Woodcuts Gallery through March 10
by Peter Chawaga
Some of those who have passed continue to live through their work, in contributions vibrant and alive as the maker ever was. Some live on through the connections they’ve made with those still here, memories that persist in beating hearts. And even more still live on in the history books, the trails they blazed trod by others.
Greg Ridley, a pioneering artist and professor whose work will appear at Woodcuts Gallery & Framing in a new exhibition, lives on in all of these ways. He was a prolific artist, working in many media, but possibly best remembered for his 80-panel repoussé depictions of Nashville’s history housed at the public library.
“He worked primarily in copper repoussé, but he also did a lot of painting and a lot of sketching and we have a lot of his other works too,” says Omari Booker, the curator at Woodcuts, who has pulled about 20 pieces from the gallery and local collections for the exhibition. “He has a really interesting way of capturing people and expressing them.”
One of the pieces to be exhibited, Ode to Chancellorsville, is a prime example of the Smyrna native’s fascination with history and his signature technique, in which the artist hammers a reverse relief on the back of a sheet of metal. It’s a method that Ridley passed down to many students, including local repoussé artist Jamaal Sheats, in a teaching career that lasted from 1951 until his death in 2004.
“Mr. Ridley mentored many young artists, that was his thing,” says Sheats, the director and curator of Fisk University Galleries, a position once held by Ridley. “I once did a show in New York and found that there were four other artists, our age range was 60 years, and we had all studied under Greg Ridley. When you talk about his legacy and you talk about a footprint, he not only taught art. He taught us life skills. He would try to prepare us for the future.”
And Ridley was a pioneer, the first person ever to receive a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Louisville and an African-American in the mid-century South who translated a personal interpretation of history into his work.
“Mr. Ridley was strong-willed, he was a fighter, he was an advocate,” recalls Sheats. “He had a firm belief of what was right and what was wrong and his work exemplifies that. Certain pieces, you can look at and see that they are beautiful, but there’s also another layer of information, some social commentary that is there.”
As a nod to Ridley’s influence, the exhibition is being held as part of the Jefferson Street Art Crawl, promoting the work of artists in an area that has historically been a hub for Nashville’s African-American community. It is the chance to demonstrate that Ridley is very much alive in his work and the numerous lives he influenced.
“I thought it was great to have a Black History Month exhibit that had a really strong historical context,” says Booker of the show. “Mr. Ridley is such a big part of the history of the area and Fisk and Jefferson Street, and so many people personally had a link to him. There are incredible historical black figures that are walking right down the street next to you. This show is highlighting the history that is right now.”
Ridley’s work is on view at Woodcuts Gallery & Framing, 1613 Jefferson Street, until March 10. Nashville Arts will be hosting an art talk there at 6 p.m. on February 17. For more information, please visit www.woodcutsfineartgallery.com.