Undiscovered Artists

By Seidman, Carrie | Sarasota Herald Tribune, June 15, 2014 | Go to article overview

Undiscovered Artists


Seidman, Carrie, Sarasota Herald Tribune


Their work may be done on paper bags and stashed in closets, but there's no lack of talent in Sarasota's predominantly black neighborhood

When Mary Mack was a young girl, she and her brother, James "Pete" Simmons, rarely ventured out of Newtown, the predominantly African-American community in North Sarasota where they grew up.

"We had everything in the community we needed," remembers Simmons, now 67.

There was the Ace Theater on 5th Street where, for five RC bottletops, they could spend Saturday afternoons watching old Westerns or Tarzan movies. There was Chadwick's Grocery, Joe's department store and two churches, Bethlehem Baptist and the Payne Chapel. There were uncongested streets just right for playing ball until the lights came on every evening, the signal that you'd better get your butt home if you wanted to avoid Daddy's wrath.

There was just one thing missing.

"There were no art galleries," Mack says.

And there still aren't. Within walking distance of Palm Avenue's upscale galleries and the bayfront Art Center Sarasota, Newtown's artists remain largely undiscovered, their work rarely, if ever, seen.

Righting that inequity is the idea behind "Newtown Art Celebration: Celebrating 100 Years," an exhibition of art by residents and students of Newtown and those with a close connection to the community. It's being held in conjunction the neighborhood's 100th anniversary this year.

Works by adult artists will hang at the Ringling College of Art and Design's Selby Gallery, while entries from students at Booker elementary, middle and high schools, as well as the Roy McBean Boys and Girls Club, will be displayed at the North Sarasota Library. Both exhibitions open this week and will hang through July 2.

"The idea is to showcase the talent, breadth and depth of art in Newtown and to start a movement to get a permanent exhibit space there," says Sarasota County Commissioner Carolyn Mason, who grew up in the Overtown area of Newtown (now the Rosemary District) and is a driving force behind the exhibitions. "So often we hear more about the negative things that happen there. And art is the way to make a bridge."

This is, in fact, the second time Mason -- and Eleanor Merritt, a professional artist who is also African-American -- have tried to build that bridge. The first was in 1992, when the Sarasota Artist Association, then doing a series of "ethnic" shows, held the only previous exhibition of local African-American artists' work.

"Sarasota was very divided in those days," recalls Merritt, who moved to Sarasota in 1982 after establishing her career in New York. "And Carolyn and I had this conversation about how we felt it was important to bring people from the Newtown community into the mainstream community and how we would do it through art. It was like a mission we were on."

But then, as now, locating potential participants was a challenge.

"At first, we couldn't find them," Merritt told Herald-Tribune arts reporter Joan Altabe at the time. "Sarasota's black artists don't even know where the Sarasota Art Association is."

True artists

Back then, Merritt and Mason put notices up in Newtown's barber shops, stores and community gathering spots, took out ads in the neighborhood paper, Tempo News, and knocked on a lot of doors. Some of what they discovered -- drawings on toilet paper, napkins or paper bags, soiled with soda stains or lined with creases -- was unusable. But these previously unexhibited talents did not take kindly to Merritt's insistence on professional standards.

"Sarasota's blacks have dealt with more segregation on a one-to- one basis than I ever did in my entire life," Merritt told Altabe. "They feel so disenfranchised that just a rejection of their artwork is like a stab in the chest."

Because none of the art had previously been publicly displayed -- and certainly never marketed -- Merritt helped the artists frame and price their work. …

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