Cultural Visions Art through March 31
Gatewood Waddell’s Paintings Sculpt Past and Present
WORDS Megan Kelley
Alice Gatewood Waddell is known for her expressive use of composition and defined by a strong sense of pattern, using every line to build a sense of energy and an atmosphere of movement. As the eye travels across the canvas, the viewer glimpses not just the narrative of the image, but a sense of interconnectedness and universal commonalities. “Because I use the silhouette, you can’t look to the face or the lips for clues about emotion; everything in the painting must create the emotion.”
“Her figures exist in open-ended narratives celebrating aspects of black life both urban and rural, describing “how people make ends meet,” the relationships they have, and other scenes common to everyday experience.”
The pattern work is drawn from the influence of her grandmother, a seamstress, who introduced the artist to traditional motifs through fabric scraps and paper dolls. The collage element pays homage to this history of scrap and reconstruction in the artist’s unique approach, and the flexibility of the paper allows Gatewood Waddell to manipulate the sheets through folding in order to mold shapes and create graceful movements. Rather than cut and glue, this sculptural process creates a sense of presence and depth, bringing the figures and their movements and environments into ours.
It is this ability of the work to bridge worlds that creates its power. “The silhouette is one of my signatures,” says Gatewood Waddell. “When you see a silhouette, you relate to it even if you couldn’t relate to a specific person or a portrait.” The featureless figures become the face of the everyperson, allowing the viewer to step into the context of the image. Rather than evoke specifics, the silhouette becomes shadow: that is, the presence of consequence following action, the after-effects of someone’s experiences. “Silhouettes are a great tool to tell stories because they convey messages simply and with focus. You aren’t distracted by color or expression, but instead it becomes more about the personal experience.”
Her figures exist in open-ended narratives celebrating aspects of black life both urban and rural, describing “how people make ends meet,” the relationships they have, and other scenes common to everyday experience. Gatewood Waddell describes how many viewers come to her, sharing their own memories and histories reflected by the scenes she creates. “They become whole stories just within a silhouette. Everyone can put their own memories into them because these faces belong to all of us, to the everyman.”
Gatewood Waddell continues about how this memory connection and transference create empathy and ties of similarity, often even when the situations might seem different. “There are a lot of assumptions about the black family —that they are broken, that fathers are absent, that mothers struggle. But there are a lot of black families that are strong, that have great relationships.” The figures move with love and care, with strength and unity their constant theme throughout the body of work, but Gatewood Waddell also pays homage to the trials that shaped black character and the foundations of black strength.
“My work has always explored themes of jubilee: celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation, the marches for civil rights, celebratory documentations of our history as black people. As I’ve worked as the Executive Director of the Human Rights Commission [in Bowling Green, Kentucky], I’ve noticed this side to have a bigger impact on my work. I’ve always been conscious of how we deal with the injustices in our country, but it has an impact you can’t leave at the office, because you go home and turn on the news and there it is, and it doesn’t matter if it happens locally to you or nationally to someone else, it’s still a human issue.”
Her ability to create empathy through art provides a palette for sharing these difficult stories: histories of lynching and slavery juxtaposed with modern-day incarceration and mothers who have lost sons to violence. It’s a darker side of the past and present that Gatewood Waddell feels compelled to bring to light. “I explore these things because I feel compassion for the people who are going through them. I paint these things because I realize the importance of documenting this part of our history, too. Artists observe and process. Art has the ability to be both personal and universal, to pay attention and give attention. These challenges we go through as a nation are darker times, but they show us just how strong we are.”
The work of Alice Gatewood Waddell is represented through www.eandsgallery.com, located in Louisville, Kentucky, and will be on exhibit at Cultural Visions Art through March 31. Culturalvisionsart@gmail.com. Located at 624A Jefferson Street, 37208.