A common dream

Visual Voices exhibit on display at the
Schuster Center

“He Had His Dream” by Morris Howard.

By Terri Gordon

The annual Visual Voices exhibit, created through a partnering of the Victoria Theatre Association and the Willis “Bing” Davis Art Studio is on display now in the lobby of the Schuster Center. The King/Dunbar Art Project uses the writings of Dayton’s own Paul Laurence Dunbar to highlight the ideals of Martin Luther King, Jr. with its theme The Preacher, The Poet, The Vision. The exhibition is timely, as the world prepares to commemorate the 50th anniversary of King’s death.

The project was created through Shango: Center for the Study of African-American Art and Culture, the non-profit wing of the Davis Art Studio and EbonNia Gallery in the Wright-Dunbar Historic District. The studio was started by artist Willis “Bing” Davis, who also curated the King/Dunbar Art Project. Visual Voices is produced annually and is in its 12th year.

Thirteen contemporary African American artists from Dayton and the Miami Valley region—Abner Cope, Dwayne Daniel, Cliff Darrett, Bing Davis, Derrick Davis, Horace Dozier, Lois Fortson-Kirk, Al Harden, Kevin Harris, Morris Howard, James Pate, Craig Screven, and Yvette Walker Dalton—participated in the King/Dunbar Art Project, creating works of various media—ceramics, paintings, photography, and more.

“The challenge to the artists,” explains Davis, “[was] to go back to Dunbar, and find works of Dunbar that spoke to the same concerns that Dr. King lived and died for. And in this way, we’re celebrating two icons—Dr. King, and our own Paul Laurence Dunbar—in a unique way.

“Both of these men, who died before [they were] 40, yet achieved greatness in their lives that affected the whole world—what they did with their lives merits celebration. What we hope, as we look and reflect on the lives of these two giants, is that we will see a need to rededicate ourselves to making a better world for our children and our people and our community, and the world itself.

“It’s unfortunate that we evidently are going to have to fight some old battles—segregation, bigotry, racism—and so we need to look at these two giants, who did it with style and praise as examples.”

While Dunbar died in 1906, almost a quarter century before King was born, his work often examines the same issues, such as racism, discrimination, and injustice. He uses his poems to expose hypocrisies and encourage the downtrodden. He too, dreams.

“There Comes a Time,” by Yvette Louise Walker Dalton links Dunbar’s poem “The Seedling,” with King’s call for people to stand up for themselves—and change the world in doing so. As Dalton points out in her artist statement, both King and the seedling “show others how to emerge from the darkness,” with Dunbar encouraging people not to quit “Till you raise to light and beauty/ Virtue’s fair unfading flowers.”

Davis’ own “A Warrior’s Prayer Dance Mask” connects Dunbar’s poem, “The Warrior’s Prayer” to King’s struggle for justice—both men asking for the fortitude needed to carry on their fights.

Derrick Davis chronicles personal growth in his statement for “Flag of Equity,” a work of pencil and collage inspired by Dunbar’s “Keep a-Pluggin’ Away.” Davis admits to his own error in seeing Dunbar simply as a poet, and realizing the full power of his words: “Perseverance still is king;/ Time its sure reward will bring;/ Work and wait unwearying,—/ Keep a-pluggin’ away.”

“He Had His Dream,” by Morris Howard, depicts in an oil painting, Martin Luther King, Jr. asleep in a chair, a newspaper in his lap. A portrait of Dunbar hangs behind him, and President Obama appears on a television. Howard’s inspiration was Dunbar’s poem of the same name, “He Had His Dream,” about a man who works hard, and believes his labors will pay off. He chooses to see signs of progress, even amid the storms. The front page of the newspaper in Howard’s painting shows Reagan signing Martin Luther King, Jr. Day into law. “He saw through every cloud a gleam—/ He had his dream.”

Clifford Darrett also uses “He Had His Dream” as the inspiration for his oil painting of King kneeling in front of a United States flag. While men must keep the faith—and the hope—alive, they must also be realistic, he says in his artist statement, and “demand their rights,” protesting in non-violent ways.

Visual Voices 2018: The King/Dunbar Project will be on view at the Schuster Center, 1 West 2nd St., Dayton until March 30. It will then move to the EbonNia Gallery, 1135 West Third St. for display from April 8 through June 25, and then to the Dayton Power & Light Headquarters for showing from June 26 to July 30. For more information, visit VictoriaTheatre.com or call 937.228.7591. 

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Freelance writer Terri Gordon writes across a range of topics, including nature, health, and homes and gardens. She holds a masters in English and occasionally teaches college composition and literature. Her blog, WordWorks (http://tsgordon.blogspot.com) is a "bulletin board" of some of her favorite things.

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