Dawn Williams Boyd Unites A New American Story

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There aren’t many photos of the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, when white mobs rampaged through the city’s affluent Black Greenwood district. Although it has been described as one of the largest single cases of state-sanctioned violence against blacks in American history, the relatively few images that exist of its aftermath are in black and white, and mostly disembodied. Limited by technology and the prejudices of the time, they fail to capture the depth or scale of the tragedy.

For this reason, the artist dawn williams boyd chose to do Massacre on Black Wall Street, one of a dozen paintings included in “Tip of the Iceberg,” which is on view through December 17 at Fort Gansevoort in New York. Measuring nearly five by ten feet, the work presents the event as a narrative. panorama: A group of white men cock and aim their guns as the townspeople hide, surrender, or lie dead on the ground on a cache of human skeletons buried beneath them, while an airplane decorated with the American flag and the insignia of the Ku Klux Klan flies overhead, hurling Molotov cocktails at city buildings. Unlike most paintings, however, Boyd’s are made from a collage of fabrics, cut and stitched together in intricate detail. looking closely Massacre on Black Wall Streetyou might fall down the rabbit hole at the clever display of each fabric, like the delicate lace panels used for shop windows or the black and brown batik with Ghanaian adinkra symbols that serve as the crust of a tree, and a subtle reference to the district’s Greenwood african roots.

It’s amazing, I tell her, to see something so hideous rendered so beautifully, in a medium that inevitably evokes the comfort of duvets and all the femininity that goes with them. “Grandma,” Boyd offers, finishing my sentence. She listens to comments like mine a lot. “I love the dichotomy of this beauty representing something so ugly,” she says. “I want to tell you a story that you want to hear.”

Boyd was visiting New York from Atlanta, Georgia, where she lives with her husband, also an artist. irvin wheels. It’s also where she spent her childhood, which included her enrollment as the first and only black student at an all-girls Catholic high school located on a former plantation. The school closed after her junior year, but not before her biology teacher was tasked with creating an arts curriculum. The first task? She creates a papier-mâché bust of a classmate.

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Photography by Tony Wang.

“That was my Eureka moment,” Boyd says. “My Debbie Walsh portrait was the only one in the room that really looked like the person.” When she left home to study fine arts at Stephens College in Missouri, her mother, an educator and lecturer, was supportive but encouraged her daughter to professionalize her artistic ambitions.

“I didn’t do that,” says Boyd, who gained representation with Fort Gansevoort in 2020. Instead, he took a position after college with the Atlanta Regional Commission and, later, with United Airlines in Boulder, Colorado, where he worked as a reservations agent for 29 years until his retirement in 2009. During that time She raised a family and continued to make art, sometimes at work, where she was periodically assigned by office management to make posters for internal use. (“I had a whole little cottage industry going,” she laughs, almost any task was better than answering phones.) she area and acted as a paid consultancy to surrounding institutions trying to broaden their reach to non-white audiences. “It was often symbolic,” Boyd says. “She used to say that she was a triple threat: she was female, she was black, and she was talented.”

It was through community involvement that Boyd came to embrace fabric as his primary medium, when, in 2001, he was asked to lead a workshop on the textile art of ring of faith in honor of Black History Month. While preparing for the class, Boyd learned that Ringgold often took the canvases apart from his frames before sewing the quilt pieces together at the edges. The technique addressed two fundamental challenges that Boyd had continually faced in his traditional painting practice: namely, that he had never had the ability to stretch the canvas; and shipping framing and other rigid materials, including the plywood that he had, for a time, embraced as an alternative to canvas, was prohibitively expensive. Inspired by Ringgold’s innovation, she went further and scrapped canvas altogether, using fabric, yarn, embroidery floss (and occasionally beads and other accents) for his designs. “I indulge myself,” she says. “I can go to a store and see a beautiful piece of fabric and find a use for it. I can release it from the bolt.

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Boyd’s work defies simple categorization. Although some might describe her paintings as quilts, she does not refer to them as such. They offer little in the way of a traditional comforter’s function, for one thing; Unfilled, the works are not designed to keep you warm. Boyd also doesn’t feel that the quilting accurately describes her process, which remains rooted in the principles of classical painting in which she was trained. The term duvet “gives it a specific connotation,” Boyd says.

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Photo by Olivia DiVecchia and courtesy of Fort Gansevoort.

It is worth considering why an artist might feel compelled to distinguish their work from, say, the slippery category of “craft” to which a quilt might be assigned. In 2005, critic Margo Jefferson suggested that art versus craft debates felt increasingly passé. As evidence, Jefferson cited “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend”, a large collection of quilts made by generations of black women in an isolated area in Alabama of the same name; The Whitney showed the work in 2002-2003, and her unique abstraction introduced many to a new way of looking at textile art. That seminal show inspires”the new curve”, which features the work of 13 contemporary artists, including Boyd, practicing within and sometimes breaking our notions of textile tradition, on view at Hauser & Wirth in Los Angeles this fall.

Boyd used to jot down ideas for paintings in a small notebook he carried with him, though after misplacing it, a “terribly devastating” loss, he now keeps an up-to-date list on his phone. At the beginning of each year, he reviews it. and he formulates a new series usually organized around a title. The result can be a full story arc, as in “Ladies Night,” a series of four canvas paintings begun in 2009 showing groups of women preening and enjoying a night out at a fictional “Billie’s Bar and Grill.” At times, he works by theme: “Tip of the Iceberg” draws its themes from the many ills that society tolerates, but whose consequences are rapidly festering beneath the surface of everyday perception. Boyd did most of the work in the past year. , with a few exceptions, such as All Night Long: America’s Homeless, which uses textured brown cotton panels to represent a cardboard box housing a family. (Remnants of an old log-cabin quilt given to her by a friend serve as a blanket for the family and add a hint of material self-reference to the painting.) Some, like fearing for my life, inspired by the assassination of Tamir Rice, illustrate concrete historical facts. Others play more purely with abstraction, like In orderwho imagines the dichotomous god of chaos and order in LE Modesitt Jr.’s fantasy novel. The war of the wizard and the fire as half black woman and half white man, the latter paired with soft, gender-bending pinks. Many feature organza, Boyd’s favorite fabric. Diaphanous and shining, in his hands it becomes the atmospheric smoke of the cigar in smoke filled roomsand smog in This Uninhabitable Earth.

The second time we spoke, in October, Boyd was back in atlanta but getting ready to visit New York again to talk about “Ouch,” another collection of hers on display at Sarah Lawrence College. After making art for decades with little recognition, she’s enjoying the biggest new audience of his: “About time!” she says, though of course her attendant commitments take time away from her painting. She herself is now in the early stages of two small series, one called Fearwhich reinvents iconic photos associated with race relations in America, and a call families. (He is waiting for the dust to settle on the 2024 presidential election cycle before delving into overtly political commentary again.) He wouldn’t say much more about either project at this point, except that he’s “committed” to using some of the fabric he’d long held but was reluctant to cut. “You know, he stops hoarding that cloth and then goes ahead and uses it for something.

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