by Kelly Rae Smith
Nothing says "turn the page" quite like looking back at the events that have shaped us, and that's why the Gibbes Museum of Art is kicking off the new year with two dynamic exhibitions that illustrate stories from significant periods in American history.
Opening Jan. 11, Witness to History: Civil Rights Era Photographs by James Karales features moving images from Dr. Martin Luther King's 1960s, while Vibrant Vision: The Collection of Jonathan Green and Richard Weedman gives viewers a tiny glimpse into the couple's expansive 35-year-long assemblage of diverse, multicultural art.
The museum chose to display the Civil Rights-era photographs of Karales to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation as well as the 50th anniversary of desegregation in South Carolina public schools. Karales, who worked for Look Magazine in the 1960s, created powerful images of the era during his travels with Dr. Martin Luther King. "Selma to Montgomery March," arguably his most recognizable piece, will be among the works exhibited through May 12.
"It's essentially the kind of iconic image associated with that particular day," says curator Sara Arnold. "Dr. Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights leaders are stepping out in unison, and it's just this long train of people marching — so many people that it looks like an endless line. And there's this dark, ominous cloud hanging over them but they are determinedly marching forward, and it sort of transcends the whole purpose of the march. It's incredibly memorable, so it's lived on as very symbolic of that particular event."
Karales, who made a name for himself with extraordinary images of the integrated coal-mining town of Rendville, Ohio, captured moments the world would have otherwise never seen, like the intimate space of King's kitchen. "There's another fantastic image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.," Arnold says, "and he's sitting with his daughter in their home at their kitchen table, and apparently it was one of those published in Look Magazine around 1962 or 1963. He's explaining to his daughter why she is not allowed to visit the segregated amusement park in Atlanta, and it's just this very poignant image where you can see he is sort of trying to explain something that is really unexplainable." Witness to History will feature this image, along with the Rendville photographs that launched Karales' career, in the Rotunda Gallery.
Running concurrently in the Main Gallery is Jonathan Green and Richard Weedman's Vibrant Vision. The two have been collecting art for almost as long as they've been together as a couple, unified in their mutual recognition of the importance of preserving art that is historically significant. Although only an excerpt will be exhibited, their 1,300-strong collection of paintings, sculpture, and works on paper explores themes of love, spirituality, and belonging. Featured artists hail from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Cuba, though the most significant portion of art comes from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) era of the 1930s and 1940s, including art that vividly portrays a range of emotions, from the tenderness between parent and child to hard-fought struggles for racial equality.
"The WPA was so important because it provided unprecedented government support to artists," curator Pamela Wall says. "In addition to financial support, the WPA art centers provided artists with access to expensive equipment, such as printing presses, and fostered collaboration among artists. All of these factors resulted in great artistic output during the WPA era."
Despite the disappearance of much of the era's art, Green and Weedman have been able to recover a great deal of the works, and the exhibition is a unique opportunity for the public to witness these and other pieces that inspire them. Green is also displaying a few of his own paintings.
The sharing doesn't stop there. Both Green and Weedman will personally lead one tour per month of the exhibition's run, and they're free. Additionally, there's a mobile website where viewers can expand upon the experience in the galleries, and QR codes will accompany the pieces, presenting a myriad of information attendees can surf through to make the time spent with this influential art all the more rewarding.
"I think this is a period that is sometimes overlooked," Wall says, "but with the strength and quality of the artwork, I really think there's a lot people can enjoy and learn."
Published here in the Charleston City Paper