, that’s really important.

ITR: What’s your ultimate goal?

Calpin: My goal is to keep doing this shit man. I just want to keep producing work at the highest level possible whether that’s conceptually or just producing a lot of things. I have my hands in a ton of stuff right now. I want to keep it that way. I just want to keep it moving and see where it takes me because that’s what got me going in the first place and that’s going to keep me afloat. Ultimately, my goal is to keep doing shows whether it’s a group show or a solo show. Ideally, I want to be the king of the Midwest. I want my work to be known in a region. Being national and international is so cool, but that takes a lot of time. My goal after Pittsburgh is going to somewhere like Chicago or Philadelphia. I want to do some stuff in Cleveland and especially in the Youngstown area. I do plan to show this work in the Youngstown area because it would be so stupid to not show it there. Not only do I want the people of the area to see it and appreciate it, but I just want them to see someone from Youngstown started there, went somewhere else, did something with their life, and is paying it forward in a lot of ways. I’d like to see myself curate shows as well. That’s something that I do like to do. But, yeah, I just want to expand regionally before I start to make the jump nationally or internationally.

ITR: What’s your role with Reviving Real?

Calpin: Specifically with Reviving Real, I do a lot of the photography work almost all of the photography work. You know, just pushing the product and getting people hip to the idea that we’re not only a clothing brand, but we’re a media platform at this point. The clothing is more like merchandise to the platform We do artists’ spotlights, blog posts, and we just partnered with Matt’s Music Mine. I know he’s a great journalist so that merging of music and journalism and culture it’s really important. We make promotional videos. We help people build electronic press kits. People that are looking to expand how they advertise themselves and what they do whether it’s through music, photography or art. We help people get the resources to make those things happen. We also consult people. We’ll sit down and have a conversation with you for a small fee. That knowledge is so valuable. What’s 50 bucks for a two-hour conversation that could turn into 500 or a thousand dollars in two months if you really use that to your advantage.

Alex Young (left) and Tyler Calpin (right) in front of the infamous fit pic mirror at Social Status. | photograph by Tyler Calpin

Alex Young (left) and Tyler Calpin (right) in front of the infamous fit pic mirror at Social Status. | photograph by Tyler Calpin

ITR: How else do you plan to add to the Pittsburgh culture. You’ve worked with people in the scene like rapper Choo Jackson or you’ve done lookbooks for brands like vintage shop Senseless. How will you continue to use yourself as a resource to the community?

Calpin: Keep doing stuff like that to be honest with you. I don’t like to close myself off from people, but I like to work with people who are genuine, believe in me, and trust my ideas wholeheartedly. Keep doing work with people that trust me to come to the table with ideas knowing that I can produce it and make it a reality. People that are open to me and don’t think my prices are too high and understand why they are that why. I don’t ask for what I ask for just because I have bills to pay. It’s the level of the work that you’re going to receive. I’m not trying to be full of myself. You know what you’re going to get for that price and it’s not going to be some bottom of the barrel shit. You can find someone that’s gonna do it for 50 bucks and it’s gonna look like it’s 50 bucks. If I’m asking 300 or 400 dollars it’s going to look like a three or 400 dollar job. I’m not going to put 20 minutes into it. I’m going to make it my life for a week and a half if I have to to make it the product you want. If we have to go back to the drawing board, then so be it. I want people to be happy with what they receive from me, but also happy with what they’re paying for. I like to sit down with people in a pre-production meeting and talk about the ideas before we even touch a camera or open up my computer and start doing things. I’m very into that idea of making sure I deliver a product that my clients are happy with.

ITR: Respect. There’s nothing wrong with knowing your worth.

Calpin: I don’t know if I can say this, but I did do the “Anime 2” cover in a collab with another artist. His name is Travis Carter. Choo hit me up with idea and was like, “Hey I really want to use your collage style,” and I was like yeah, let’s do it. That’s something that I’ve done for him before. It’s obviously something that people respond to. I made the collage. I sent it off to Travis. He did some things with it and all I have to say is the final product looks really dope. So be on the lookout for “Anime 2” because that shit’s about to be fire.

