by Brian Boyd
A spirit of curiosity and wonder, aliveness to detail in the natural world, an all-embracing vision of an artist as a voice for inclusion and belonging – the parallels between artists Ashley Bryan (1923-2022) and Paula Wilson (born 1975) are immediately evident on entering the new exhibition at Colby Museum’s Paul J. Schupf Art Center in downtown Waterville. And one of the brightest of their common threads, according to guest curator Jennifer R. Gross, is joy.
“The engine for all of Ashley’s creativity,” said Gross on the eve of the show’s opening in February, “was this generous interest in being a positive force in the universe, for humanity. That theme, that line ran through every word he spoke, everything he made. Paula extends that warmth, and it’s where the title of the exhibition comes from: ‘Take the World into Your Arms.’ I feel both of these artists wake up every day and do that. Ashley did that with his art, and Paula does that with hers.”
For both artists, delight in color and experimentation had its roots in childhood. The son of immigrants to New York City from the Caribbean island of Antigua, Bryan grew up during the Great Depression in a home that encouraged creativity and resourcefulness. In a cut-out collage from his 2007 children’s book of African-American spirituals Let it Shine, Bryan honors his mother, whom he remembers singing from morning to night. The blades of his mother’s sewing scissors are echoed in the outstretched fingers of a pair of open hands as waves of orange, red, and yellow dance alongside musical notes and tropical trees.
Bryan’s handmade puppets, ingeniously constructed from driftwood, shells, bone, and other flotsam gathered from the rocky shores of Little Cranberry Island, have a mythological, dream-like power. Named after characters in African tales, the puppets absorb manner and gesture from the novelty of their composition. The character Abayomi spreads his driftwood arms wide, and his gnarled head, bone necklace, and cloak of animal furs lend him a sage-like presence. The long hair of Jojo, an East African storyteller, is made from a cast-off fisherman’s glove, and his arched stringed eyebrows, button eyes, and bright orange collar give him a jaunty, mischievous air.
In the intimate gallery space, Ashley Bryan’s and Paula Wilson’s engagement with nature as both inspiration and art supply makes for fascinating juxtapositions. Bryan’s kaleidoscopic sea glass windows depicting biblical scenes hang beside Wilson’s almost trompe l’oeil painting of a stained glass window partially blocking the view, through glass, of a desert landscape, which stands beside Wilson’s wearable, acrylic-on-muslin dress with a stained glass pattern.
“Landscape and flowers were Ashley’s true north,” says Gross, who emphasized that one of the aims of the show is to highlight the virtuosity of Bryan’s painting, which is sometimes overshadowed by the popularity of his work as an illustrator and author. From the quiet strength of his early portraits of his nieces and nephews, to modernist still lifes and a near-abstract rendering of the ascendent energy of a cathedral spire, to his tactile immersions in hollyhocks and lupines, irises and dahlias, Bryan’s canvases provide a timeline of shifting styles and palettes.
“We’re also bridging a hundred years of art exhibition strategy. Ashley’s works are all framed. Paula’s works don’t have frames, they’re reaching out, it’s like they were blasted out and are responding to the physical space and the kind of interaction that’s demanded of art today after abstract expressionism. We look at and into Ashley’s world but we’re confronted by Paula’s world.”
— Jennifer R. Gross
In Wilson’s “Sunflower,” a 2017 floor-to-ceiling assemblage of woodblock print, silkscreen, batik, fabric, and other material, a figure draped in luxuriant green and fiery orange and yellow reaches high over a brick wall to take a video close-up of one of the sunflowers bursting the frame of the rectangle overhead. In the impishly surreal video, we see a sunflower’s human hands reach out to rub the seeds from its sunflower face and then rub them into place again.
“Sunflowers are in our garden and grow wild about town,” says Wilson of her home in Carrizozo, in rural New Mexico, in an interview last year with Heidi Howard in BOMB Magazine. “They rotate toward the light. They demand to be seen, and I was happy to oblige their calling.”
In another video installation, Wilson explores the symbiosis of the yucca moth with the edible, white yucca flowers, turning the sensuality of their desert blooms into the artist’s symbolic dance with stylized wings. Playfulness of scale animates many of Wilson’s multimedia works. In “Creatures of the Fire” – a title that references the threat posed to insects by the smoke of wildfires and the climate crisis – Wilson depicts herself holding up a magnifying glass to a brightly colored moth, the tiny speck of white in the corner of her own eye a fraction the size of the giant eyespots on the moth’s wings.
Paula Wilson, 2020. Monotypes on various papers and fabrics with India ink, pastel, charcoal, and crayon; fasteners: acrylic paint on wood. 187 x 99 in. (475 x 251.5 cm). Collection of the artist.
Surprises of scale and self-representation also serve in Wilson’s assemblages to reassert the place of Black and multiracial women in art history. In “Picked,” a woman looks back at us from the intricately carved handle of a comb hanging from a woman’s neck, while over her right shoulder is a distant view of mountains among which strides the giant figure of a woman whose upper torso becomes a tree. The towering figure of the artist in “Thy Self” gathers in the architecture of her old-fashioned, ankle-length hoop skirt a world of allusion: a naked woman picking a flower, a sharp-toothed monster lurking behind the transparent skin of a person kneeling, perhaps in prayer or in suffering. The artist holding an antique frame around her head and shoulders and the overlay of drawn and redrawn lines might be an invitation, in the face of history’s silencing, to reclaim agency in telling one’s own stories.
Bryan’s tragic and profound series of portraits and stories from his book Freedom Over Me form what he described as his most difficult creative project. After discovering an estate appraisal from 1828 that identified enslaved men, women, and children only by name, age, and price, Bryan was determined to honor and restore their individuality through art and poetry. According to Bryan, he “studied each one, listening for their voices. I wrote what I heard in free verse to give emphasis to their words. These words tell of their backgrounds and of their work on the estate. Then, to bring these people closer, I wrote their inner thoughts as they went about their work, then created the art that illustrates these individuals’ desires to realize their dreams.”
“How did Ashley make that transition to brilliant color? That’s what he discovered in African textiles – ochre, red, and black – a very dramatic shift from mixed color to pure color, then he runs from there…”— Jennifer R. Gross
For curator Jennifer Gross, the heart of the exhibition is the giving spirit that illuminates the work of both artists. “Art is a gift,” said Gross. “It can be a lesson, but it’s also a gift. For Ashley and for Paula, this is very important. They are both very knowing about the difficulties of the world. With all Ashley’s life experience, he is no innocent. He chose to be a lover. He made a choice, and it was a hard choice. After the war, he had to find himself – he felt so wounded, wounded by humanity. He felt discouraged, and he made a commitment to redeem as much as he could, day by day and relationship by relationship. And Paula, in this time of tumult in our country and in the world, she believes in that gift also. It is an embrace, a belief that beauty is something that nourishes us every day. Both of them have that true joy in making.”
Gross continued, “At the end of his life, Ashley was able to circle around and complete the narrative in that he could present his anger and disappointment. But that was not why he was an artist, he was an artist in defiance of that. And that was empowering to be able to do this in the world, to scatter the stars with his hands.”
The exhibit “Ashley Bryan/Paula Wilson: Take the World into Your Arms” is on display Feb. 17 – July 31, 2023, at Colby Museum’s Joan Dignam Schmaltz Gallery of Art at the Paul J. Schupf Art Center, 93 Main St., Waterville.
Interview with Paula Wilson, BOMB Magazine, 10/24/22: bombmagazine.org/articles/turning-to-the-light-paula-wilson-interviewed/