Journal Photo by Charlie Buchanan

Trena McNabb came up with the idea of "Blurring Racial Barriers"
and pulled together a team of individuals and organizations to make it come about.

Read a critique of the first exhibition of "Blurring Racial Barriers" by Tom Patterson.

Sunday, January 29, 2006
Nourishing Community

By Ken Keuffel
JOURNAL ARTS REPORTER

Series of four exhibitions blends visual-art expressions into a mosaic

By Ken Keuffel
JOURNAL ARTS REPORTER

Painter Trena McNabb of Bethania aims to capture the goals, themes and histories of her clients. Her works adorn the walls of companies, retirement homes, museums, hospitals and universities. Like most artists, she spends hours and hours alone in her studio, all but cut off from the rest of humanity. So it still surprises her that her hope of bringing together diverse people through "Blurring Racial Barriers" has become a reality.

"I've always considered myself a hermit," McNabb said recently in Diggs Gallery at Winston-Salem State University, where the first of four cross-cultural exhibitions in "Blurring" is taking place through March 17. "This idea is odd for a hermit."

The other "Blurring" exhibitions will happen in the Salem Fine Arts Center Gallery (March 27-April 30); the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (May 5-June 18); and Delta Arts Center (Sept. 17-Oct. 31).

"Art (gives) people, artists and gallery visitors alike an opportunity to meet each other and to have a common interest about which to talk and share ideas," McNabb is quoted in press materials.

In making the exhibitions happen, McNabb did a lot more than break out of her hermit's shell. She also had to line up the right team to work with her. This consisted of several people, many of them from Crossing 52, a Winston-Salem organization that works to improve race relations through a variety of activities.

The team's members discovered that they had a lot to do and, at least at one point, not all that much time. They had to get the galleries to work in concert, secure a grant from the Winston-Salem Foundation, and step up publicity efforts. And, perhaps most critically, they had to persuade initially resistant artists to submit enough works so that each exhibition would be completely different from the next.

The same pieces, in other words, will not travel from gallery to gallery as "Blurring Racial Barriers" progresses. If patrons want to see "Blurring" in its entirety, they have to visit each of its four exhibitions to do so - even if that means breaking out of their comfort zones to attend a show in a gallery that they have never visited before.

"It's (usually) what I'm familiar with," McNabb said. "The idea here is to get people to try something different, to see our common humanity."

"Blurring" finds its inspiration in the ideas espoused in Noris Binet's Women on the Inner Journey, which McNabb and other artists read and discussed when their now-discontinued book club met. Its roots are in a show that McNabb and Teresa Unseld, who is black, presented jointly at Salem College in 2002.

"Her friends were there; they were African-American," McNabb said. "My friends were there. I thought, 'This is beautiful.'"

The organizing of "Blurring" first got under way in earnest in August of 2004 when McNabb, knowing that she would need the assistance of a lot of volunteers, approached members of Crossing 52 to discuss various possibilities and what it would take to bring them about.

The reaction of Crossing 52 was positive.

"Any time you can get (different) people together, it's good," said Dee Best, one of the group's members.

"They were interested in being my sponsor," said McNabb, recalling her first meeting with them. "I had no clue about funding. When they (Crossing 52) were interested, I started approaching galleries."

When Vicki Kopf, who runs the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, heard about McNabb's intentions, she toldMcNabb that her project would need funding, to underwrite such costs as mailing out invitations to the exhibitions.

So she suggested that McNabb contact Donna Rader, the vice president of grants and programs at the Winston-Salem Foundation. McNabb went to Rader last spring. This was propitious. At the time, the Winston-Salem Foundation was still dispensing ECHO grants. (ECHO stands for "Everyone Can Help Out." ECHO grants underwrite projects that encourage the creation of "social capital," projects in which groups of people from diverse backgrounds build up enough trust to do things "with" each other, rather than merely "for" each other.) Rader, without making any promises, told McNabb that her project complemented the goals of these grants and encouraged her to apply for one - or, rather, for an organization to apply.

