Studio Montclair exhibit gives a window into the Black experience
By PATRICIA CONOVER
For Montclair Local
“Windows Into Black History,” on exhibit at Studio Montclair during February in honor of Black History Month, features work by four artists and spans four large windows that can be viewed from the street at the Studio gallery, 127 Bloomfield Ave.
The exhibit also includes work submitted by the Montclair African-American Heritage Foundation, panels from its Traveling History project, which chronicles the township’s rich African American roots from the early 1800s to the present.
Montclair Local spoke to the four artists whose work is on display and to the principal researcher for the Traveling History panels.
Kay Reese at one point in her life was a Franciscan nun; at another, she was a public relations executive in the corporate world.
But Reese, of Irvington, eventually realized that the time had come for her to devote herself to art.
“When I was recovering from a serious illness, I realized that I needed to immerse myself in art,” she said. “I had something to say, and it was time to say it.”
Her life experiences and memories inform her “Crossing” series on display at the “Windows Into Black History” exhibit.
In a series of works entitled “Witness to Captivity,” Reese uses photos and objects to create nonrepresentational collages. The collages, created digitally, are scenes imbued with color and light that evoke the range of emotions felt by the men and women who were captured and transported to America in chains on slave ships.
When she was a little girl growing up in the Bronx she spent a lot of time with her grandmother.
“After watching Alex Haley’s ‘Roots’ on television I asked my grandmother if we had had any slaves in our family,” Reese said. “She told me that her grandmother, Hester Lodehost, was an enslaved woman in Georgia.
“That conversation ignited something deep inside. I saw enslaved people as real people, not as statistics.”
Reese decided to depict the emotional turmoil and violence experienced by the Black men and women on those ships.
“The images had to be pointed,” she said. “I want you to feel what the title expresses. I wanted you to feel what they felt as they crossed the world as captives in ships crossing borders, languages, cultures and identities.
“Does it make you angry? Does it scare you? I want people to feel it.”
Reese’s next project is focused on Wangari Maathai, the first Black woman to win a Nobel prize for her work on the environment.
“We Too,” “For Beautiful” and “MLK” are all part of Oscar Peterson’s “We Too” flag series.
“I’m tired of hearing that Black people don’t care about their country or that Black people don’t respect the flag,” Peterson said.
“We Too,” an image of a Black man in revolutionary uniform with an American flag, is the artist’s self-portrait.
“Every war that was fought, Black people fought,” he said. “Black people have defended their country since the beginning.”
Peterson, of Millburn, created a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. for this exhibit.
“I didn’t want this to be just another painting of this great leader,” he said. “I wanted to create something different. I have a series of paintbrush music heroes and thought, why not possibly start a new series of heroes? So, I introduced the painting on a brush idea with the flag series and came up with what you see leading off the window exhibit.”
Another piece, “For Beautiful,” is an image of a Scout participating in a flag ceremony in Millburn.
“It was the Fourth of July, and I was watching the preparations for the ceremony when some young women arrived in Boy Scout uniforms,” Peterson said. “People of every ethnicity gathered around. They were all working together.
“I took some photos. I put the photos together and came up with that image.”
“For Beautiful” is America at its finest, Peterson said. “The youth of this country, all ages, races and genders, working together on a common goal. As I painted this, I could practically hear Ray Charles singing.
“I was born in Harlem and raised in Brooklyn,” he said. “When I was a young boy I knew I wanted to be an artist.”
Peterson majored in illustration and minored in communication when he enrolled at Pratt Institute after high school. He became a successful graphic designer and a creative director.
“I worked for years in corporate America but I walked away to pursue my art,” he said. “My children were nearly grown and it was time to move on.”
He currently teaches at the Farmstead Art Center in Basking Ridge and the Center of Contemporary Art in Bedminster.
“There are those who do not want us to teach what happened in the past,” Peterson said. “They would prefer to bury it. As artists, we can’t support that.
“I can move more people with art than I can by standing on a soapbox.”
Chuck Miley, of Maplewood, has been working on his Black Lives Matter-themed works since early 2020. His woodblock work at the Studio Montclair exhibit is from two of his series: “Why Reparations” and “Black Lives Matter Martyrs.”
“I had read research on reparations,” Miley said. “I read that cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco were crops dependent on slave labor, and that our economy was built on these crops.
“The wealth of families who profited from slave labor increased over the years. People in opposition to reparations are not looking at the contributions African Americans made to our country.
“I decided to show how African American women were forced to perform housework and child care, men were forced to do backbreaking work on the railroads, how individuals made fortunes on the backs of these people.
“The artist’s responsibility is to display views that stimulate curiosity or anger or passion. Picasso said, ‘Art is a weapon.’ The hope is that art will move the conversation forward in a positive way.”
Miley grew up in Ohio but has lived in New Jersey since 1970. He earned a B.S. in education from Kent State University and an M.A. in painting and printmaking at Rutgers.
“When I was young I wanted to be a doctor,” he said. “But I wasn’t great at math. My senior year in high school I created a project on light and color for a science fair. My guidance counselor, William Conley, suggested that I take a
practical test for a scholarship at Kent State. I got it.”
Miley is a retired teacher who taught at Franklin High School in Somerset. He also taught workshops at the Pratt Graphic Center in New York, the Newark Museum, Rutgers University, the New Jersey Center for the Visual Arts, the Summer Arts Institute and Rowan University.
Onnie Strother created “The Scottsboro Series” and “Big Boy Emmett Till” to tell stories that were so devastating, listeners simply couldn’t comprehend them.
“When I lectured on Emmitt Till, people could not believe it,” Strother said. “So I researched all the old newspaper articles, what happened to Emmitt Till, what happened to the Scottsboro Boys.”
Strother copied original articles, made transfers and transferred them onto prints.
“I am an educator,” he said. “And my work seems to be along those lines.
“Emmett Till, who lived in Chicago, was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he was accused of whistling at a white woman. He was only 14 years old when he was murdered and thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge in 1955.
“When the murder went to trial, no African Americans were on the jury, and the men who killed him were acquitted.”
“The Scottsboro Boys were nine African American teenagers who were accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931. Again, there were no African Americans on the jury.”
The national outrage at these cases resulted in landmark legal cases that became part of the beginning of the civil rights movement in America.
Strother always knew what he wanted to do.
“I have always been an artist,” the lifelong resident of Newark and East Orange said. “I started art school at 9 years of age at the Newark School of the Arts. Later, I attended Newark Arts High School until I got thrown out. Then I attended the New School of Art in New York City.”
Strother was a teacher in the Newark public schools for three years and at Columbia High School for 24 years.
“People ask me how I like being retired,” he laughed. “I have too much work to do to think about it.”
Betty Holloway is a member of the African American Heritage Foundation in Montclair and a longtime township resident. She was the primary researcher for the foundation’s panels in the Studio Montclair exhibit.
“We created the African American Heritage history panels in the windows a couple years ago,” Holloway said. “We created the panels because of the COVID-19 shutdown. We couldn’t have our historical trolley car tours, so we decided that, instead of touring, we would bring the work to the community.”
The panels were launched at the Montclair History Center, and they’ve been exhibited in several locations in the area.
“The Traveling History panels in the Studio Montclair window are exciting,” Holloway said. “On a local level, African American history is so important. There is local history that is missed that we can appreciate on a smaller scale.
“The African American people who have lived and worked in Montclair for hundreds of years have had an important impact on our city, our state and our world.
“In the panels, we see that Montclair has been a force to be reckoned with for a long time.”