ArtFields fights for artistic expression as McClellanville artist's quilt of a man being lynched creates controversy

Artistic Freedom

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'Bitter fruit racial crop' - PROVIDED BY LORETTA GERALD
  • Provided by Loretta Gerald
  • 'Bitter fruit racial crop'
Lake City, S.C.'s ArtFields, founded in 2013 and held every spring, honors Southeastern artists with exhibitions, events, and awards. Art is displayed in venues all over the tiny town — from warehouses to boutiques and it's generally a mild mannered affair. This year, however, Loretta Gerald's quilt, "Bitter fruit racial crop," which depicts a KKK member and a lynched black man, is raising eyebrows and causing controversy.

While ArtFields doesn't technically begin until today, talk surrounding the show started last week when East Main Market's owner Barbara Miles put up "Bitter fruit racial crop" in her store. Various Facebook posts started appearing, with people debating that the image is too controversial and divisive for the arts festival.

Comments like, "This is disgusting! I hope that residents of this area will boycott your event this year!!!," "I will do as much as I can to get it removed. SHAME ON LAKE CITY LEADERSHIP AND THE ART PANEL THAT APPROVED THIS HATEFUL ART," and "his doesn't help find peace and love between races" were among the comments.

The 53 1/2 x 41 1/2 inch quilt has a folk art style, but a disturbing tableau — a black man in overalls hangs from a tree, while a KKK member holding a Confederate flag looks on below. And while some are calling for the work to be pulled from the festival, ArtFields program director Taronda Barnes says pieces like Gerald's are exactly the kinds of dialogue creating works ArtFields hopes to showcase.

"People are actually going into the venue and having a conversation. They see this is not something she [Loretta Gerald] just painted in a few hours. It took her eight long months to stitch. Each stitch involved a lot of feeling," says Barnes.

Like all of ArtFields participants, Gerald's work was chosen by a judicial review panel. "As a team we make sure the artists are from the 12 Southeastern states we pull from," says Barnes. In addition to this requirement, artists must be 18 years or older and submit original works. Other than those details, ArtFields accepts any work of art into their competition. These works are then submitted to a review panel who rank the art on a scale from 1-5. The top 400 ranking works are then picked out by participating venues and displayed around town.

And while Barnes says that the vitriol and pushback to Gerald's quilt has died down, conversations around the piece continue.
Loretta Gerald creates her works from visions inspired by God. - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Loretta Gerald creates her works from visions inspired by God.
"The art is about a lot of things in my life," says Gerald of "Bitter fruit racial crop." The quilt, which she says is inspired by a vision from God, started as a sketch. When Gerald has a vision she immediately sketches it out, later turning the image into a piece fabric and thread. Her mediums vary from quilts to drawings. Gerald says that God uses her as a vessel, and through him she draws what she sees in her visions.

Gerald used whatever she had available to create "Bitter fruit racial crop." The tree in the quilt is made from a piece of one of Gerald's purses; the plaid shirt on the hanged man is from one of her items of clothing. "It wasn't about nobody or no thing," says Gerald of the image. "The hanging man could be anyone — he doesn't have any hair, so it could be a man, woman, or child. The KKK figure could be white or black."

Gerald explains that, throughout history, both white and black people have hurt the African-American population in various ways. "We bring each other down, too," she says of African Americans. "For those who say it's in the past, they are being fooled." Gerald references police violence against African Americans as an atrocity being committed in the present.

In a Southeastern arts festival, it's hard to imagine not including images that evoke strong feelings and memories of the region's ugly past. You can scroll through the various artwork in this year's festival to get an idea of the history on display. There's Sandra Anderson's "Ghost of the Rice Culture," a photograph of a dilapidated church. In her artist's statement she says, "By photographing them there will at least be a record of their existence and that somebody cares."

There are other works at ArtFields that also draw from recent history to make a point, like Dolores Hayes-Lott's "Jim Crow," a pastel and acrylic on canvas, which, as her artist statement says, "depicts the lack of a voice by our black youth regarding the resurgence of a New Jim Crow Society in our country ... Legalized Slavery 2016."

"It means whatever it means to you," says Gerald of her art. Like Barnes, she believes in the conversations that can come from potentially controversial pieces of art. "I don't know why everyone is feeling so extra about this piece," says Gerald. She references a Lake City monument erected in 2013, one that honors the life of a black postmaster, Frazier B. Baker and his daughter, who were lynched in 1898. "That was just three years ago," says Gerald of the monument.

The list of racially charged, inspired, and influenced works among the work at ArtFields over the years is fairly long (there are over 400, after all). Barnes says that the festival gets submissions like these every year — we're talking about artists from the Southeast who are telling the stories of both their past and their present. None of the previous years' submissions were quite as blatant as Gerald's, though. "We knew there would be discussion [about it]," says Barnes. "We're not naive."

That's why the small arts fest held in a town with a population of roughly 7,000, the majority of them African American, will continue to fight against censorship. In a statement last weekend, ArtFields responded, "The panel chose this piece for its power to evoke, as did the venue owner. They understood it would create important dialogue. We empathize with any anger or fear this decision has caused, yet stand by an abiding belief in artistic expression."

As Barnes says, "The art outside of our small town goes beyond what we see every day. Some of the art we've seen as a team has opened our eyes. The art they [artists] create is about their everyday lives, who are we to tell them what to do?"

ArtFields kicks off today, with various events held through April 29. Read more about the festival online.

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