Framing the Narrative

Big Stories Take Over the Bartlett Center in Columbus, Georgia     

by D. Amari Jackson

 

Scale matters. Particularly, for the next few months at the Bo Bartlett Center where the sizable exhibition Big Stories dominates the 18,425-square-foot interactive gallery at Columbus State University in downtown Columbus, Georgia. The exhibit, which runs from September 15 to December 16, is billed as a survey of large scale contemporary figurative painting informed by the narrative tradition.

“The paintings of Big Stories are the manifestations of contemporary artists striving to find the stories that connect to the larger world… where personal stories become universal… their inner world, finds connection to the outer world,” wrote artist and center namesake, Bo Bartlett, in the exhibit’s accompanying statement. The center specializes in large scale, monumental paintings, so going big is par for the course. “By going deep into their own lives and presenting their own personal narrative, they are connecting through universal stories to the world at large.”

These contemporary creatives have big stories to tell and many of them have done so for decades. The exhibit boasts an impressive and diverse array of artists from different cultures, locations, genders, and perspectives but connected by their keen capacity for visual narrative. They include such talents and luminaries as Steven Assael, Bo Bartlett, Margaret Bowland, Noah Buchanan, Aleah Chapin, Alfred Conteh, Vincent Desiderio, Carl Dobsky, Michelle Doll, Najee Dorsey, Zoey Frank, Paul Fenniak, Andrea Kowch, Adam Miller, Odd Nerdrum, Amy Sherald, Tim Short, and Patricia Watwood. 

“They approached me about this exhibition and said they wanted to talk about contemporary figurative narrative works,” says Michael McFalls, professor of art and director of the Bartlett Center at Columbus State, referring to Bartlett and the group of curators that approached him. “When they were putting this show together, they wanted to show a broad context of that, so we have everything from a Steven Assael work in here which is just amazing, a masterpiece. We have an Odd Nerdrum piece, but then we have an Amy Sherald and a Najee Dorsey and an Alfred Conteh,” points out McFalls. “So it is really trying to showcase a diversity of approaches to storytelling and narrative storytelling at that.” 

Such diversity is also a result of the input of Black Art In America (BAIA) given its contributions to the exhibit, including the works on loan by Conteh, Short, and BAIA’s own Najee Dorsey. 

“These opportunities just don’t happen in a vacuum,” clarifies Dorsey, noting how McFalls reached out for content prior to the exhibit. “These are relationships that are years in the making. BAIA has become a trusted source for institutions to reach out to identify talent, to have us curate shows, or to offer works from our holdings because they trust our eye and our judgment.” 

“We’re actively working in this market to facilitate opportunities from a strategic standpoint of the company,” explains Dorsey. “We’re actively acquiring works from artists, both local and national, but primarily local. And then we’re facilitating opportunities for this work to be seen by the public and in public spaces and forums that provide a good benefit to the artist.”

The benefits are even bigger given the Big Stories exhibit is being presented in conjunction with the New York Academy of Art.

While these stories are big, a less known part of the narrative is the local Columbus arts network that produced several of the artists participating in the exhibit. A progressive and emerging destination for art, the city is home to Columbus State University, the Corn Center for the Visual Arts, and the Columbus Museum along with such established or affiliated institutions as The Bo Bartlett Center, the Illges Gallery, the Bay Gallery, the Fulcrum Gallery, Pasaquan, Gallery on Tenth, Highland Gallerie, and the Heritage Art Center. Prior to, during, and because of the city’s emergence as a magnet for art, numerous prominent artists have either repped by birth or were drawn to the western Georgia town on the banks of the Chattahoochee while furthering their artistic expression or, more appropriately, increasing the scale of their stories.

It’s a creative lineage going back at least 132 years with the 1891 birth of Columbus native, Alma Thomas. An African-American painter, art educator, and Howard University’s first art department graduate in 1924, Thomas helped found Washington DC’s first Black owned-and-run gallery space in the 1940s. In 1972, Thomas received national attention upon becoming the first Black woman to mount a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. By 1976, top museums across the nation had acquired over a dozen of her works, a feat few artists could claim then or since.

