By Marion Filler
Controversy and COVID couldn’t stop Art in the Atrium (ATA) from celebrating its 31st anniversary.
Soul of African American Art runs at Morristown’s Mayo Performing Arts Center (MPAC) through March 5, 2023.
The work of 31 new and established artists is displayed at the hallway entrance of the Starlight Room and throughout the second-floor lobby area.
ATA started in 1992 as an idea of Morristown couple Victoria (Viki) and Charles Craig, who wanted to provide a public space for Black artists to show their work. Viki was a quilter whose creations were pieces of art. Charles is an attorney.
Viki passed away in 2018, but Charles and daughters Simone and Lauren have carried on in a big way, expanding the annual event to five exhibits this year. And granddaughter Charleigh, who shares the same birthday as her grandad, and was present at Sunday’s opening, is waiting in the wings.
“When my parents and their friends put their first show up in the Atrium” — the Atrium Gallery at the Morris County administration building–“they weren’t expecting to do another one in the next year,” said Simon Craig.
“They never guessed that the idea to showcase Black artists would be so successful. It was a call from the community.”
ATA’s three-plus decades haven’t always been smooth sailing.
The nonprofit’s first exhibit in 1992 started with a kerfuffle over Angry White Mailan installation piece by Russell Murray. A torrent of envelopes cascading down a toilet, as if being flushed, made front page news in Morristown. The press called it Tempest in a Toilet. It was minimally provocative, and extremely funny. County authorities weren’t laughing.
Yet for more than a quarter century, ATA filled four floors of the Atrium in Morristown with paintings, sculptures and installations. It became one of the foremost venues for African American art in the East.
Shortly before Viki died, however, ATA was notified the Atrium Gallery no longer was available for the show.
Judiciary officials expressed concerns that some artworks might influence jurors because of their proximity to courtrooms.
Images of Mumia Abu Jamal, a former Black Panther convicted of killing a police officer, and native American Leonard Peltier, convicted of murdering FBI agents, were two examples.
Both of those murder trials were controversial. Superior Court Assignment Judge Stuart Minkowitz’s sole concern was maintaining confidence in the judicial system, a spokesman said in 2019.
There was an outcry in Morristown and beyond. After going virtual during the pandemic, ATA returned in 2022 to the Atrium, where a plaque now honors Viki Craig.
ATA will be back at the Atrium this summer, too. Other ATA shows are scheduled for Novartis in East Hanover, the Morris Museum in Morris Township, and Overlook Medical Center in Summit.
‘ART IS POWER’
The Mayo exhibition is starting the year in style.
Quilter Janet O. Green came from Laurel, MD., for the opening of The Soul of African American Art. Her largest quilt, a stunning black grid interspersed with bright blocks of fabric, took about two weeks to make. The patterns and colors are vivid.
“I’m an instructor at the Sew Creative Lounge in Mount Rainer, Washington DC, and they carry incredible African fabrics,” said Green, who takes full advantage of their dynamism.
Using a balanced palette of russet, orange and yellow from the same source, she wore a long, quilted vest of her own design. Warm and lightweight, it’s another example of how versatile the medium can be.
Green doesn’t have her own website just yet. “But I am on Instagram and will have a site pretty soon,” she said.
A selection of her quilts can be found adjacent to the entrance to the Starlight Room and they are all for sale. As for the vest…it may have to be a special order.
Atop the stairs leading to the second-floor lounge, look for three small mixed media studies of Billie Holiday tucked away in the corner.
They are by Mary Estrella, who is exhibiting for the second time with ATA. Born on the Cape Verde Islands, Portugal, she has lived in New Jersey for 22 years.
“I love jazz and I saw Billie Holiday in a documentary and it was very inspiring. I wanted to make something that didn’t emphasize the tragedy in her life, but brings happiness and what she gave to us,” said Estrella.
Each composition starts with the same black and white photo reproduction of a smiling Holiday. Then the fun begins with additions of glitter, fake jewelry, fabric — you name it. They are glitzy, glamorous, and fun, a tribute that probably would have made Holiday smile.
Kadie DempseyMPAC’s community engagement director, thanked everyone involved The Soul of African American Art —especially the artists.
“Your work is your heart and your soul and we acknowledge your talent and ability to bring this space alive by sharing your creative spirit,” Dempsey said.
“ATA is all about community,” said Stephanie Taylor, speaking for the organization. “We wouldn’t really be anything without this community.”
Adding that “art is power,” Taylor emphasized that ATA is committed to celebrating and advancing Black culture by supporting and investing in Black art and artists.
ATA’s next exhibit is at Novartis Pharmaceutical from Feb. 15 – March 5. The Morris Museum follows, from March 17 to July 30.
The Atrium Gallery show runs from
Aug. 15 -31, after a VIP reception on Juneteenth, Thursday, June 15, from 4:30 -6:30 pm, and a public reception from 6 to 9 pm
The fifth and final exhibition of the year is planned for November at Overlook; the date has yet to be announced.