Photo: “What Do You See?” by Deborah Smith (photo by Rachel Spinella)

A rectangular canvas hangs against the pasty white wall of the Delta Arts Center in Winston-Salem and draws the eye in. Colors of blue, green, pink and purple splay across the plane, like a sunset reflecting off of the water. Protruding from the canvas is a three-dimensional multicolored bouquet of flower that creates small ripples that expand outwards to the edges of the piece.

The piece, titled “What Do You See?,” is exhibited as part of the art center’s “Invitational 2020” event on Jan. 30 which featured the works of African-American artists from across the state.

Deborah Smith, the creator of the piece, said she became a part of the art world when she couldn’t find any décor that she liked while decorating her home.

“When I was building my home, I was looking for a raw or industrial look,” she said. “I was looking for some art. I made my placemats and curtains; I said I would like something else with this besides cushions. I wanted roses and I had fabric, and old pictures. I took it out and placed the fabric behind it to see. Everyone that came into my kitchen kept asking where I got it and that’s how it all started.” 

Her mixed-medium works often use real flowers atop abstract, painted backgrounds. All of her pieces are titled the same.

“I name all my art as, ‘What do you see?’” she said. “because what I see may be a little bit different then someone else may see. People have asked me before: ‘What is it?’ And I say, ‘You tell me what you see.’ If I label it then that means, that it’s what I see.”  

On a nearby wall hangs a painting exploding with variations of different colors: blues, yellows, purples and pinks. The hues swirl around a center of dark, silhouetted figures. Musicians emerge from the darkness, playing a variety of instruments — a concert in the shadow realm.

“All That Jazz” by Monique Johnson (photo by Rachel Spinella)

In front of her mural, in a wheelchair, sits Monique Johnson, a young artist and disability rights advocate.

“My entry into art came from a need,” she said. “I was trying to raise funds to attend college. I always knew that I had the artistic ability to make something beautiful.

“When people see me — if you don’t know me — initially, you’ll size me up and try to figure out what I can and can’t do,” continued Johnson who is two-feet tall. “In this society, we live off of preconceived notions, that are often false. I realized that when people look at me, they may look at my life as a disadvantage. But when I am able to show them my art, what art has done in my life and more importantly what my story has done for others, then their perception of me changes. People come to realize that if I can do it, then they can do it.”

On the other side of the room, artist Colleen Cannon-Karlos, whose square glasses peek out from underneath her black hair, sits at a round table and snacks on some hors de ’oeuvres.

Behind her hangs two framed pieces of cardboard that Cannon-Karlos manipulated into a texture that looks similar to a washboard — presenting two different symbols.

One is the ancient Egyptian symbol known as the Ankh, which means “life.”

“So, the one all the way on the left is an artifact from the Ashanti people in Africa,” she said. “It is a symbol for emancipation. I like my imagery to be moving and evolving so that they can see the form and see that it is in-formation.”

Like Cannon-Karlos’s pieces, the show at Delta Arts makes space for African-American art to be seen and celebrated.

Delta Arts curator Alison Fleming noted the importance of providing a space to exhibit different artists’ work. She mentioned a conversation she had with Smith, who ended up being the first artist of the evening to sell a piece.

“I said that you are a self-taught artist, and you may not really think of yourself as someone who exhibits widely in a professional sense,” Fleming said. “But you’ve created things that speak to people.”

Smith noted her appreciation for the exhibit and her excitement at the increased visibility she’s gotten as an artist.

“I think that’s a good thing because we have so many creative people that don’t even know about places like this,” Smith said. “It’s good for our culture to see. Like in here, there are so many different people on different levels. And it’s who they are and representing who they are. That there are no limitations for what I can do. And it opens a lot of doors to your mind.”

Invitational 2020 at the Delta Arts Center runs until May 30. Find out more at deltaartscenter.org.

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