People’s Biennial a colorful tapestry of folk art

by Keith Barber

SECCA curator Steven Matijcio stands next to the work of Winston-Salem artist Raymond Mariani as part of the People’s Biennial, a community-based, grassroots exhibition of work by self-taught artists from five cities across America, including the Twin City. The exhibition is on display at SECCA through Sept. 18. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

Steven Matijcio made his way through the exhibition space at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art earlier this week and explained one of the many unique aspects of the People’s Biennial, the community-based, grassroots exhibit of work by undeclared artists from five cities across the country currently on display at the museum.

“I love walking around and just sharing stories with people,” said Matijcio, who serves as SECCA’s curator. “If you just go around and read the stories, the experience is that much deeper. You get to understand why these people do what they do; the crazy things they’re thinking about. It just paints a colorful tapestry that people use art and design for so many things outside of just art making.”

Matijcio, along with co-curators Harrell Fletcher and Jens Hoffmann selected six self-taught artists from the Piedmont Triad for the People’s Biennial, which runs through Sept. 18. The work of artists Sylvia Gray, Jonathan Lindsay, Raymond Mariani, Jim McMillan, Jennifer McCormick and Presley H. Ward were selected for the unique traveling art exhibition. Rather than going the traditional route of searching for folk artists in mainstream cities, the People’s Biennial focused on medium-sized cities — Portland, Ore.; Scottsdale, Ariz.; Rapid City, SD; Haverford, Pa., and Winston-Salem — to celebrate “the creativity we might not typically see in galleries and museums,” Matijcio said; SECCA proved to be an appropriate space. “SECCA was born as a gallery that wanted to represent marginalized people, marginalized artists, artists on the periphery that weren’t getting the profile in the major institutions,” Matijcio said.

Standing before Lindsay’s paintings depicting his family members, Matijcio explained how he, Fletcher and Hoffman discovered him and Raymond Mariani at the Enrichment Center in Winston-Salem. Lindsay and Mariani are both autistic, so their work shares a common thread.

“They have this sincerity and joyfulness to them,” he said. “It’s inspiring to see these young men finding such a voice. They can’t speak in a voice that we are accustomed to but can speak through their music and their painting.” Matijcio said the show’s curators were so impressed with Mariani’s work that they gave him a solo show at the People’s Gallery in San Francisco.

The exhibit also features the work of Sylvia Gray of Elsewhere Collaborative in Greensboro. Gray’s grandson, George Scheer serves as co-director of the collaborative. Scheer put together a sampling of the critical objects his grandmother collected over the years. Also, the exhibit contains a video presentation of the work artist do at Elsewhere, which introduces a national audience a snapshot of the very eccentric, idiosyncratic operation.

The work of Presley H. Ward, a Greensboro resident, is also included in the People’s Biennial. Ward’s surrealistic style is a reflection of his past struggles with drug addiction and homelessness, Matijcio said.

“Now, he spends a lot of his time in the Greensboro Public Library working through a lot of ideas, fantasies, dreams through drawing,” he added.

Ward’s hand-carved, painted walking sticks that have an animal totem feel are also included in the People’s Biennial.

The work of Winston-Salem photographer Jim McMillan is featured in the exhibit.

“There’s a poetry and simplicity to all of these photographs,” Matijcio said. “They’re not overly staged. It’s just trying to look into that person and trying to capture their character through an image.”

Jennifer McCormick, a trained artist who studied anatomy and now works in the legal profession, fuses several mediums and disciplines while creating her visual exhibits for the courtroom.

Each work of art in the People’s Biennial has a compelling story to tell, but even more compelling are the stories of the self-taught folk artists who found their creative voice and decided to share it with the world.

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