Black Visual Arts In Louisville: Where We Are And Where We Want To Be

Ora Sawyers

This article is part of a series funded by Great Meadows Foundation.

Editor’s Introduction:  When speaking about the state of Black arts in the city of Louisville, it is important to understand the landscape of Blackness and the experience of being Black in Louisville, but also how the visual art scene moves. The two have to be viewed together. For this piece, artists Lance G. Newman II, Marlesha Woods, Ton’nea Green, Kayla Morgan and Sheila Fox have shared their experiences as Black visual artists working in the Louisville area. Many of their sentiments are mirroring the statements of Black artists for many years in Louisville press and seen in Brianna Harlan’s Louisville People’s Art Report, which gave an anonymous platform to local Black creatives to share their experiences in the local arts and creative scene, both good and bad.

Originally, Newman was writing this piece alone, but it became an imperative to include more voices to share a varied Black experience. While there are similarities in our experiences — as there are in the lived experience of being Black — we are not a monolith, and we operate at all levels of local arts and beyond. The hope is that it presents more of a roundtable discussion where commonality and contrast is seen but an overall theme remains — more can be done to bring equity to the arts.

Black artists have spent years working in visual arts in Louisville. Creation is central to the experience of being Black, and despite the history of Black people in the United States, we have always created. Our ability to create in the face of disparity and disenfranchisement has made it possible for our survival. In Louisville, that has not always been an inclusive experience, as artists like Ed Hamilton, William Duffy and others have detailed in other interviews. Their experience was one where their collective efforts gave them a voice to show and collaborate with each other as serious artists. A similar network still exists in Black communities. 

There are few Black galleries, with E&S Gallery and Roots 101 being the most prominent, and many Black artists feel cut off from the other art galleries and museums in the city. For some, it is an unawareness of how to approach the gallery, and, for others, it is the repeated experience of rejection or other poor experiences in those spaces. ton’

Certainly, local artists like Kiah Celeste and Stan Squirewell have found entry into those galleries in Louisville and beyond. Squirewell was met this year with a sold-out show at Art Basel in Miami, and Celeste was awarded the Artadia award through 21c Museum Hotel, giving her $10,000 in unrestricted funds for her work. 

What do you create?

Lance Newman

“In 2018, I was selected to be a part of the very first Hadley Creatives cohort presented by the Community Foundation of Louisville with support from Creative Capital. This cohort was made up of 15 artists, each from a different artistic medium. Hannah Drake and myself, were selected for our poetry, but I saw this as an opportunity to come out of my visual arts closet, so to speak. At the group’s finale exhibition at KMAC Museum, instead of a poem, I unveiled a mixed media, visual art piece. In that moment, I was no longer just a poet, I had become an artist that created images with more than words. I fell in love with art all over again. Fast forward to the present day. As a visual artist, I’ve sold a few pieces, I’ve organized a (semi) solo show and I’ve even had some work displayed in galleries outside of Louisville. Add in the guidance of a veteran visual artist out of D.C. [Stan Squirewell] and you have a walking, talking, visual arts toddler. 

I believe it is in the artists’ perspective that we find the answers to questions like, ‘What are Black artists doing right now? What issues are they grappling with in their work? Where are they showing their work? What are the needs of Black artists?’ 

Initially, I can tell you exactly what most Black artists are doing… working a ‘nine to five.’ Black artists have ‘job jobs,’ often multiple. The old adage of ‘time is money’ rings true for Black artists in Louisville and proper compensation of time would in turn give financial stability and space to create.

Let’s be honest, Louisville doesn’t treat its artists of color well. That’s why they’re always leaving the city to find success elsewhere. 

What? You don’t believe me? Please, take an afternoon and delve into my Hadley Creative classmate, Brianna Harlan’s ‘Louisville People’s Art Report.’ With the cost of living steadily rising and the wages of labor remaining stagnant, Black visual artists find themselves sacrificing their calling to make a living. That’s what they’re doing, trying to stay afloat because Buddha knows they’re not getting the proper compensation for their work.”