[Tara Fay, a Social Status manager, offers Tyler Calpin dessert humus.]

ITR: Can you briefly touch on the color in your work?

Calpin: You know, basically, I’m ripping these structures a part in an area that feels slightly deteriorated and it’s not the way it used to be. A lot of things have changed since the steel industry left. There’s still a lot of stuff left over from it in terms of architecture or structures that are remaining that were around from that time, but there may not be a business in it. So, I photograph these structures. By cutting them at these really important seams, that’s why a lot of it is cut at the corners or where things start to intersect, I pull them a part there and I put the color behind it to in essence to breathe life back into it. I feel like color is one of those things it’s very lively. So many of the colors I’ve chosen are really vibrant.

Opening—Brother Where Art Thou—a Portrait Exhibition by Vanessa Dos Santos by Maxwell Young

Arriving in Chocolate City over a year ago, multi-disciplinary artist Vanessa Dos Santos asked herself, “Where are the people from this area? Where are all the black people?”

Photograph by  Vanessa Dos Santos  | Flyer by Maxwell Young

Photograph by Vanessa Dos Santos | Flyer by Maxwell Young

The Mozambican-born, D.C. transplant has answered her own question through her photography exhibition, Brother, Where Art Thou? Opening at The Village Cafe this Tuesday, Santos’ portraits focus on a number of black male artists within the District’s creative ecosystem whose work she has come to know and admire. From performance artist Maps Glover to producers Jamal Gray and Tony Cruise, her subjects represent an experimental aspect of black art that is overlooked by those who consume it with mainstream palettes.

“I think oftentimes with black arts, there is an expectancy of the kind of work we put out that can pigeonhole us,” she said. “I feel like a lot of the men I’ve photographed want to push that.”

Santos herself notes a similar compartmentalization of her own narrative. Originally in school for writing, submitting works to publications like Gal-Dem and Napizium, as well as pursuing acting with the National Youth Theater, the 26-year old acknowledges that she is still learning the tricks of the photography trade.

“I think it’s sometimes hard to admit or tell people I do photography because there is such a large influx of photographers. So, if I’m going to tell people I am one I feel like I need to know everything,” she explained.

Regardless of the technicalities involved with her craft, Santos has an eye for composition. She’s recently been toying with edits reminiscent of the double exposure process. In the photo below on the far left, which is actually two separate shots, she captures herself and friend Sami Cola dressed in nothing but wigs, crouched in an unknown grove. The contrast of Santos’ black body overlaid on Cola’s white body is immediately evident, yet their technicolored wigs and their bare exposure to nature allude to this sense of freedom that trumps any symbolism of race.

We asked her about her first upcoming solo exhibition below.

InTheRough: What camera do you shoot with?

Vanessa Dos Santos: I mix between my two cameras: Canon AE-1 and Mamiya 645. For this series I used my Mamiya, which is a medium format camera.


ITR: DC by way of Mozambique...is there anywhere else that you lived that was formative in your creative evolution?


VDS: Every place I lived in has formed my creativity in some way. I feel like my creativity is a huge part of how I understand myself so it’s natural for it to be shaped by the different places I go, if that makes sense. I have lived in New York, Maputo, Berlin, Paris, London and now DC. I think London was the most formative city for me. It’s where I learnt to fail and start again and where I started picking up different things. I was studying writing in school, but acting with the National Youth Theatre, writing for online publications, starting to photograph friends, and work various production jobs.


ITR: Other than their ethnicity, what are the common threads between your subjects?

VDS: Everyone I have photographed does something creative. I have kind of been a wallflower and watched on the side lines some of things people have been doing and admired the tenacity of everyone’s work. Especially because a lot of the artists create sort of experimental work and I think oftentimes with black artists there is an expectancy of the kind of work we put out that can pigeonhole us. I feel like a lot of the men I’ve photographed want to push that. I also think being an artist is to be vulnerable all the time, and I think we don’t think that way about black men very much—as being vulnerable or open.

