In the exhibition “Four Assorted Chocolates,” four African-American artists who live in Kansas City show us how it’s done.
Using watercolor, paint, collage, ceramics and text, Henry Dixon, Shane Evans, Kahlil Irving and Lon Powell depict the human figure in myriad ways. They show us images that are rapturous, angry, exhausted, stoic, resilient and bodacious in ways you won’t forget.
Bernadette Torres, the director of the Carter Art Center and an accomplished ceramic artist and teacher, curated this joint exhibit “to focus on the figure in non-traditional settings, seeing what the artists see about the world around them.”
“Also,” she adds, “I wanted our student body to see that these artists are national and international award winners right in their own backyard.”
The ages of Dixon, Evans, Irving and Powell span more than five decades, and their work differs stylistically. Even so, Evans and Dixon worked at Hallmark for a while at the same time, and all the men know one another. The four got together and jointly agreed on the title of the show (perhaps inspired by the hit children’s book “Chocolate Me,” written by Taye Diggs and illustrated by Evans several years ago).
Dixon is best known as a watercolorist, for which he has won many awards. His art was chosen to represent the state of Missouri as part of the White House calendar in 2000, and his work hangs in the permanent collection of the White House Museum.
Dixon moved to Kansas City from Michigan after being recruited to work for Hallmark. He has also taught watercolor at the Kansas City Art Institute, among other institutions, but is now retired and works full time in his studio.
At the exhibition opening, Dixon recounted his love for watercolor and the difficulties he initially experienced with the medium. He sometimes switched to gouache (a thicker, opaque form of watercolor paint) because it was easier to handle.
“At first,” Dixon explained, “watercolor controlled me. … but after 20 years, I was totally in control of the watercolor medium.”
Dixon’s works in this exhibit offer real evidence of this. The pieces are small but powerful. Portraits such as “Papa Branch” and “Mrs. Hawthorne” are luminous, loving and telling depictions of older African-Americans who are obviously known to Dixon.
For “The Old Neighborhood,” a true masterpiece, Dixon explained that he used various photographs as an aid to depict both the background of a brick wall and a figure walking in the foreground. This is realism at its very best, grounded in a discerning and empathic intellect.
Lon Powell’s drawings, watercolors and paintings are well-known in the Kansas City area and hang in numerous prominent collections, including those of H&R Block and Sprint. Powell is also past board president of the Black Archives of Mid-America, co-founder of the Euphrates Gallery, past president and founder of the Light in the Other Room (a collaborative of African-American artists based in Kansas City) and an artist selected for one of the much sought-after Review Studios spaces.
“What I most like to do,” Powell stated in his talk at the exhibit, “is to draw,” and three of his seven artworks in “Four Assorted Chocolates” are drawings. If Dixon’s portraits are pensive and quiet, Powell’s are assertive and unrestrained. His confidence and agility are well-matched in his charcoal portrayals of the female form, and his tiny (6-by-71/4 inch) colored pencil drawing of a man’s head is stunning. His pastel on paper, oil painting and watercolors are also masterful.
“As an artist I am gifted with the ability to encourage and share stories,” Shane Evans writes in his artist statement. Evans is known principally as a successful illustrator for award-winning children’s books, so it’s a treat to see large-scale paintings by this artist.
Evans’ works all have attitude, and you would expect nothing less from an artist who has won the 2012 Coretta Scott King Award and the 2011 NAACP Image Award. “Hana” is an immensely appealing portrait of a young African-American man in a disgruntled state, surrounded, nevertheless, by a garden of cheery fabric flowers. The diptych “Nike” combines a handwritten, political statement in rap form in which Evans indicts the company Nike for its greed and exploitation of young African-Americans, as well as strong imagery that illustrates his point. Yes, this is a museum piece.
Kahlil Irving graduates from the Kansas City Art Institute in spring 2015. A ceramic artist, he has already exhibited his work in the United States and Europe and was recently cited in Ceramics Monthly as one of the 10 most promising young ceramists in the country.
In “Historical Head” and “Historical Head 2,” Irving has created massive black and white portrait busts with sensuous, bulging contours on the sides and back, and a regal male face in front. He has sandblasted patches of the black and white porcelain design on both pieces, leaving traces of clay that is copper-colored, adding to the rich surface appeal.
One could be encountering a centuries-old portrait of an Egyptian king or a dude who’s dressed and ready for a great time on the town. In any case, there’s no doubt we’ll be seeing more great art from Irving in the near future.
“Four Assorted Chocolates: Lon Powell, Henry W. Dixon, Shane W. Evans, Kahlil Irving” continues at the Carter Art Center Gallery at MCC-Penn Valley, 3201 Southwest Trafficway, through Nov. 7. Hours are 1-5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; noon-3 p.m. Saturday; 1-9 p.m. First Friday. The Nov. 7 closing reception will include a $2 raffle of Shane W. Evans’ illustrated, signed book, “Chocolate Like Me,” with proceeds going toward art scholarships. For more information, 816-604-4278 or MCCKC.edu/pvart.