Marlesha Woods

“I have been engaged in visual arts for many years. My artistry is centered in developing people and land through art education and art making. Unlike [cities such as] San Diego, Louisville does not have a dedicated and funded Black arts district. Many racially-identified minorities gravitate to a particular group of artists and form their own micro-communities within the larger context of the arts sector, which can be both welcoming and isolating. 

When examining various arts clusters, there is a particular trend that correlates alliance with certain funding sources, which lessens the need for gatekeeping for some but also provides space for many artists to be tokenized and stratified further. 

My community engagement through artmaking and art education consists of 15 years of development throughout. I believe it is vital to not be, as I term, ‘zip-tied’ to zip codes, but rather expand impact across geographic bounds. From East to West Louisville, and pockets in-between, I have witnessed what empowering people through the arts can achieve.”

Ton’nea Green

“I recently started consistently making art in 2017. I graduated from YouTube art university and taught myself the basics of acrylic portraiture. I have received the Black Artists Grant from Fund for the Arts, which led me into exclusively painting Black children, and participated in the Speed Art Museum, after-hours virtual program: There Are Black People in the Future. Just last year, I was able to get my art in an art gallery, specifically Galerie Hertz. Within the last year, I have collaborated with many artists to create the Thomas Gales Art Foundation. Named after my great uncle who was a talented oil painter and activist. Before his passing he wanted to get more children of color to participate in visual arts. We created the organization to continue his legacy.”

Sheila Fox 

“I’m a self-taught mixed-media artist originally from Chicago. Been here in Louisville for 13 years. I’ve been drawing for over 20 years, and painting for almost six. My vibrant portraits of Black women take inspiration from my own experience as an African American woman. 

I seek to celebrate my story and the stories of generations of Black women through the joy of artistic expression. A local artist by the name of Chip Calloway took a chance on me, he believed in me and asked me to showcase at one of his events. 

Things went up from there for me.”

Kayla Morgan

“I took art classes at Louisville Visual Arts when I was younger and watched my grandmother create crafts and sell them to locals in our neighborhood. Growing up in the West End, my parents always kept me busy with art classes, and I worked for a few local art businesses.”

What issues are Black artists grappling with in their work?

Lance Newman

“Black artists in Louisville are creating nostalgic works derived from their childhood. They’re creating odes to pop culture figures, as well as local and personal heroes. Seeing that a large number of Black visual artists in Louisville are women, the art seems to be capturing the Black woman’s figure and face. There are also many murals around the city created and fabricated by Black artists. 

The themes highlighted in Black art across Louisville range from social conflicts of racism and economics, to youthful fervor meant to tap into a more innocent part of ourselves. There’s a larger conversation about sexuality, gender and self image being had among Black artists, as well. I am also seeing a decent amount of commissioned pieces, whether these are personal commissions or institutional ones. Black artists often have to put food on their easels by creating work for someone else. There seems to be a lack of freedom of expression among Black artists because the call to submit is far higher than the call to create.”

Marlesha Woods

“My visual artistry includes wearable art with a focus on exclusive designs for the Muhammad Ali Center, and commissioned paintings including an emphasis on abstract expressionism intertwined with portraiture. Many of my interpretative portraits are commissioned to celebrate milestones or commemorate loved ones that have transitioned. 

My work is inspired by my community, nature and faith. The growing body of work that I have developed over a decade is heavily experimental in color harmonies, textures and rhythm created in abstract forms. 

If ever asked, do I create ‘Black art?’ The inquiry poses additional inquiries. I think this question yields more introspection on what is considered Black, art, and Black art? Do you mean afros, tribal print and slave paintings? If Blackness is not monolithic, and clearly it is not, then my answer is ‘yes.’ Whatever my Black hands choose to create is Black art. I believe our production is a byproduct of our person. I am Black. Black. 

I encourage patrons to consider how they consume art. Should art be sold solely because it’s Black art or a Black artist created it? I would like to believe that art should be appreciated because it’s dope.”

Sheila Fox 

“The type of work I create is of Black women, that taps into the Black fashion, class and elegance, the Black culture and style. Mixed-media paintings seeking to capture the timeless beauty and spirit of Black women throughout history.”

