Finding a way to commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. using the voice of Dayton poet Paul Laurence Dunbar was a challenge local artists took on for the 2018 Visual Voices art exhibit.
“The Preacher, The Poet, The Vision,” on display in the Wintergarden of Dayton’s Schuster Center, was designed to mark the anniversary of the civil rights icon’s death.
“It turned out to be one of the best exhibits we’ve had in the 13 years we’ve been working, and part of that was because it was the most difficult,” said Willis “Bing” Davis, curator of the exhibition.
“It required another level of thinking for each of the artists. We charged them to do a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but do it through Paul Laurence Dunbar’s writing. Both of these giants died before they were 40, but they achieved greatness in their lives.”
The exhibition showcases the work of 13 African-American artists with local ties. Among the pieces on display are an oil painting by Abner Cope, works in clay by the Rev. Dr. Lois Fortson Kirk and digital photography by first-time exhibitor Horace Dozier Sr.
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The artists were given about four months to complete the project, according to Davis. “Halfway through, I gave consideration to canceling the exhibit because it seemed like it was going to be too tough and too difficult,” he said. “Because of that double level of thinking, artists were having difficulty coming up with what they thought would be an inspiration.”
Any concerns Davis had about whether the show would go on disappeared when he saw the finished pieces. “I had no idea what to expect, but when the work came in I was overwhelmed.”
Artist James Pate’s digital image, “Artist and Clergy,” was inspired by Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy” with its iconic refrain, “I know why the caged bird sings!” The piece merges black-and-white images of the facial features of Dunbar and Dr. King into one.
“In addition to showing compassion for the bird who is caged, Dunbar is also expressing sympathy for those caging the bird, who are also inadvertently caging themselves with their practice of injustice,” Pate wrote in his artist statement. “For as Dr. King so eloquently stated in his Birmingham letter, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”
Morris Howard’s oil painting, “He Had His Dream,” was inspired by Dunbar’s poem of the same name.
“Through the dark clouds of a segregated America, Dr. King indeed ‘saw through every cloud a gleam,’ Howard wrote in his statement.
The painting captures Dr. King asleep in a green chair, a newspaper in his lap, dreaming of the past, present and future. Images of Dunbar, Barack Obama and a “drum major for justice,” a line taken from a 1968 sermon made in Atlanta, represent his thoughts.
“We hope not only to commemorate Dr. King and his great work but also to lift up the greatness of Paul Laurence Dunbar and to recommit to the struggle,” said Davis. “We are at a time in this country when we may need to go back and re-fight some old battles. The arts, often time, cannot only make us aware of tough times but help us get through it.
“We have to keep each other encouraged and we’ve got to overcome some difficulties in our society. This may be an opportune time to rethink Dr. King, rethink Dunbar and recommit to the struggle.”
For more than a decade, Shango: Center for the Study of African American Arts and Culture has collaborated with the Victoria Theatre Association to bring the exhibit to the Schuster Center. It will be on display through March 30 and then move to the EboNia Gallery in Dayton’s Wright-Dunbar Business District before it goes on display at the Dayton Power & Light headquarters June 26.
“What we hope is that anyone who views the exhibition will ask themselves, can I make a rededication to the struggle that Dr. King lived and died for?” said Davis. “And to also ask, what can I do? This is what the artists are doing, what can I do in my own way?”