Tau Lewis, ‘Yard Art’ And Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queen’s University

Just recently, I had the pleasure of participating in a wonderful opportunity to be involved with the arts at Agnes Etherington Art Centre – an artist talk during the lunch hour. I was certainly not the only one – students, seniors, mom & toddlers as well as some making good use of their lunch break at work were in attendance. This eclectic mix of people, sharing a love for the arts, was an inspiring group to join.

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Tau Lewis presents her Artist Talk at Agnes Etherington Art Centre on 26 September.             Photo: Tim Forbes

The speaker was Tau Lewis, the 2018 Stonecroft Artist-in-Residence. This residency is supported by the Stonecroft Foundation for the Arts, the Department of Gender Studies through the Queen’s Visiting Artist-in-Residence Arts Fund and the BFA (Visual Art) Program, Queen’s University.

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Tau Lewis presents her Artist Talk at Agnes Etherington Art Centre on 26 September.            Photo: Tim Forbes

Ms. Lewis’ is a Jamaican-Canadian born in 1993 and living and working in Toronto. Her self-taught practice is rooted in healing personal, collective and historical traumas through labour. She employs methods of construction such as hand sewing, carving and assemblage to build portraits. She considers the history and symbolism of each material, exploring the political boundaries of nature, identity and authenticity. Her work is bodily and organic, with an explicit strangeness. The materiality of Lewis’ work is often informed by her surrounding environment; she constructs out of found objects and repurposed materials, as well as live plants and organisms sourced from urban and rural landscapes. She connects these acts of repurposing and collecting with diasporic experience. Her portraits are recuperative gestures that investigate black identity and agency, memory and recovery. (Source: Tau Lewis)

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Installation view of Tau Lewis: when last you found me here on view until 2 December at Agnes Etherington Art Centre. Photo: Paul Litherland

Before telling us about her own approach and process of creating art, Ms. Lewis took the time to familiarize us with artists who were of great influence to her. She introduced her audience to the concept of ‘Yard Art’ of the southern United States, created by the African American community. This is an intriguing concept of ‘secret’ art, keeping it safe and presented in a code that was undetectable to white folks. This form of outdoor art has evolved over centuries and culminated during the Civil Rights Movement around Birmingham, Alabama. The history of this style of art is wonderfully described by the ‘Souls Grown Deep Foundation’.

“Drive down any country road in the South, from Virginia to East Texas, through any area populated primarily by African Americans, and if you look carefully you can still see evidence of a highly evolved, complex system of outdoor art, in existence since the days of slavery. You will have to look closely, or you will not see it. It is as if a secret language has been inscribed on the Southern landscape.

When black Africans debarked from slave ships, they became part of a system that stripped them of every aspect of personal and cultural identity. They were separated from their ethnic groups, their families, their religions, their philosophies, their history and heritage, their languages, their personal possessions, and even their names. Dislodged from everything except their memories, from everything that could give them pride in themselves or loyalty to anyone other than their slave masters, New World blacks began to create a new heritage, a new identity, a new culture, as personalized and individualized as is possible among an enslaved population.

For the signposts of this new cultural identity to endure and survive, they had to avoid detection. A private language of philosophical and theological concepts had to be woven into an array of art, music, and oral literature, among many other things. The music was safe. It was sung in privacy, and lyrics could be altered according to who was present. Even if white people heard them, they probably did not understand the words, much less their meaning, much less the subtle messages encoded in the rhythms. Folktales and other forms of oral literature were similarly secure. But art had a physical presence. Abstraction and disingenuous explanations could safeguard it but could not totally conceal it. To be protected it needed to be placed where it would not likely be seen. So the cultural heritage contained within the visual arts survived by being put in the graveyard. White people, either out of respect for the dead, or more likely fear, generally stayed away from black cemeteries.