ITR: Why did you feel compelled to show these series of portraits?

VDS: I wanted to show this work because when I moved to DC I didn’t really know much about the arts community and I also mostly met people from other cities who migrated here. I was asking myself where are the people who are from this area, where are all the black people? This is chocolate city? I guess it was more of not knowing where to look, but I think that also says something that it took me a year to find out about the creative community and the POC who are a part of it.

A portrait of Tony Cruise & an untitled photograph by Vanessa Dos Santos.

A portrait of Tony Cruise & an untitled photograph by Vanessa Dos Santos.

ITR: As you look through the lens what are your next proceeding thoughts? 

VDS: First I try to make sure my settings are right—technical stuff. When I am photographing someone, I hope to capture an essence of the person. I think about about how I can make them feel comfortable. So, I’m usually thinking what pose can I do to get them to feel a bit more relaxed and not so tense. Then hopefully we can start to feel at ease with each other and we can “play” around a bit.

ITR: Are there any photographers who’s work you follow consistently? 

VDS: There are so many photographers that I look to for inspiration: Ronan McKenzie, Rosie Matheson, Travis Matthews, Charlotte Rea, Daniel Arnold, Nakeya Brown to name a few (all you can find on Instagram). I really appreciate photographers that are telling a story through their work. I think a lot of photography we find online is strongly linked to consumerism—and you can find amazing images but it’s about selling something. So I appreciate photographers who tell stories and capture magical moments just because. But I also like cinematographer’s that have a photographer’s eye. I like photos that are cinematic, like they feel like a scene of a film—like there is life before and after the moment you captured.

ITR: You yourself are a self-taught photographer. What aspect(s) of photography are you still learning?

VDS: I’m still learning a lot. Technically, I still make mistakes. I want to learn how to scan my own photos and get back into using a dark room for B&W photography. But I also think I’m learning to trust my own eye, to believe in myself as an artist. I think it’s sometimes hard to admit or tell people I do photography because there is such a large influx of photographers. So, if I’m going to tell people I am one I feel like I need to know everything. I’m trying not to be so hard on myself and enjoy the process of learning and changing.

ITR: What advice would you give to other self-starters?

VDS: The advice I would give to self-starters is to start by asking how to use the camera you have or searching online (Youtube is great). Know your camera and then start shooting as much as you can—first with close friends and family. Then you can shoot people you don’t necessarily know--because if you want to do it professionally, you will have shoot models, couples, weddings, events with people you have never met and it becomes easier for you to figure out how to direct others or to capture moments. I would also say ask other photographers questions, go to photo exhibitions, immerse yourself in the world--but I think that goes with most things you want to pursue.

ITR: Where else can we find your work?

VDS: I’m going to be working on a website for my photography and writing, but for now you can find me on Instagram: @mozwrites. I post everything there but 2019 I want to start actually sending work to publications and taking it more seriously.

Brother, Where Art Thou? by Vanessa Dos Santos is on view at The Village Cafe starting Tuesday evening.

The Village Cafe

1272 5th St, NE

7-10pm

**Photographs taken by Vanessa Dos Santos. The edited image pictured in the carousel was also assisted by Sami Cola.

Nate Gski's 'Uptown Story' Comic Serves as a Time Capsule for D.C. by Maxwell Young

Across four issues, Nate G has transmuted his Northwest, Washington, D.C. experience into a fantasized world populated with your favorite hometown musicians, wielding superhuman powers.

The artistic talents of some members of the DMV’s music community have been reinterpreted into super powers by Nate G.

The artistic talents of some members of the DMV’s music community have been reinterpreted into super powers by Nate G.

