Lucy Gellman Photos. All work by Shaunda Holloway.
The faces catch a viewer by surprise. In the center window, a man looks out, his eyes wide and soft against a deep blue background. A spray of tangerine-colored spots fall across his nose and forehead; smaller ones dot his lips. The other portraits spring to life around him, regal and wide-eyed. Each looks as though it is about to whisper: Come closer, come closer.
Shaunda Holloway’s printed portraits on fabric are part of Made Visible, a three-part, four-month exhibition at Creative Arts Workshop that can be viewed entirely from outside of the building. As the physical space remains closed due to COVID-19, artists have used the building’s floor-to-ceiling front windows as an exhibition venue for their work. In addition to Holloway, the exhibition features work by artists Margaret Roleke and Annie Sailer.
Roleke’s work was up through September and October; Sailer’s work will be up from Dec. 7 through Jan. 4. More information is available at CAW’s website.
“We pivoted in several ways to make this exhibition possible,” said CAW Director Anne Coates in a phone call Thursday morning. “We decided to have something that was using our calling card—those big, beautiful windows—that played with the tension with visibility that people have with CAW. We were also acting in response to Black Lives Matter. We wanted to create an open, fee-free call for work, foregrounding our intention that the works that get displayed speak to the time.”
Even before COVID-19, Coates said she was thinking about the relationship that CAW had with the surrounding New Haven community, and particularly its arts community. In her three years as executive director, she’s spoken to several working artists and curators who don’t understand the process of securing a show at CAW, or have asked if there’s a rhyme or reason to the artists that land exhibitions there. As she saw it, there was an issue with the workshop’s visibility, and with public understanding of who was welcome in its spaces.
Originally, CAW planned to use funds from the city’s Neighborhood Cultural Vitality Grant program to gather outside of the building’s Audubon Street headquarters for outdoor art making, an activity Coates saw as "bringing the community together." As gathering became untenable, she looked to the front of the building as a pandemic-safe way to keep showing art. She drew up a call for Connecticut-based artists who were engaging with both COVID-19 and the parallel pandemic of white supremacy. A jury comprising Long Wharf Theatre Artistic Director Jacob Padrón, Artspace Nw Haven Director Lisa Dent, and Nasty Women Connecticut Co-Founder Luciana McClure selected the three artists earlier this year.
In Holloway’s work, that tug-of-war with visibility is front and center. Using brightly-inked monotype and etching on fabric, the artist has pictured 10 New Haveners who have made an impact on her own life as a New Haven and Hamden resident, working artist, poet, writer, and Black woman. In her work, Holloway often lives at those intersections, probing their in-between spaces in pieces that often demand a second, and third, and tenth look.
This series is no different. A viewer is acutely aware that they are separated from these people (and, in fact, from the artwork) by both COVID-19 and a deeply segregated city.
At the same time, the window creates a surprisingly intimate outdoor viewing space. Because the building is closed, no one passes by in a mad rush. Audubon Street is otherwise eerily quiet. The space is never quite the same: Made Visible hits differently in the middle of a sunny afternoon than it does at the start of a drizzly November evening or in the deep blue of a late night autumn walk.
There's a chance to get to know the people Holloway has represented, including Matt Aponte, Bryan Cisneros, Siobhan Carter-David, IfeMichelle Gardin, Shavon Johnson, Tywanna Johnson, Julie Palladino, Nicholas Pinnock, Kharisma Redding, Sarah Williams, and Diamond Tree.
They come from different places in her life: Gardin is a longtime arts advocate and founder of the Elm City Lit Fest. Carter-David is an arts commissioner in Hamden, champion for educational equity, and professor of history who has opened new dialogues on the cultural impacts of the African diaspora. Redding is an artist, activist, and self-described healer, who leads pancake breakfasts on Hazel Street, just off the Newhallville Learning Corridor. The list goes on.
The artist at the Stetson Branch of the New Haven Free Public Library in February 2020, shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in New Haven. Lucy Gellman File Photo.
“It was an honor to present work in the window and be a voice for representation,” Holloway said in a phone call Wednesday evening. “It was the perfect opportunity to make people visible—all of those images were taken in New Haven, and all of the people are from the area. They all have a strong impact on the people around them.”
She added that they are the door-openers, change agents, artists and social justice fighters that have made a change in her life. In CAW’s street-facing windows, their faces are illuminated in the yellow glow of the gallery’s lighting. What makes them so affecting, and very much worth a closer look, is Holloway’s gift for layering color, pattern, and texture with the singular nature of monotype printing.
There are marbled yellows, greens and oranges; polka dots and thin, lacy shapes that look like they would break if pulled too quickly. There are layered swirls of color that bleed into each other, and live side by side with stunning precision. While there is also photography transfer involved, the artist said that she doesn't like to divulge too much of her process, so as to leave a kind of wonderment for the viewer.
“I want people to walk away with their own perspective and wonder how that was done,” she said. “We live in an era where nothing is sacred anymore, you know? I want a little bit of mystery.”
The exhibition also has a personal bent for the artist, who grew up in New Haven and started her printmaking career at CAW. Decades ago, Holloway asked her grandmother for an art class as a birthday gift, and ended up under the supervision of CAW’s longtime teacher Flo Hatcher. As a young New Havener, she didn’t see a lot of working artists—or subjects—who looked like her. While she believes there is greater representation now, she said that part of her mission as an artist is changing that narrative.
“I know what it means to be left out of opportunities and I know what it means to be included,” she said. “What I had to learn is, you cannot wait to be recognized. You cannot wait to be seen.”
The exhibition comes at a time when CAW is also figuring out what its future will look like, Coates said. Before COVID-19, the workshop had seven full- and part-time employees and hosted classes across eight disciplines, from painting to printmaking to ceramics and fiber arts. Since March 12, all of its programming has been online; staff is now operating at three full- and part-time employees, all of whom have taken a pay cut.
Because online classes are largely free, the school has collected almost no tuition for nine months. Money that it received from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), emergency disaster relief, and unrestricted grants earlier this year has now dried up. Coates said she is hoping to reopen the building with just one or two small classes in late January, but that “the pandemic has to cooperate.”
CAW is set to turn 60 in the spring, and has spent the end of 2020 trying to raise matching funds for state CARES Act dollars and a matching challenge from an anonymous donor.
“The reason it’s about to be 60 years old is that it's pretty resilient as an organization,” Coates said. “I am hopeful about our prospects. But I think it's going to be a tough road.”
Shaunda Holloway’s work in Made Visible runs through Nov. 29 at Creative Arts Workshop on Audubon Street. She is also one of the winners of the Arts Council’s 40th Annual Arts Awards. The exhibition continues with Annie Sailer’s work from Dec. 7 to Jan. 4. Find out more at CAW’s website.