Editorial: Through the Self-Portraits of Roanoke Valley Artists, We See Ourselves | Editorial
The mission: to create a self-portrait.
The history of art is full of self-portraits. The great masters throughout the ages – Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Albrecht Durer, Jan Van Eyck, Vincent Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo – imbued their depictions of themselves with flourishes of their style and bits of their soul, creating striking images for the ages. Heck, pop culture is rife with self-portraits, considering the relentless streams of cellphone selfies that spill over to Facebook and Instagram feeds.
However, if you hear the term self-portrait, you’ll probably think of a majestic yet poised painting mounted on a gallery wall, not necessarily something original in design and composition. None of the pieces exhibited in “We Are Art: The Roanoke Self-Portrait Project” conform to this stereotypical concept.
As Roanoke Arts and Culture Coordinator Doug Jackson explained, the flyer for this exhibit asked participating artists to create self-portraits that placed them in their communities, “reflecting on their role in the community as as an artist, what interests them in their community, and how they want to make it a better place.
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Roanoke artist Ann Glover, creator of the popular and playful “Trojan Dog” sculpture that sits outside Roanoke Fire-EMS Station #7 on Memorial Avenue, contributed “Self-Portrait with Map,” which contains a street map of the neighborhood where she grew up and where she now lives, in pewter. “Cherry Blossom Time on the Roanoke Greenway” by Barbara Zubler looks like a mosaic made out of tiles, but it’s actually a collage made out of fabric. A recent transplant from Phoenix, Arizona, Zubler wanted the piece to convey both the scenic beauty and the warm welcome she found here.
Architectural engineer Gretchen Coleman contributes a veritable mosaic, “I Am, We Are Roanoke,” which includes mosaic renditions of several familiar buildings and landmarks and molds the artist’s face into the contours of Mill Mountain, with the Star of Roanoke serving as a tiara. “It’s truly a gift to live here,” Coleman wrote.
The Roanoke Arts Gates
The show begins with a kind of thesis statement. “Our lives vibrate with creativity. The choirs sing. The students dance. The writers try out their voices at an open-mic night,” the intro reads. “We create art. We explore art. WE are art.
As an introduction to Star City’s diverse art scene, the self-portrait project is comprehensive and spellbinding.
Michele Neta Peppers on the Nose “Well done Jeff Center!” depicts a flamenco dancer whose elegant dress is made up of photographs of musicians and dance performances. On the opposite wall, Roanoke dancers Lisa Linger, founder and director of Mental Health in Motion, and Lynsey Wyatt, owner of Cirqulation Studio, offer photographic compositions.
Molly Kernan, another recent transplant who arrived in Star City in 2019, stands in the Science Museum of Western Virginia’s Parakeet Garden, the latest space attraction that was once a butterfly garden. For her and her children, the parakeet garden “brought much-needed joy after a few difficult years”.
Moneta artist Victoria Van Tassel-McGrath painted herself aboard the “Winston Caboose” at the O. Winston Link Museum as a tribute to her family’s railroad history. By scanning a QR code, you can listen to the retired art teacher as she plays the blues harmonica, “an instrument that has often been used to approximate the sounds of a train.”
The appearance of Roanoke’s landmarks in these portraits is particularly creative.
In Whitney C. Brock’s deliciously funny “The T Room,” the entertainer sits front and center eating what appears to be a corny western at what could only be the counter of the precious Texas tavern. of Star City. There’s not a bottle of ketchup in sight.
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One of the most striking pieces comes from Radford University graduate student Amanda Kelly, who created a miniature version of her own art studio, in which there are even smaller miniatures of the ice rink of Lancerlot, the Taubman Art Museum and, again, the Roanoke Star.
Gun Violence Prevention Commission artist-in-residence Jane Gabrielle McCadden, familiar to longtime local music fans as the singer and guitarist of Appalachian folk rock band Radar Rose, depicts herself standing in Old Lick Cemetery – an African-American cemetery in Roanoke that was largely destroyed by urban renewal. She said she wanted “Singing the Ancestors’ Songs” to inspire thinking about how to undo the damage caused by racist policies.
The show will remain on display until May 26, 2023, on the fourth floor of the City of Roanoke Municipal Building, in the hallway outside the Roanoke City Council Chambers. The silver lining in placing the show in such a mundane setting is that it will be free to see throughout its lifetime for anyone who cares to make the trip to City Hall.
It seems like an idea with legs, an evergreen theme that other communities can run with.
It would be fascinating to see this concept repeated in other locations in Southwest Virginia. What would artists from Botetourt County or Franklin County come up with? What about Martinsville, Galax, Abingdon? Pulaski, Tazewell or Wise counties? The possibilities are appealing. We hope to see the results one day.