Kayla Morgan

“I create colorful, emotionally-packed experiences I personally have went through or the people closest to me have. Themes and issues range from love, pain, happiness and freedom. My art goes with my mood and my paintbrush is my therapist.”

Ton’nea Green

“I create realistic portraiture of Black children. I, specifically, do this because I really believe they need to be seen. By having a child of my own, I had the revelation that they come into this world with the most basic ideas and purest intentions. I find myself trying to tap back into that, a part of the unlearning of what society has told me I should be. I create art with Black children to show their deepest emotions. A part of that is creating less structured art as well, drawing with paint markers, ballpoint pens and gel pens in a very loose way.”

Art by Ton’nea Green

What is it that Black Artists need to produce and showcase their work?

Lance Newman

“From the top of my lungs and with all of my chest I say, ‘EQUITY!’

Black artists in Louisville need ‘life changing money’ for their work. Black artists in Louisville often price their work far lower than what it actually cost to create. They do this because their main buyers are their economic peers and contemporaries. Black artists know that millionaires aren’t actively looking for their work, so they adjust their business model to accommodate the people who frequently support their art. Instead of one piece paying rent for a year, artists have to resort to selling 10 pieces to pay rent for a month. Those frequent supporters look like friends, family, other artists and blue-collar, average Joes, so the artist sets their price to reflect the income of those who support it. 

Equity is a two-way street. When programs adjust their costs based on a lower income, we consider it to be an equitable act. In the same breath, adjusting the cost of something based on a higher income is also equitable.

I sold a couple of pieces of art to a local millionaire through a third-party gallery owner. I intended to sell these pieces to my peers, so I priced them lower to reflect that audience. Before the pieces were even put on the gallery’s walls, they were shown and the millionaire bought them. I was conflicted. I felt the gallery owner should have negotiated a higher price on the artist’s behalf. The pieces were worth far more than the price I had set, and I initially refused to sell them because I felt the millionaire should’ve paid the proper hourly rate for the pieces creation. The gallery owner scolded me and accused me of financial discrimination. ‘You’re not selling the pieces because they’re wealthy?! That’s discrimination, that’s racism!’

The gallery owner said that I couldn’t withhold the pieces because ‘I’ set the price, and I couldn’t go back on my initial ask. But, if a patron can easily pay double or triple or 10 times the listed price of a piece of Black art, they should. The millionaire took away the opportunity for my audience to own my work, while increasing their asset holdings. 

The potential buyer didn’t speak to the artist or care to learn the context of the art. In their mind, maybe, they felt they were doing the artist a favor by buying the art at the price set, but true equity would have garnered enough capital to afford the artist time. Time to create more art and sustain other lives in the process.

Now, maybe I should’ve priced it differently for the gallery. Maybe it was a lesson for a novice artist, so after consultation with my visual arts mentor and my mother, I reluctantly sold the work.”

Marlesha Woods

“I choose not to focus on barriers such as the racial wealth gap, solely, but rather illuminate solutions to address them. Artists are in many ways business owners. Businesses thrive from providing quality services, products and consumer experiences. The greatest problem is not a deficit that community members must fill alone. The core problems derive from systemic challenges that take time and strategy to transform. 

 I desire to engage with authentic, community-minded individuals not because they owe me anything but simply because we owe ourselves the shared opportunity to transform how we do business. Many business problems can be resolved with art solutions. To see barriers and understand that the strategic framework that created such can be dismantled is community empowerment. I choose to build.”

Artwork by Kayla Morgan, who often explores themes in popular culture.

Kayla Morgan

“More art-focused events would be great, more Black art spaces, galleries and studios. One barrier I can speak on is that I’ve had to build our brand online. I haven’t found a lot of places where artists can hangout or meet and talk about ideas.”

