Portrait of an artist Chevelle Makeba Moore has been creating art since she was a child. Now, at 33, the Baltimore painter is gaining national attention.

September 07, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Chevelle Makeba Moore was an artist from the beginning. It was a part of her, a life force long before it was a matter of will.

"I like to say I came to this planet an image maker," she says.

Moore, 33, a native Baltimorean and graduate of the Maryland Institute, College of Art, has been a painter and graphic designer on the local scene for more than a decade. Recently her career has gained momentum and she's become a painter full-time.

Despite her young age, you could say she's already spent 30 years making art. Even before school age, she was drawing -- on the walls and especially on the blank pages inside book covers. "I thought that was a special place for me," she says.

"The first day I went to kindergarten, the teacher sent a note

home with me to my parents, to please buy me a sketch pad, because I had a tendency to make marks on just about everything.

"So there was a real profusion of creativity at that age, and I've been in the flow of it ever since."

She's certainly in the flow of it right now. Last night, the Howard County Center for the Arts opened a one-person show of her big, bold, richly colorful and deeply affirmative paintings, all created in the past year.

And this month's Black Enterprise magazine includes a portfolio called "Absolut Expressions," works created for Absolut vodka by 14 African-American artists, one of whom is Chevelle Moore.

Her Absolut ad, showing a woman in a garden, is very much in keeping with her recent work. The canvases at Howard County are filled with lush gardens bursting with flowers, fruit and vegetables. The gardens fill up the images and frame female figures who appear as givers and nurturers.

A suggestion of faith often appears as well, in the form of fish, the symbol of Christ, the fisher of men, or lilies, the symbol of resurrection.

A diptych, "Welcoming You," shows three women with a child near a stream that represents the continuous flowing of life. "Before the Abduction" relates to the myth of Persephone, condemned to the underworld for half the year, but when she rises to the earth again she brings with her spring, the season of renewal. In "Tomorrow" a woman holds the sun, the giver of light and life.

Moore takes sustenance from these paintings and hopes others will, too.

"Seeing it all together," she says, "what resonates for me is the real joy and celebration of life going on in the pieces. It's something that echoes through the work."

A sense of warmth

Every aspect of Moore's images supports the message. The large size and shallow depth of the images, with no horizon, cause the paintings to visually embrace the viewer. The female figures are close to life-size, resembling the viewer in scale. The full, rich colors communicate a sense of warmth and love. And there's a dignity in Moore's figures that prevents any sentimentality from creeping in.

One can relate to these works in multiple ways. Women in particular may respond to the eloquent portrayal of women by a woman, but anyone can sense the love and nurturing expressed.

"Her work is very layered," says fellow Baltimore artist Angela Franklin. "When you first see it, you can let yourself be simply seduced by the color, but there is also a theme, and there are symbols. It forces you to use your intellect, to work a little to receive the painting."

"I like the energy of the surface," says artist Diana Marta, who curated Moore's current show. "The dynamics, the way she builds shape and color is very exciting to me as a painter. She's a painter's painter."

Spurred by teacher

Moore never intended to be a painter until a teacher guided her in that direction when she was a college senior. Growing up in Sparrows Point, where her father was a steelworker, she was encouraged in art by parents and teachers and studied graphic design at the Maryland Institute in the early 1980s. In her final year, faculty member Simon Gouverneur saw some of her drawings and thought she had potential as a painter.

"I probably thought, 'That's very nice, but that's not what I'm going to do,' " she says now. "But I really did pick up the brushes and begin to paint.

"I graduated from the institute and worked for most of the last decade as a graphic designer. But all along I continued to paint. I did the graphic design for the money, but my spirit was really called to do the painting."

She began to show her paintings in the late 1980s. Her earlier work was notable for strong colors and forceful imagery, but back then the imagery was quite different. Works such as "Play Like You're Asleep," "We're Alone Now," "Rock and Sock My Babies" and "Night Rounds" dealt with fears of rape and abuse.

"I felt that a dialogue needed to be created about what women were going through in terms of subjugation and abuse," says Moore, "things that people at that time didn't bring out in the open and discuss. It was almost like having this huge elephant in the room that nobody wanted to look at."

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