LYH Black Female Artists Provide Perspective
By Robin Sutton-Anders
Lately, it’s not unusual for cars driving down Fort Avenue to pull over and cut the engine. Sometimes drivers get out and snap a photo. Other times, they’re moved to tears. “It’s extremely humbling,” says Michelline Hall, the artist behind Lynchburg’s outdoor American Women? exhibit. Hall’s series of 8-foot-tall portraits spotlighting local women of color lines the backside of a long Midtown commercial building.
Onlookers don’t often see women of color elevated on this sort of a stage, Hall continues. “People say that this kind of artwork on an urban landscape feels like something they would see in New York. For people of color to be celebrated in this way—on such a large scale—is really resonating.”
With her exhibit, Hall explores what it means to be an American woman, where “color, pattern and texture are woven as a multicultural tapestry.” While her collection honors individuality, Hall notes a common thread: “They’re all real women—they’re beautiful, but you’re not drawn to them because they look like runway models,” she says. “There’s a level of familiarity and sisterhood. You recognize yourself.”
On a wall just around the corner and in galleries across the city, art by Lynchburg’s African American women is on display—and people aren’t just loving it; they’re hungry for more. “Our community wants to hear more perspectives and more stories, which is wonderful because that’s the point of art,” Hall says.
To say Geral Butler is prolific is an understatement. She just wrapped up a series on flowers, where she painted 22 pieces in a matter of months. With each brush stroke, Butler saturated her canvases with vibrant colors—giving beauty back to the world during a time when the pandemic seemed to wring it out. Before that, she painted an entire collection on women shopping in an outdoor Ethiopian market.
What inspires each series? “Anything that gets my fancy,” she says. “I like to jump around and do different things.”
Regardless of the subject matter, Butler infuses each of her paintings with an element of surprise, mostly through her medium. “I love collage—layering the paint with different patterned papers.” She’s also mastered the art of integrating unexpected colors and textures. “If I’m doing a leaf, instead of green, I might find a patterned piece of paper that has some red, yellows, and greens,” she says. “The texture adds an element of surprise.”
According to Hall, Butler is a Lynchburg icon. “She’s a pillar in our community when it comes to fine arts. And as an educator, she’s helped produce a lot of artists who went on to have successful careers in creative fields, themselves.”
Artist Christina Davis believes that sometimes art captures history, and other times it shows people they have a voice. Her Making Waves mural, completed in the midst of 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests, accomplishes both. “When I painted the mural, a lot of people in our community were doubting themselves or feeling lost—like they didn’t have a say in what was going on.”
Like Hall, Davis believes that depicting a larger-than-life black woman on a wall in Midtown presented the opportunity to uplift black women and girls whose stories weren’t always told.
“I grew up near E.C. Glass High School and went to school there with many of my friends who are also artists,” Davis says. “In the last 10 years, art has been blowing up in Lynchburg, but you didn’t see it in Midtown—even though there was an arts festival on the lawn at E.C. Glass, and the Parks and Rec center is right here. Now, that’s all changing.”
Ever since she was 16, Davis has felt inspired by the Black Girl Magic movement—”the idea that you don’t have to change your life, or behave or look a certain way to be successful.” She hopes her mural will bring awareness to that movement, either by energizing the people who understand it, or by starting a conversation with people who don’t.
Ultimately, Davis believes those conversations have the power to change our communities for the better. “Conversations lead to action,” she says. That idea of forward progress is reflected in Making Waves, as well. “I wanted the mural spilling on concrete—it’s all about movement, looking forward, making changes, being fluid,” she explains. “Life is hard, but it’s nice to be a part of that journey.”
Robin Sutton Anders is a Greensboro, N.C.-based writer and the managing editor of Verdant Word Communications.