Gallery is Devoted to Black Artists

October 14, 1990|By Linda Lowe Morris

It's a mistake to say art is only for the eyes. At least that's the way it seems at the new Artworks gallery on West Franklin Street. Here the works that line the walls are so vibrant they seem to touch all of the senses.

You can hear the music rolling out of "The Sugar Shack," by Ernie Barnes, and maybe feel the floor shake a little. You hear the cicadas, feel and smell the hot tropical air coming off of "Disagreement," by Ugandan artist Paul Nzalamba. You squirm as you eavesdrop on "The Snuff Dippers," by Varnett Honeywood.

And there are other artists here -- Larry Poncho, John Nelson, Ellis Wilson among them -- and their works have an energy that almost shakes you.

Maybe some of this electricity comes from the fact that what is happening here is not just an art gallery but part of a revolution.

Artworks Gallery is devoted to the works of black artists, artists who are finally getting their deserved recognition. "Black art is becoming really popular," says gallery owner Carol Morgan. "It's good that black artists are now getting to earn some money for some of the work. New artists, even people who have been around for a long time -- their work is being discovered."

At Artworks Ms. Morgan and manager Brian McMillion sell

framed and unframed prints, original artworks, batiks, a selection of black memorabilia and cards with African-American themes. They also do custom framing. "We cut the mats, the glass, the molding. We do the whole nine yards," says Mr. McMillion. "The customer gets the specific details just the way they want them."

In spite of the success they've found since they opened, the process of opening the shop was not a smooth one. Since their knowledge lay in the art itself -- Mr. McMillion has a degree in art education and Ms. Morgan is a longtime collector of black art and black memorabilia -- they both took courses in running a small business. Then they talked to many local gallery owners, many of whom confirmed that the interest in black art was strong and growing stronger. Yet when they approached several banks for a business loan, they were met with skepticism.

"When we told bankers we were going to specialize in black art, they told us that we were basically crazy," says Mr. McMillion.

He had also seen this same lack of understanding and appreciation of black art during his years in college, he says.

"After 4 1/2 years studying art education, studying the traditional artists like Van Gogh, Matisse, you begin to question why is it you're not seeing the African-American artists or people of darker skin color. They were completely absent from the duration of my schooling. When I came out I felt real cheated."

But the effect of these things was the reverse of what you might expect. "That college experience and the bank experience -- these gave us so much more encouragement," Mr. McMillion says. "Once we opened our doors, it's grown and grown. It was like a root that found some dirt and the sun was shining and the water was there and it kept getting nourished."

They see education as a big part of their business. They try to teach the people who visit their gallery as well as going into the neighborhoods to schools and festivals to reach people.

Ms. Morgan credits television with widening the audience for black art. "I think 'The Cosby Show' had a lot to do with the evolution of black art. Before, it just wasn't in the forefront as much. But when Bill Cosby came out with his show, people could look around at his walls and see pictures of scenes that reminded them of them. A number of the works here are prints of ones seen on 'The Cosby Show.' We found that there was a demand for them.

"This one, called 'The Snuff Dippers,' is on 'The Cosby Show,' " she says, pointing to a print that depicts two women sitting on a bench. "And this one, 'African Women,' that's also on 'The Cosby Show.' This print by Ernie Barnes was on the show 'Good Times.' On that show, they'd say J. J. was painting it but it was really done by professional artist Ernie Barnes in California."

"Ernie Barnes is very popular," adds Mr. McMillion. "Sylvester Stallone, Burt Reynolds, Miles Davis, Norman Lear -- you name it, everybody is buying his work."

There has been a perception in the black community, Mr. McMillion continues, that a career in art is not practical. "They say, 'You're crazy, you're never going to make a living out of just doing art.' And we're saying no. That's not the case because we have people all around us who are making an honest and good living out of producing positive images of us.

"You see it all over now. Even the old traditional white galleries. For a long time, they did not have black art. Now they do. Now it's OK all of the sudden."

Artworks is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. (sometimes a little later) Monday to Saturdays. On Sundays the gallery is open by appointment only.

The gallery is located at 508 W. Franklin St. The telephone number is 383-2415.

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