Uptown Story is a comic series started by Nathaniel Benneton Gray, who was first introduced to InTheRough as an emcee. After purchasing several sketches as well as a t-shirt from his Niga line, the label “rapper” merely scratches the surface of Nate G’s creativity. The artist who has “UPTOWN” tatted on his belly, is time-stamping the people and the places who have contextualized the D.C. he’s known, lived, and loved.

“If I had a camera, a budget, and some actors, I would make this a movie,” he said, addressing the group of people gathered at Shopkeepers in October to learn more about the narrative of his comics. “But I have something better. I have my pen and my imagination.”

Although volumes are accessible via Instagram, Nate G presented a number of large-scale versions in the basement of the cafe/retail space on Florida Avenue. The vivid comic panels were reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s 1963 series, Flash, which chronicled the assassination of John F. Kennedy through screen prints of photographs and texts pulled from various news publications. Patrons took their time reading each piece, the stories developing as they advanced around the room.

Cap’n Uptown is the main protagonist throughout the series.  A sketch by Gray of an omnipotent God and Nubian angels descending a cherub from heaven into the D.C. streets birthed the idea of Uptown Story.  Illustrated shirtless with a red cape, golden bracelets, rings, chains, and the same “UPTOWN” tattoo that Nate bares, the superhero evokes images of X-Men  characters, Static Shock, Mr. T, Luke Cage, and of Gray himself.

“It feels like Saturday morning cartoons,” he said of his comics.

Pittsburgh by way of D.C. transplant  Babyteeth  drawn on a comic panel of Nate G’s Uptown Story. Displayed at Shopkeepers; Photograph by Maxwell Young

Pittsburgh by way of D.C. transplant Babyteeth drawn on a comic panel of Nate G’s Uptown Story. Displayed at Shopkeepers; Photograph by Maxwell Young

This sentiment is particularly evident in the way Nate composes scenes and expresses the underlying tones within Uptown Story.  In one of his panels at Shopkeepers, Cap’n Uptown and Afrovelvet, a long-time friend and frequent collaborator of Gray’s, are pit against one another in a heated tennis match before a surprise missile attack interrupts their set, and they have to spring into action.  Nate creates this drama because the reader is distracted by the intense level of competition we perceive that he depicts through command of angles and depth.  Moreover, the suspense is drawn out as the volumes end with cliff-hanging questions that harken back to the manner in which Dragon Ball-Z and other anime comics begin stories “en media res,” or, in the middle of things.

It is important Uptown Story reflects the culture and flavor of Washington, D.C., which is why Nate G draws people like Mista Selecta and Babyteeth encountering evil villains at places like the Uptown Theater—a landmark in the Cleveland Park neighborhood.  In a way, these Uptown Story volumes canonize the creative individuals, institutions, and identities that have contributed to District culture—from the vernacular to the Foamposites.

“There are small D.C. things I try to make that are very D.C.,” he said.

Uptown Story has invigorated Gray’s artistic output as a whole—the drawing and music-making now informing one another.  Not only are his latest EP covers self-illustrated, but he wants to tie the visual representation of Cap’n Uptown into a sonic one; Cap’n Uptown the album.  That’s what he’s refining these days.  In the first quarter of 2019, fans can expect a sensually immersive experience, consuming both Cap’n Uptown comics and Cap’n Uptown music.  Follow Uptown Story here and check out Nate G’s “Full Moon EP” here.

Transformer Auction Party - “Wherefore Art Thou, Olympus?” by Maxwell Young

Silhouettes of Ashley Shey (left) and Yacine Fall (right) during performance piece “Wherefore art thou, Olympus?” by Maps Glover at the 15th annual Transformer Auction Party. Photograph by Maxwell Young

Silhouettes of Ashley Shey (left) and Yacine Fall (right) during performance piece “Wherefore art thou, Olympus?” by Maps Glover at the 15th annual Transformer Auction Party. Photograph by Maxwell Young

Since mid-September, Maps Glover and Uptown Art House have been curating programs and experiences in conjunction with Transformer Gallery, a non-profit art studio in Logan Circle amplifying the work of burgeoning artists around the Washington, D.C. creative ecosystem. What began as a six-week exhibition dubbed What We Leave Behind: In the Name of Art, culminated in a final performance during Transformer’s 15th annual auction party on Saturday night.

