Ms. Joanna -- Rose Piper, The Death of Bessie Smith, 1947
I referenced Rose Piper’s agonizing painting, The Death of Bessie Smith, because Ms. Joanna’s story is personal and powerful, and I wanted her inspiration to portray that. Bessie Smith was a gifted Jazz singer who died young in a car accident, the man she was with escaped unharmed; isn’t it strange how that happens? Despite her critical condition, she wasn’t admitted to the white hospital and though she did eventually get to a black hospital, she died the next day-- this is just the initial layer of trauma that burdens Smith’s story.
I thought about the veined hands in this painting when Ms. Joanna told me about her daughter who died of lung cancer, and again, when she told us how her first daughter was born as a result of her being raped at fifteen. The Death of Bessie Smith reminded me that life is precious, even when other people wouldn’t necessarily see it that way; the way that the pain pulses from our brains to the tips of our fingers, lighting our veins on fire-- it shows us that we’re still alive. Joanna is an incredibly wise and thoughtful woman, so it was a gift to witness the inextinguishable life that pulses through her and the words she speaks. Despite everything she’s endured, she’s been a part of this neighborhood for many years and is such a pillar of strength and life to the community around her.
Ms. Sherie -- Betye Saar -- Personae, 1996, Wood, bone, ceramic, metal and glass
When I first saw the vivacious Mrs. Shirley, the first thing that caught my attention was her t-shirt; it was simple yet bold with a line drawing of Harriet Tubman, reading “FEARLESS” below. Though our conversation was often political, Mrs. Shirley was incredibly thoughtful and kind, I appreciated what she had to say. Ever speaking truth, she kept returning to the idea that patience and learning to be wise were things that were incredibly important. She said often that although she is grateful for the people around her and the life that she has, it was not the right path; there were many things that she wished she would have been more careful about and had done better.
The combination of my first impression of Mrs. Shirley--thanks to her shirt--and the continued conversation of life in our current climate lead me to the artist Betye Saar, an African-American woman artist whose work enters the conversation of history, memory, and nostalgia. Saar’s work can be jarring as it mixes surreal, symbolic imagery with a folk art aesthetic by reclaiming stereotypes from folk culture and advertising; though this portrait isn’t directly connecting to Saar’s content, it shares the same visual language used in her piece Personae. Similar to Mrs. Shirley, Personae is initially curious, the dots on the outside are quick to draw the viewer in and ask them to get closer, only to discover that there is much more than meets the eye.
Ms. Terri -- Alma Thomas -- Autumn Leaves Fluttering in the Breeze, 1973
The marks of Alma Thomas seemed appropriate as I sat listening to Ms. Terri. These marks overlap and therefore create a field, one color behind another more dominant color. “I have always had a signature color,” she said smiling. “It used to be orange, but that was back in high school. It’s been purple ever since!” Visually this happens in the portrait, the figure Is sitting on an orange chair that is behind her, while the purple marks grow and change from background to foreground. In addition to her surroundings, Terri has charming beauty marks on her face that literally create patterns on her skin-- so she herself is also a work of art with physical patterns. Her sunhat becomes a halo, elevating her to the visual status of many women in art’s history that are understood as divine. “There’s been more good than bad here,” she told me. Listening to Terri talk about growing up in this neighborhood was incredible. She has shown such an interest in her neighbors despite--or perhaps because--of seeing so many people around her come and go. Terri is warm, quick to laugh, and dressed from head to toe in every imaginable shade of purple.
Ms. Jimmie -- Elizabeth Catlett -- Sharecropper, 1952
In this wood block print, Sharecropper, by Elizabeth Catlett, countless strokes are cut away which reveal the light underneath. Upon conversation with neighborhood matriarch Ms. Jimmie, I knew her piece had to be something painstaking but beautiful… Something that would take several careful strokes in order to commemorate her and her recently celebrated 101st birthday. For one person Ms. Jimmie has borne witness to a century of all that life offers--both pain and beauty--it’s almost unfathomable. She has watched so much go on in her neighborhood: e.g., she used to own a beauty shop that she loved. Just like the relentless persistence of Catlett’s (and Ogle’s) marks, this inspiring matriarch and her family members have been long-time members of the community and will continue to be.
Ms. Pearl -- Howardena Pindell, Untitled, c. 1968
Pearl is similar to this glowing piece by artist Howardena Pindell, in that she’s a beautiful ember-- full of an honest fire, powered by life, and refusing to give up. She’s lived in the neighborhood since childhood, actively fighting to build community and bring people together despite the difficulty of local commitment. Many of the provocative creations of Pindell work to enter into the conversation of race; I was struck by this simple piece for Pearl because as each mark is created, it becomes a community.
Both Pindell’s marks and those of Pearl’s portrait are messy and often times going the wrong way, but they are together-- building something greater than what one could do on its own. The colors are warm and alive while also bold and flowing; my conversation with her was something intense, but important. Letting the marks capture Pearl’s fire, I wanted to portray her thoughtful introspection that I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of. In this portrait, Pearl is in a pose that she often subconsciously struck after having said some illuminating kernel of wisdom, shedding vibrant color onto the community that she has so faithfully been a part of and--I have no doubt--will continue to do so.
Willie -- Norman Lewis – Twilight Sounds, 1947
In order to fully capture the leaders Monon 16 neighborhood, I also featured a portrait of the Hillside Neighborhood Association President, Michael--better known as Willie--Hawkins. He’s incredibly kind and his eyes are alight with a knowing curiosity as he speaks of memories of the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and the work of Dr. Andrew J. Brown. When he shared with us those stories and his experiences of exploring the streets of Indy, a certain music seemed to emerge and I immediately thought of the work of Norman Lewis. The painting Twilight Sounds references the visual manifestation of jazz music, but it is also tied to the work by Lewis that very powerfully evokes conversations rooted in civil rights (Evening Rendevouz). This simultaneously pays homage to the incredible work of Lewis as an African American male-artist, and evokes the visual language of vibrant maps, music, and places that connect all of us-- which just might be what makes Willie’s eyes shine.
Matriarchs of the Monon 16
This collection of portraits by Abi Ogle are meant to recognize and honor some of the incredible elders of the Monon 16 neighborhood.
These women have resided in the neighborhood for most of their lives-- they’ve witnessed it grow and change. They shared their stories with me, and in return I hope to enter into a conversation with them that is dignifying, tied to art history, and honoring them for their time spent loving the community so well. Every portrait has an intentional art historical reference in an effort to pay homage to the work of an African American woman-artist. Each matriarch is painted purple, a color that is associated historically with royalty.
Matriarchs of the Monon 16:
Installing the portraits on Monon 16, Indianapolis, IN