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Through My Eyes: Ashford's Art Finds Joy in Crisis

by Joshua Peters

August 2, 2016

Photos: (above) Nellie Ashford's "Miles to Walk Before We Sleep" (2016; (below) "Sewing Elegance To a Queen For a Queen"

Folk art is art that has been taken ownership of by a people. Folk art is the intersection of tradition, culture, and creative expression. Self-taught Charlotte folk artist Nellie Ashford has reached that intersection and embraced folk art as a vehicle by which to share her experiences growing up in Charlotte—the people and the traditions all brought to life in mixed media assemblage and collage.

In her latest exhibition, Nellie Ashford: Through My Eyes, at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture (through Jan. 16, 2017), Ashford combines paints, fabrics, papers and surface coatings to bring to life moments from the past. These moments, frozen in time and rendered with a quilt-like appreciation for pattern and color, depict summer days spent in front of an old grand piano in the parlors of old houses, or bright Sunday mornings walking home from church with friends and family. In these and over two dozen more works, the 72-year-old brings to life an era in Charlotte's history still wrought with racial segregation. Despite the reality of the socio-economic and socio-cultural climate in the setting of her works, Ashford turns her creative energy to the quiet, contemplative moments of family, of congregation and of daily routine.

Ashford's artistic approach exudes a humble and endearing honesty. Each of her compositions feels like a labor of love and an earnest attempt to show the audience a time in the South and in African-American cultural history that was filled both with struggle and happiness. One of Ashford's most vibrant works is a piece titled Sewing Elegance To a Queen For a Queen, a mixed media work that depicts a young woman helping another older woman get fitted into a wedding dress. Ashford uses the opportunity presented by the long flowing gown to apply a rippled cloth surface texture using a sheer sequined fabric. This waterfall of fabric draws a beautiful focal point to the piece and brings the audience's eye down vertically through the tall composition. This organization allows the depiction of the young woman helping the subject to come to the fore and provide much-needed visual depth.

Not all of Ashford's depictions of historic Charlotte are idyllic. She also represents the oppressive effects of racial segregation and a pre-Civil Rights North Carolina where opportunity for African-Americans was a constant struggle. In her 2016 work, Miles to Walk Before We Sleep, she depicts a group of African-American travelers—men, women and newborns—in the midst of a long journey, far from their destination but looking toward the horizon hopefully. Each subject is rendered in a combination of acrylic and cut fabric, yet even in these more somber compositions, subjects and setting are bursting with vibrancy, saturation and texture.

Through My Eyes is full of moments of somber but optimistic reflection. Scenes often depict people in motion, preparing for work, traveling home from work, on their way to parties or family functions or on the way to church. It is these moments of quiet locomotion—amidst the simple necessities of life in a Charlotte without widespread access to automobiles or public transportation—that Ashford notes with special artistic affection.

Ashford's unostentatious, but vivid artistic voice is especially clear in her depiction of people. True to her Romare Bearden-influenced style, her subjects are brought to life with simple abstract forms. Tall, lanky figures may be distorted by distance and perspective, but Ashford's masterful utilization of texture and mixed media application imbues her work with an unmistakable reality. Her artistic gift is knowing that the bright summer day in front of the parlor piano would have looked and felt just as hot, humid and bathed in window light as her unpretentious, joyous depiction. It's this knowing curation of beautiful, timeless moments that makes Ashford's collection sing with authenticity. 

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Tags: folk art, Nellie Ashford, Charlotte, Gantt Center, tapestry, mixed media, Civil Rights, North Carolina, Through My Eyes

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