About that time, another Columbus native and one of the primary contributors to Big Stories was beginning to develop his own sizable artistic narrative. In 1974, a 29-year-old Bartlett traveled to Florence, Italy to study privately with painter and fresco artist, Ben F. Long IV. Three years later, after transferring to Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Bartlett was awarded the academy’s prestigious Packard Prize, the first of many over an impactful career spanning five decades. In 2012, he opened the Bo Bartlett Center in Columbus.

In 1973, one year after Thomas gained national prominence, renowned painter Amy Sherald was born in Columbus. An introverted youth who liked to isolate herself and draw, Sherald’s world expanded significantly upon a sixth-grade field trip to the Columbus Museum where she viewed “Object Permanence,” a striking, colorful painting by Bartlett that included the image of a Black man. “The image of a young Black man looking at me, just seeing myself in that work was powerful,” Sherald once told Artnet. “I still feel the same about it and it’s still a great part of my inspiration as a figurative painter. It’s a reminder that there need to be more images out there existing in the world that can offer other children and people that same experience that I had in that moment when I first saw that painting in a museum.”  

Sherald’s star rose significantly in 2016 when she became the first African American and woman to win the National Portrait Gallery's Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition with her painting, “Miss Everything.” A year later, she and Kehinde Wiley were selected by then first couple,  Barack and Michelle Obama, to paint their official presidential portraits, becoming the first African Americans to receive presidential portrait commissions from the National Portrait Gallery.

A few years before that, in 2014, Dorsey relocated to Columbus after getting a solo show at the Columbus Museum. “I saw that it was a unique opportunity to move and be connected with a community that was showing a lot of interest in what I was doing,” acknowledges Dorsey, pointing to the increasing status of the city as an emerging market. “I was thinking that, being in a smaller market, I could be the go-to guy and that’s basically what happened. And I couldn’t have arrived at a better time, having a solo show at the museum, and being tied in to the arts community, the museum community, and the university.”

For Big Stories, Dorsey was intentional regarding the pieces he loaned to the exhibit. “We have a lot of pieces to show and I could have sent them a number of pieces to consider,” he says, noting how McFalls reached out to him as a resource to help diversify the show. “I could have sent them anything, but I chose to send them those pieces and, particularly Tim Short, because of the strength of his work, his status as an emerging artist, and because he is from the Columbus community.” 

It was just the type of diversity, says McFalls, the curatorial team was “looking for, work that talks about this broader human experience, whether it is different cultures, different ethnicities, different classes, or different groups.” Further, “they wanted to look at this long western cannon of literature and storytelling and how those ideas have been a vital element in art.”

Dorsey promotes how Black Art In America has played a vital role in assisting such sizable institutional exhibits. 

“This opportunity came about as a result of relationships that I was able to establish in Columbus,” says Dorsey, acknowledging his satisfaction from introducing an emerging artist like Short to the museum scene while facilitating the third museum exhibit for Conteh’s Evan and Aaron. “Tim is in the show. This is his first museum show and it's in his hometown.” 

“So Big Stories happens,” continues Dorsey, and “we’re showing how BAIA, through forward thinking, identifying talent, being active collectors, and active in the arts ecosystem, has forged relationships with people that are longstanding and that create opportunities for artists that BAIA is interested in working with. It’s about the various things that we do to buy work, support artists, cultivate relationships, and cultivate the artist’s career by giving him shows.” 

“But this doesn't happen in a vacuum,” reiterates Dorsey. 

“This is all curated and intentional.” 



Big Stories runs at the Bo Bartlett Center from September 15th to December 16th, 2023. A public reception will take place at the center on Thursday, October 5th at 6 PM to gather and explore the depth and significance of Big Stories together. For more information, visit https://bartlettcenter.columbusstate.edu/.





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