As art gradually made its way from the cemeteries to the woods to the backyards and ultimately to the front yards, it became larger and more overt, but maintained its secrecy by seeming to be unstructured, being composed of unattractive materials, and being characterized by a strange aesthetic, at least, strange for its time and place. That secret language barely exists today, but along the sides of Southern roads there are still a few big piles of “junk,” built with surprisingly consistent ingredients: nonworking appliances, bottles, broken furniture (especially chairs), stones, bricks, pots and pans, and so on. These junk piles were created, carefully and meticulously, by African Americans who were, for instance, farmers, factory workers, preachers, trades persons, schoolteachers, and (these days) old people collecting government subsidies; in short, anyone with an artistic temperament who wanted to make a public yet safe statement.” Source: Souls Grown Deep Foundation

Ms. Lewis told us about several artists representing this genre, such as Hawkins Bolden, Bessie Harvey, Joe Minter and several others. The one that stood out exponentially though was Lonnie Holley. Lonnie and Joe Minter are also the last surviving artists of the ‘Yard Art’ movement.

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Artist Lonnie Holley. Photo by Matthew Arnett, Courtesy of ‘Souls Grown Deep’ Foundation

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Holley had a difficult youth, the seventh of twenty-seven children. He was passed around among various foster homes for years, where he often suffered severe beatings, and was in and out of juvenile detention facilities, serving time for petty crimes. He had little education, but he did pick up a variety of skills. After having been away from his family for many years, he returned to see his mother in Birmingham around 1971, only to find her in abject poverty. It is said that he began to make things with the need to carve tombstones for two of his sister’s children who tragically died in a house fire, as the family didn’t have the wherewithal to purchase commercial markers.

Around 1978, he began making art, carving the cast-off foundry stone that was used for linings in Birmingham’s steel furnaces. In 1981, he brought a few of his carvings to the Birmingham Museum of Art, where director Richard Murray immediately included them in an exhibition, and they were later exhibited at the Smithsonian American Art Museum as well.  As images of his work spread, pieces were acquired by the American Folk Art Museum and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Holley had discovered an until-then latent drive to create, and he moved on from the stone carvings to working with other detritus from the Birmingham steel industries and with trash collected along the railroad tracks or around town. Collaging different materials together, his small sculptures became larger, and were placed all over his house and yard, as well as contiguous abandoned lots, his oeuvre became a significant yard show that grew into a full-fledged art environment. (Source: Spaces

Lonnie is known as “The Sandman” since he created a massive amount of sandstone sculptures throughout his career. He found piles of soft sandstone discarded by a foundry near his sister’s house. Actually when Tau Lewis met him at the ‘Souls Grown Deep’ warehouse, he broke one of his old sand stone pieces in half and carved her a new sandstone sculpture with his thumbnail.

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“Ruling For The Child” 1982. The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

Coming back to Tau Lewis’ own art. Lewis’ recent works consider the undocumented, sometimes inaccessible historical information centers of black life such as the oceans, forests, and deep underground spaces. Her figures are often coloured and textured to mimic the oceans, earth, and cosmos. Lewis uses animal and insect imagery as playful and ironic references to the demarcation of black bodies as separate from other genres of being human. Infused with personal belongings, found objects and material markers of time, each portrait is an energetically charged microcosm of memory.

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Tau Lewis in her residency-based studio located in Ontario Hall across from Agnes Etherington Art Centre. Photo: Tim Forbes

Ms Lewis lives with her art and keeps a lineage of work. It may be a shred of fabric from a current object to be used in the next tapestry or sculpture. It is not always visible or even significant; it does refer to the lineage of ancestors and shared history though. Ms. Lewis revealed that her relationship with her work is very personal – and likely very different from what her audience may perceive. She feels it is important to acknowledge that privacy of her experience and healing process through her art.

Tau Lewis current exhibit at Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queen’s Queen’s University ‘when last you found me here’ is on view in the Davies Foundation Gallery until December 2, 2018. There is a wonderful preview available on Agnes’ website here. On Thursday October 25, 12:15–1 pm drop-in for a free guided tour of Tau Lewis: when last you found me here. A friendly and informed docent will meet you in the Atrium before the tour.

Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queen’s University
36 University Avenue
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6
T (613) 533.2190
F (613) 533.6765

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Tuesday–Friday, 10 am–4:30 pm

Thursday, 10 am–9 pm

Saturday and Sunday, 1–5 pm

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