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Artists' works find 'Common Ground'

| Sunday, Dec. 11, 2011

When most of us hear the word Appalachia a certain image comes to mind.

An exhibit on display at the August Wilson Center, Downtown, not only reminds us that we live in Appalachia, but also teaches a newly formed term, "Affrilachia."

"Affrilachia ( af-ruh-LAY-shuh ) is an emerging term that describes African Americans who live in the Appalachian region," says Cecile Shellman, artistic director of visual arts and exhibition initiatives at the center. "The term was coined by a poet from the South. His name is Frank X. Walker, and he is the founder of a group of poets who call themselves Affrilachian poets."

The exhibit, titled "Common Ground: Affrilachia! Where I'm From," features 46 works by 31 artists, not only from Western Pennsylvania but nearly the entire Appalachian region, stretching from southern New York to northern Georgia.

Shellman and Sharif Bey, professor of art from Syracuse University, were responsible for organizing the northern portion of the exhibit. Marie Cochran, an independent art curator and art professor working in North Carolina and Georgia on the Affrilachian Visual Art Project, was responsible for organizing the southern portion.

"That's why you'll find two different colored labels throughout the exhibit," Shellman says. "Some are pink, which represents artists from our region, and others are green, which were mostly from the South.

"We're not grappling for whose better, Pittsburgh-area artists or those outside of Pittsburgh," she says. "We're all a part of this common stretch of land, and it's about where we are from conceptually, artistically, emotionally and what we can produce. We can have this collaborative show, and you might not know where the artist is from, whether it be Pittsburgh or some little hollow deep down in Georgia somewhere."

Each of the works hold its own among what is a diverse mix of styles, mediums and modes of expression.

For example, works by Pittsburgh-area quilters Mayota Hill, Tina Brewer and Sandra K. German mix well among abstract sculptures by Christine Bethea and Vanessa German.

The Germans are related. Sandra German (the mother) makes the most elaborate allegorical quilts, and Vanessa (the daughter) displays assemblage sculptures that combine baby-doll parts with musical instruments.

"Vanessa's sculptures have fiddles for bodies to reference the music of the Appalachian region," Shellman says.

Where Vanessa German's baby-doll sculptures -- "Affrilachian Fiddle #1" and "Affrilachian Fiddle: Blues/Grass" -- are covered in beads, tiny toys and cockle shells, in similar fashion, Brewer and Sandra German's massive 8 1/2-foot-diameter skirt, titled "Gazelle," also is covered in beads and cockle shells.

Visitors may remember this skirt from the 2009 FashionAFRICANA Legacy Show at the center, and at the center's grand opening celebration that year, when a male model wore the piece and welcomed visitors to the center.

As arresting as that piece is, there are many more attention-grabbing works on display, most notably Willis (Bing) Davis' altar-like installation "Portable Shrine in Homage to the Middle Passage."

Taking up half of a small gallery, the piece is comprised of an accumulation of miscellaneous objects Davis, a retired Depauw and Miami of Ohio university art professor from Dayton, has collected during the past 20 years in conjunction with objects given to Davis by more than half of artists whose work is on display.

"Every time he installs this, he makes it place-specific by asking others to include something," Shellman says, who donated an item. "For me, it was a very spiritual experience, seeing the care he took in placing all of these objects."

Although shrines are thought of as constructed sites filled with precious materials, Davis' shrine allows the visitor to approach a portable shrine constructed of found objects that reflect a family -- represented by several pairs of shoes placed at the center -- acknowledging their African-American heritage.

Also from the Dayton/Cincinnati area, two artists, who happen to be twins, display two ceramic pieces that are sure to catch one's attention. Kelly and Kyle Phelps are university art professors. The two pieces on display here -- "Carlita" and "The Meek" -- are two of 20 ceramic wall sculptures they created during their sabbatical leave from their positions -- Kyle Phelps from University of Dayton and Kelly Phelps from Xavier University.

Both pieces represent the plight of America's low-wage earners. "Carlita" shows a weary maid slumped over a janitor's cart, and "The Meek" is a representation of two female factory workers inside a factory.

Before receiving their masters degrees from the University of Kentucky, the Phelps brothers worked in an automobile factory, much like their father had. These pieces, with their common theme of the deterioration of the working class, are probably the most socio-politically motivated works in the show. And, by far, the best crafted.

Then, there is "The New Religion" by DeWayne (BLove) Barton of Asheville, N.C., which is quite the opposite, but purposely so. At nearly 8 feet in diameter, this wall-mounted cross-shaped sculpture made of coffin forms is sure to grab you.

Inside of the coffins is an accumulation of all kinds of oddities -- plastic toys, metal ironing boards, even locks of the artist's hair -- all scavenged from his Burton Street neighborhood in West Asheville. The crucifix shape of the piece underscores a satirical message regarding consumerism, Shellman says. "The message is obviously about materialism, and stuff, and what it does to someone," she says.

Shellman is quick to point out that most of the artwork on display is for sale, with a small portion of the proceeds benefitting the August Wilson Center.

"We want to help these artists, whether it's through the Affrilachian Visual Art Project or having another juried exhibition of works by local artists like this," Shellman says. "We are about creating opportunities and introducing artists to this space and to each other."

Additional Information:

'Common Ground: Affrilachia! Where I'm From'

When: Through March 17. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays

Admission: $8; $4 for senior citizens and students with ID; $3 for children.

Where: August Wilson Center, 980 Liberty Ave., Downtown

Details: 412-258-2700 or website

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