"Wherefore art thou, Olympus?” was an exploratory piece considering the spectrum of value civilization has placed on black bodies and images. More specifically, “It was about reaching for an idealized sense of acceptance from white society,” said Jamal Gray, who was a part of the performing troupe.

Glover and Gray along with Yacine Fall, Ra Nubi, Ashley Shey, Sifu Sun, and Hipster Woods were clad in dark tunics and skirts, enshrouded by masks and headdresses made of metal wire. Fastened to a chain that ascended the temple-like steps of George Washington University’s Corcoran School of Art, the sextet moved up and down the grand staircase in tandem with one another, striking poses, tying one another up, and manipulating the chain with their bodies. It was a stark contrast to a predominantly white audience in a predominantly white space raising questions of what this performance was about.

Figuratively, this group of artists who debuted together in Uptown Art House’s audiovisual experience at The Kennedy Center last March, The Landing, transformed themselves into “black deities,” Glover explained, recounting his performance. Coupled with the neoclassical architecture of the Corcoran building, the piece alluded to the idea of white acceptance mentioned by Gray because of the white connotations associated with western mythology. Gods and goddesses represent the epitome of social constructs like beauty, power, and knowledge that black people have been historically disenfranchised from, whether through slavery, racism, or the erasure from history. It’s as if the masks and chains worn by the troupe symbolized the conformity and constraining that happens to black bodies as they navigate this white, western world.

“We can’t exist in this paradigm of America and not address it,” Gray said.

Oscar Cole pictured far right and members of Millennium Arts Salon. Polaroids by Maxwell Young

Oscar Cole pictured far right and members of Millennium Arts Salon. Polaroids by Maxwell Young

Oscar Cole, however, pictured on the far right, had a different perspective of the performance he witnessed at the auction party, telling me disapprovingly, “We must be aware of the images we project.”

Cole, who was sitting with several elder African American members of the Millennium Arts Salon, an organization promoting cultural literacy through art programming, was generations removed from the freedom of expression that he saw Saturday night. Born in 1943 in North Carolina, Cole fought for racial equality, participating in sit-ins. Cole is also an alumnus of Howard University and he also holds a PHD in psychology from the University of Michigan. He could not remove “Wherefore art thou, Olympus?” from his personal context in America—one of long-term resistance to oppression. He saw the six black bodies on the steps and he saw the chains they were bounded by and he was reminded of slavery, a topic in 1943 that could have close ties to his ancestral history. And in 2018 with President Trump condoning images of prejudice, Cole saw an insensitivity to the current times and intolerance minorities experience.

“We’re all slaves to something,” Ra Nubi told me after I shared with her Oscar’s story. “The idea of being a black woman, there’s a type of inescapable truth to what it is to be here and experience this black body. Just because I was born into this doesn’t necessarily mean that I claim it as my identity. However, showing these images is also reiterating a structure that people want to pacify. It’s like, ‘No, we can’t see this because it’s too painful.’ We triggered a sense of trauma in him. And I can understand why he believes that we shouldn’t, but it’s to make him feel comfortable and safe.”

But can black people make art that is devoid from racial context?

“To control the narrative fully, we have to know about the lighting, we have to know about the music, and we have to know about the entrance…” Gray finished.

Stay tuned to InTheRough for more developments on Uptown Art House’s theatrical productions headed into 2019.



‘Black Dove’ by Elijah Williamson, Perfectly Imperfect by Maxwell Young

Elijah WIlliamson stitches back ripped canvas of his “Aunt Jemima” portrait,  Black Dove.  Photographs by Ashley Llanes

Elijah WIlliamson stitches back ripped canvas of his “Aunt Jemima” portrait, Black Dove. Photographs by Ashley Llanes

What do you do when the oil portrait you’ve worked on for a year falls out of the back of a pickup truck, onto the highway, and rolled over by oncoming traffic?