Ton’nea Green

“It wasn’t until I visited a Cincinnati art gallery that I recognized how much my hometown lacks in the arts scene. I visited an art gallery that was massive and was filled with only artists of color that were local. Since the die-down in momentum after the Breonna Taylor protests, opportunities for Black visual artists have ceased to exist on the scale it was two years ago. If the city wants to be a staple in visual arts nationwide, the key is to invest in the Black people. That is just my opinion, but I have run into so many talented Black artists and there isn’t a stage for us. The barriers are literally the lack of space, that is open minded to art they’ve never seen before, to works of artists that may not be educated in art, but they figured it out and is a testimony to their style. Art to me literally has the broadest definition, and that doesn’t take away from anyone but should add to others that may be overlooked because a few people said it’s not art.”

Sheila Fox 

“Support, support, support!

Support is everything within the local art community. When we support our local art centers, museums and galleries, what we are doing for our community is creating culture, stimulating business, driving tourism and inspiring young minds.”

Artwork by Marlesha Woods

What are ways that you see Black artists using their resources and communities to thrive as artists and what do you think is needed to build upon that?

Lance Newman

“Life-changing money translates to ‘quit my day job’ stability. Black artists in Louisville are regularly underfunded and underrepresented by the mainstream arts community. The result is less art and more creativity wasted on trying to survive the economic times we find ourselves in. Throughout history and across various cultures, we see the production of art increase when financial stability is high. In that same trend, we see the creation of art suffer when financial times are unstable. Black artists cannot inspire or be inspired when they are preoccupied with maintaining the basics of life. In another word, surviving.

The well-to-do organizations that put out calls for Black artists, often attach hoops for Black artists to jump through in the form of applications that look more like a 1950s literacy test.

Louisville’s arts funding feels like it’s applied to the administration of art instead of sustaining the artists who create the art. But if there’s no time for creation, there will be no need for administration. It is time for Louisville to put its money where its compassionate mouth is. Acknowledge Black visual artists and fund their work by stabilizing their livelihood.” 

Marlesha Woods

“To be an artist is to continually be a learner. We must learn how to adapt under changing economic climates. We must learn how to navigate spaces in which we have been historically disenfranchised from, and among many other lessons, we must be willing to learn to teach. Artists from all backdrops have the responsibility to learn how to teach community members, organizations and peers how to treat them. 

It is important not to limit our sense of community to one particular region. The world of technology has provided tools to create platforms and collaborative spaces that may not be readily available within a local community. 

Intentionally building genuine relationships is vital. There are missed opportunities for growth when art becomes transactional. 

Success is defined in many ways. I have witnessed artists achieving their defined success by creating art that rests outside of trends. Make it real and consistent. 

Real is where your tribe can find you.”

Kayla Morgan

“I see a lot of vendor spaces at all the events that pop up throughout the city and I have noticed artists have started filling those tables. It’s great. But I would have to double back on my last answer and repeat I wish these events were more art-focused.”

Ton’nea Green

 “I honestly see it a lot — I know of Black artists that are youth art instructors specifically in the communities they reside. I believe if we are going to have a cohesive Black visual arts community a good start is investing and encouraging the youth. 

Currently, due to the lack of space for visual artists, the Black art community is really obsolete in a ‘community’ sense; it’s more like we have to invite you to the table instead of just adding the chairs and telling Black artists everyone is invited, no invitation needed. A lot of people I know have very little knowledge of art. The theme I get from, just general, associates is, ‘Art has to look a certain way,’ ‘You have to go to school,’ etc. Ultimately, a limited viewpoint of all of the Black artists that have existed, and the many forms art can come in.”

Artwork by Sheila Fox

Sheila Fox 

“I haven’t had any bad experiences with any Black artists here in the city, all the artists I’ve come in contact with have been very supportive of my work and the journey I’m taking with my art. I see so many artists that have a larger platform to help other inspiring artists, such as myself, and I’m beyond appreciative.”

Editor’s Outro: There is no definitive State of Black arts in Louisville. It is a state defined by two factors, that of the art scene itself and that of the experience of living as a Black person in this art scene. The experiences of these artists share some common themes often heard when talking to Black artists but there are more perspectives still. 

Louisville has come a long way towards inclusivity. But, yes, there is still some ground to cover before we truly make local arts a place for everyone.

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