BY DANIELLE BEAMISH
Phoebe Beasley’s high school guidance counselor doubted her plans to become a visual artist. Granted, in the 1960s it was uncommon to hear about a successful Black visual artist, but Beasley had decided that she would prove her counselor wrong when all was said and done.
“I just got angrier and more determined,” Beasley said during her artist talk on April 6, hosted by the university’s Library, Museums and Press. The event was in relation to the “Gathered Together: Black Artists and the Collage Aesthetic” exhibition located in Mechanical Hall Gallery.
Beasley spoke about her artwork in a 1988 limited edition Langston Hughes poem book titled “Sunrise is Coming After While.” Beasley said she was approached by Maya Angelou in 1997 to collaborate and create art that reflected Hughes’ ideas.
“Mother to Son,” “Dream Variations” and “The Weary Blues” are all collage-style scenes from “Sunrise is Coming After While” and are on display in the exhibition. The artist talk consisted of the analysis of three of Hughes’ poems and the techniques Beasley used to mirror the poems’ messages. In 2021 Beasley created “reimagined pieces” that draw from her original prints in the book, which she also touched on.
While remotely viewing the collection, the exhibit curator Danielle Canter, a fifth-year doctoral candidate in the Department of Art History, noticed a theme of collage work. Some artists, like Beasley in her piece “Dream Variations,” draw on this aesthetic.
“Collage is traditionally just paper layered together, but a lot of work went beyond that,” Canter said. “They included all sorts of materials, nontraditional materials and other objects layered together.”
In “Mother to Son,” written by Hughes in 1922, Beasley explained that Hughes embodies the voice of a Black mother warning her son about the unfairness Black people encounter throughout their lives. However, she encourages him that he must keep “climbing those stairs” when he feels like surrendering because “life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”
To bring Hughes’ words to life, Beasley’s “Reimagined: Mother to Son” collage illustrates Black demonstrators of different generations, both men and women, holding signs saying “Don’t buy where you can’t work.” Beasley included different ages of picketers to highlight the mother’s point in the poem that this struggle is a continuous, generational fight.
“So many men and women of color were out here trying to make a difference in the lives of the next generation,” Beasley said. “There was a segregated society where sometimes you could not even walk in and ask to get an application at places. You had to take what was given.”
In terms of her technique, “Reimagined, Mother to Son” was purposefully collaged in a three-dimensional style so the viewer can feel engaged with the image.
“I wanted you to feel as though you could walk into it,” Beasley said.
“Dream Variations,” written by Hughes in 1926, explains the speaker’s dreams of a world without racial discrimination. Beasley’s corresponding artwork seeks to mirror the content of the poem: “bringing that dream to more people.”
Beasley’s piece illustrates a Black man in a suit and tie holding his arms open with a mixture of vibrant purple, pink and orange floral print surrounding him. Beasley chose to illustrate a man of power because she believes that such a figure is someone that people will listen to and hopefully be inspired by to create change.
“Dream Variation” is also the cover photo for the exhibit. Canter said Beasley’s work was the perfect fit for the exhibition’s promotional poster.
“She’s our poster image, which is really wonderful because it’s, like, so colorful, so dynamic — it really engages the viewer,” Canter said. “I think, you know, when people are walking by that building, they get sort of drawn in by that.”
“The Weary Blues,” published in 1926, embodies a sorrowful musician.
Beasley’s corresponding collage illustrates a solitary man in a confined room with his piano. Beasley explained that she purposely utilized uneven collage pieces and rickety lines to portray the same tone of the poem and the burdens of the blues singer.
“You begin to feel the weariness of the person who is at the piano,” Beasley said.
In the years since that encounter with her counselor, Beasley’s artwork has been awarded the presidential seal twice, making her the only artist who has received this honor two times. In addition, her work has been displayed throughout the United States, including in places like The Smithsonian Institution and The M. Hanks Gallery in Fullerton, California.
“Gathered Together: Black Artists and the Collage Aesthetic” will be on view from Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. until May 14. Admission is free and open to the public.