The membership within Creative Women of Color, formed in 2006 under the name Sistahs of the Arts, stretches from pioneering Columbus artists who once displayed at to newcomers just starting to find their footing within the art world.
There are stark black and white works that exist as commentaries on protest and rebellion (a series by Merele Wilder built on the phrase “They tried to bury us… but they forgot we were seeds”), vivid portraits that explode with color (a trio of paintings by Gaye Reissland) and even handcrafted pieces of jewelry from artist Beryl Thompson, who included two necklaces created pre-pandemic and one more recent, with the latter piece displaying lively colors that the artist traced in part to emerging feeling renewed following these challenging few years.
And yet, despite the variety of mediums and perspectives on display, there is a loose thread connecting the works, which exist as commentaries on and extensions of the experiences of the Black women creators.
“I know that a number of times we’ve had shows, some of the comments from people have been that the pieces are colorful, and I think, culturally, being African American, and having roots in Africa, we do use color,” said Thompson, who embarked on her jewelry-making career later in life, following 35 years working as an educator. “Africans use different colors to express themselves, because the colors all have different meanings.”
Thompson said she initially started to craft her own earrings and necklaces when she encountered jewelry she couldn’t afford, and she wanted to see if she could make something similar. So, she enrolled in classes at the Cultural Arts Center, gradually learning how to shape metals and make her own beads, drawn to the vibrant colors and diverse textures she viewed within African culture. “Sometimes I might make a bib that’s woven and then add beads to it just to make it different,” said Thompson, who has been a part of CWC since 2012. “I like to make unusual things – things you don’t really see other people wear.”
According to Thompson, her artistic pursuits have been greatly aided and shaped by her fellow artists in CWC, who have functioned as source of inspiration and a support system, particularly in the group's earlier years when opportunities were even more scarce for Black women artists.
Regardless, Thompson said the group’s mission has remained steady, even as more Columbus galleries have opened doors and walls to Black artists.
“We still do outreach in the community, and work with organizations and work with children,” Thompson said. “And it’s still a support system, and when we have meetings, we share what we’re working on and we get feedback from one another. … I think it’s led to growth for most of us, and you can see over the years how their art has progressed and changed, or how they’ve gotten into different mediums.”
At the height of the renewed Black lives matter movement of May 2020, for instance, Thompson stretched into sculpture, crafting a black and white diorama centered on a tree, each leaf imprinted with the name of a Black person killed by police. “It was something I felt I needed to do,” said Thompson, who added that creating can have a meditative effect, the focus on detail allowing the outside world to melt away.
Pepper Kojo, who has a trio of paintings at the Vanderelli Room, said art has allowed her a similar sense of self-exploration, her displayed works digging into everything from spirituality to the complexity of the Black experience. Collectively, the works, pulled from three eras of her long career (1971, 1999 and 2022), also reveal a perseverance and dedication to craft, with the earliest displayed painting coming from a time when opportunities for Black artists within Columbus were few.
“I’m one of the old members of ACE, and we were always about the person, where even if we questioned their work, we would at least show one piece,” said Kojo, who credited the current exhibit at the Vanderelli Room with adopting a similarly open-armed approach. “We have outsider artists and professionals. We have people who went to CCAD and a novice who didn’t really understand the gallery experience. … And that diversity is a part of [Creative Women of Color], along with community involvement and cultural development and support. We are supportive of people who are new to the art area and are willing to volunteer."