For artist Elijah Williamson, that moment was just the beginning of a beautiful journey to his installation, Black Dove at Maps Glover’s exhibition, What We Leave Behind: In the Name of Arta six week endeavor that ended October 20 at Washington, D.C.’s Transformer Gallery.

Black Dove is a portrayal of “Aunt Jemima,” the matronly or mammy-figured black woman synonymous with thick, fluffy pancake batter and sugary syrup sold in any non-organic supermarket. 

“She,” as Williamson refers to his work, has an overwhelming pureness to her composition.  Jemima’s classic bonnet, usually plaid, is painted white while her brown face is bordered by more strokes of white, creating a stark contrast between light and dark.  The ear was a main focal point for the Corcoran College of Art and Design graduate.  In the decades that Aunt Jemima’s packaging has evolved, her ears have been omitted—stripped down perhaps for lack of necessity.  It’s as if  Williamson plucked this logo from his syrup bottle stashed in the cupboard and humanized “Aunt Jemima,” aggrandizing the black existences of Nancy Green & Anna Harrington whose likeness were manipulated by The Quaker Oats Company.

When you consider this exploitation—the allusion of Southern hospitality brought to you by the hot fixings of your loving ex-slave/negro cook—the rips, smudges, and tatters of the canvas, in a way, seem more fitting for a final piece than the clean, idyllic image Williamson had originally foreseen.

The commercial graphic designer spent the afternoon and evening of Glover’s final Saturday service in October stitching together the torn parts of canvas and re-stapling the composition back to a wooden frame.  It was ceremonious as bystanders helped to hold the frame in place.  During one moment, Williamson sang Sam Cooke’s “A Change Gon’ Come,” eliciting feelings of an antebellum period.

He reflected on this traumatic journey via email:

InTheRough: Working on a painting for a year takes a lot a of persistence. I find the endeavor interesting because I don't know you as a fine artist. I know you as a graphic designer. What was the impetus behind your undertaking?

Elijah WIlliamson: Yea it’s crazy, I’m actually a fine artist turned graphic designer. When I told one of my drawing instructors in college that I was a GD major, he responded,“I don’t know. I think you may be selling yourself short for a paycheck.” I’ve never forgotten that moment but now that I think about it, I’ve always found a way to marry the two.


For this piece however, it started as a response to my senior thesis project at the Corcoran College of Art and Design at George Washington University. I was investigating pieces of graphic design created during the Harlem Renaissance and was struck by the differences in how Black Americans were portrayed depending on the artist demographic.  I came across a number of stereotypes cast upon the African American community; the first was the “mammy” caricature. I began drawing sketches of Aunt Jemima and around that time, there was an ongoing lawsuit around royalties and proper compensation to the women who reportedly spearheading the morning and then it fed this brand. The story was all too familiar, yet ironic at the same time.  


Visually, it struck me that the representation of Aunt Jemima was never depicted with an ear. I also learned that the character was inspired by a song written by a black minstrel performer. These things coupled with other readings and conversations around Black women in America, I wanted to contribute something that attempted to fill the gaps created by negative stereotypes of black women. I also wanted to contribute to the commentary of costume. It was important for me to remove the headscarf. In so many ways it represented nothing of personal note. It was utility, almost costume. I wanted to challenge the visual perception of how we see “Aunt Jemima”, who for a long time, is how Black women are viewed in America.


It took a year to complete for a number of reasons, the main being my constant attempt to juggle a full schedule but mainly, I wanted to take my time. I was creating other Jemima pieces and I wanted the series to grow and express itself over time. Different portraits went in different directions and meant different things.

ITR: Walk me through the moments after your painting fell out of the truck. How do you rebound from that experience?

