Last month, the Pinckney Gallery in Bend launched “Black Excellence Showcase,” a contemporary art exhibit featuring painted canvases, digital art, sculptures and mixed-media installations. It’s the first time that an exhibit highlighting Black artists has been presented at the gallery, which is located on the campus of Central Oregon Community College.
The idea for it coalesced through conversations between June Park, the director of the gallery and an adjunct arts professor at COCC, and two other administrators as part of the programming on campus to honor Black History Month.
It was important to Park, who uses they/them pronouns, to create a space for people of color to come together and be represented through art and personal stories in Central Oregon.
“People always talk about how there aren’t people of color here in Central Oregon, and actually we are here,” they said. “And I always wonder why there’s so much focus on the lack of diversity instead of focusing on getting to know the people of color who are here, and getting to hear their unique stories and perspectives that I think are really worth hearing.”
Mel Smith is completing a certificate in graphic design and illustration at COCC. The exhibit features five works of art made by Smith who, along with community member Shandell Landon, helped create the installations featured in the “Black Excellence Showcase.”
Smith, who also uses they/them pronouns, incorporated natural elements, such as strands of moss and bits of broken twigs and branches, in two of their pieces on display.
“The natural masculinity and femininity that you find in nature is also found in art, and I really wanted to display that,” Smith said.
There are a total of 25 works of art in the exhibit, and the diversity of the works reflects the backgrounds and sensibilities of their creators, from established artists like MOsley WOtta to a 10-year-old elementary school student to a grandmother in her 80s.
“I think that that’s what really comes through in the show, is to recognize you don’t have to do a certain kind of art, you just want to express what you want to express,” Park said.
One section of the exhibit features large, mixed-media installations such as “Intertwined” which Smith, Landon and Park helped to conceive and worked on together to assemble. It features fabric with African prints and synthetic hair extensions to comment on gender identity, stereotypes and self-expression within the Black community.
Landon, who contributed her own hair extensions to help make “Intertwined,” said it expresses “the individuality between all of us, but also the connectivity between all of us, the way that we use our outward self to express who we are and the way that that kind of manifests itself in community.”
Landon also worked with Park to create “Nurture,” a mural that shows three towering Black female figures embracing. They’re painted on the wall wearing fiery red and bright yellow robes decorated with petals, infinity symbols and geometric shapes descending onto a base of branching roots and cascading waterfalls. Family photos are arranged like limbs branching off the painting and were submitted by community members who also shared handwritten stories celebrating people in their lives who nurtured them.
Park is encouraged by the response “Nurture” has received from visitors since the exhibit’s opening night two weeks ago.
“Just watching them stand there and read those stories, and you could see the tears in their eyes. … It’s just been really amazing to sort of see our community coming here and enjoying it, and I think thinking about things as well,” Park said.
Smith was also there for opening night, which they estimated drew a crowd of about 100 people to the event.
“I remember right at the end when everybody was leaving and we had a chance to kind of look back at the gallery when it was empty. It was just this overwhelming feeling of a proudness that I think we all had,” Smith said.
“Black Excellence Showcase” will be at the Pinckney Gallery in Bend until Feb. 24. Admission is free and open Monday through Friday.
June Park, Mel Smith and Shandell Landon spoke to “Think Out Loud” guest host Geoff Norcross. Click button at top of story to play audio.