"Individuals can't apply," Rader said. "She (McNabb) had to forge a collaboration.... There has to be some evidence that the community wants (it)."

That "evidence" came in the form of support from the galleries and from Crossing 52 - which ended up applying for and receiving the last ECHO grant. Essentially, McNabb, assisted by some members of Crossing 52, ended up applying for ECHO money that was ultimately dispensed to Crossing 52.

"It was scary," McNabb said. "I'm not a writer."

Crossing 52 got what turned out to be the last ECHO grant, over the summer. It was for $16,000.

What really impressed Rader about the "Blurring" project was that, for the first time, all the galleries involved agreed to merge their vastly different mailing lists into one, at least for the duration of "Blurring." A list of at least 9,000 names was created. This, Rader and others said, would get the same information out to everyone. It would counter an increasing segregation in at least parts of Winston-Salem's visual arts scene, often along racial lines, in which different galleries tend to serve vastly different audiences.

"This will cause the mixing of audiences that doesn't happen when they mail to their own," Rader said. "(Otherwise), there's this institutional inertia that takes on a life of its own."

Best, of Crossing 52, sounded equally encouraged.

"People of different races and ages will come together and mingle," she said. "When you know people, differences don't matter."

Indeed, the effort to break down barriers is continuing once people enter the galleries. At the opening of the Diggs exhibition, for example, patrons (preferably those who did not know each other) were put together in small groups and asked to discuss a piece in the exhibit. They then wrote down their impressions on a ring-size poster in the middle of the gallery.

Curiously, "Blurring Racial Barriers" almost didn't happen. Initial calls for artist submissions went unheeded, even as the galleries had lined up slots in their schedules to show them. Minutes of an Aug. 11 meeting of "Blurring" organizers reveal that they had received just two applications from two artists to include works in one of the exhibits. (And one of them was from McNabb.)

Apparently, "Blurring" had created confusion among potential contributing artists. Many felt that they had to come up with something new for the exhibit; they did not. And many had come to believe that they had to contribute pieces that somehow confronted racial problems. Strong resistance to participating had set in.

"When you use the word race, it scares people," said Cheryl Schirillo, who was called in to bolster the public-relations efforts. "It's very controversial."

Mitzi Shewmake, whose work is being shown at Diggs, agreed.

"It's a difficult challenge to ask another artist to show something that is specific to a given problem," she said.

A last-minute campaign, which involved inviting artists to a meeting at Delta Arts in September, was started to clarify the message of "Blurring." The message: Curators "envision a citywide exhibition that celebrates the true racial and cultural diversity of our community, a diversity so rich and so broad the no one institution could capture it alone," press materials say.

Dianne Caesar is the executive director of the Delta Arts Center. To her, the "cultural diversity" of "Blurring" includes the idea of offering "wall space to artists that would not necessarily show at our space." These artists might be inexperienced, with little or no professional training.

"These people consider themselves artists," she said. "They want to be part of the community."

A drought of submissions for "Blurring" soon became a deluge. More than 300 pieces from 100 people have been submitted. Each show will exhibit about 50 pieces, McNabb said. Each is (loosely) connected to a unifying theme, such as justice, the theme of the Diggs exhibition.

"It's larger than just black and white," Shewmake said. "There is some work where I didn't see any relation (to 'Blurring') at all."

"Blurring," then, was a big, challenging project to pull off. But looking back, those involved in it seem convinced that it was always worth pursuing.

After all, if artists and the works they produce could help revitalize a city's downtown, they could also help promote understanding, trust, tolerance and friendships among different racial groups.

"We know that art heals," McNabb said.

Ken Keuffel can be reached at 727-7337 or at kkeuffel@wsjournal.com

Published: January 29, 2006
Reprinted from the Winston-Salem Journal
© Piedmont Publishing Co. Inc.

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