EW: Ah.. wow. I had a buddy of mine help me transport it from my place in Virginia to the Gallery. I was constantly turning my head to make sure things were good. One moment it was there, the next it was gone. We pulled over and I immediately took off running back up the shoulder of 395 against traffic. I ran maybe a quarter mile before I saw the piece on the ground, off the stretcher, being ran over by traffic. I remember hearing the wood rolling against the asphalt as it was hit by the rubber of rolling tires and the crashing of vehicles against the canvas. I screamed, “No!”. I was waving my hands trying to stop the traffic until I was able to retrieve the canvas as the cars responded to my hysterics on the side of the highway. After I quickly gathered the remains of what was left of my piece, I headed back up 395 to find the truck. I remember taking a breath on the guard rails on the side of the road and thinking, “What The Fuck!?”

It really was the support and encouragement of my close friends who, in a way, carried me through that experience. I was in a state of shock for some time and really didn’t want to discuss the incident. There were a number of other factors going on that weren’t exactly encouraging. My name was omitted from the list of artist on the first set of postcards for the show, and Maps Glover, my best friend and curator of the show, had been having concerns about whether the exhibition was the right show for this piece. Needless to say, I wanted to drop out of the show. I was pretty shook. A lot of emotions were at blows with each other; shock, anger, pain, wasted time, shame, embarrassment - it was rough. We didn’t know how it was going to work, but I had already been compensated and made the commitment. It was a horrible situation to be in. But we pressed on. The opening was that weekend and it was a hit. My performance wasn’t scheduled for another six weeks. I don’t think I was able to really move pass the fall until the day of my performance. It was still fresh - for me - up until that day.

ITR: How did you arrive at the idea for your performance, which closed out Transformer Gallery?


EW: That performance was about as organic as it gets. I knew I wanted it to be interactive and I wanted to engage the audience. Outside of that it was just about telling the story in a way that was as complete and authentic as necessary. It wasn’t lost on me that this “feminist attempt to present a whole image of black woman” was being lead by a black man. In an effort to subdue myself in light of the content, I chose to have excerpts from the artist statement read aloud by the participants of the show.

Visitors at Transformer Gallery helped Williamson reframe his painting. Photograph by Ashley Llanes

Visitors at Transformer Gallery helped Williamson reframe his painting. Photograph by Ashley Llanes

These excerpts were taken from the Combahee River Collective Statement. A document written by a group of black feminist and lesbians responsible for one of the first introductions of intersectionality into political and social conversations. The name, ‘The Combahee River Collective’, refers to the Combahee River Raid - an expedition of 150 Union Troops lead by Harriet Tubman. The raid lead to the destruction of several South Carolina Estates and plantations. Harriett Tubman is the only woman known to have led a military operation during the American Civil War.

ITR: What songs were you singing? I was eating, so I only heard. Your portrait and your voice transported me back to slave times, especially looking at the images Ashley caught of you sewing it back together. It truly was a spiritual moment. Jemima plays this mammy role and to be canonized in an iconic brand image is very much exploitative.

EW: Yes it is. And the act of revealing that kind of exploitation was what I was trying to execute; exposing this disenfranchisement towards Black Americans, specifically, Black American women—and that does date back to slavery.

The song I sang was ‘A Change Gon’ Come’ by Sam Cooke. It had been with me for a few days that week and it just made sense to perform it. The lyrics really captured a part of what I was trying to say in relation to the subject matter.


ITR: Watching you perform all of these exercises around the portrait: sewing it together, framing it, and celebrating it--the whole experience seems like that's how it was supposed to happen. How do you feel removed the experience?

EW: It’s still pretty surreal. From like the fall to the stretching. I do find a lot of symbolism in the different phases she [the painting] went through. I don’t know if it was ‘supposed’ to happen like that (laugh). But I do believe what happened happened for a reason. I’ve definitely learned a lot from the experience as a whole. I’m extremely grateful, man. It was quite the journey but I’m glad I stuck through it.

ITR: What’s next?

EW: Right now I’m getting settled in DC. Moving in the district will be a big move for me. I’m still painting.  I want to get through this series.