African-American artists draw inspiration at Biggs Museum

Biggs Museum of American Art Curator Ryan Grover stands among the works in the “African American Live” exhibit at the Dover museum. (Submitted photo)

DOVER — Ryan Grover had always envisioned having an abundance of African-American artists from Kent County display their work at The Biggs Museum of American Art in Dover.

“The museum is community-based and we like to have the walls here reflect our community as best as we possibly can,” said Mr. Grover, curator of the Biggs Museum.

He wasn’t having much luck with the process until organizers of the Citywide Black History Celebration reached out to the museum as one of their partners to hold an art exhibition to highlight the importance of works created by African-American artists of Greater Dover and Kent County.

“He didn’t know where to go, or who to contact in the area that would know of artists that wanted to show their art,” said Donna Blakey, one of the organizers of the second annual citywide event.

“I told him that I could help with that. It only takes for me to tell someone, for them to tell someone else and so on for people to want to be a part of this event.”

The exhibition is a focal point of the celebration taking place in several locations throughout the city during February.

Mr. Grover said he was thrilled to be a part of such a great event for the community, but was even more excited when about 25 artists submitted their work for the event.

“We thought this would be an exhibition of people that we knew and that was true with the first few people that called. Then more and more people started calling that I didn’t know,” Mr. Grover said.

“I didn’t know about two-thirds of the people that submitted their work.”

“But that’s what it is all about,” he added. “It’s great meeting new artists in the community, as spots filled up pretty quickly. I had more people calling me than we could accommodate at the museum. I actually had to turn some people away.”

During the event’s opening night on Feb. 2 people walked around and seemed in awe by the art that filled the museum’s first floor, as the show features two dozen artists in various media including painting, video, photography, fiber, sculpture and works on paper.

Mr. Grover said the first night surpassed his expectations.

Husband and wife John Waters and Aekyung Maria Ruffin of Camden are both showing their works in the Biggs Museum of American Art exhibit of art by African-American artists from Kent County. (Special to the Delaware State News photo by Arshon Howard)

“I knew we would put on a very good show, but I didn’t think it was going to be like this,” he said. “This has been an eye-opening and a joyous experience for us.”

Married couple and lifelong artists John Waters and Aekyung Maria Ruffin jumped at the opportunity to be a part of the exhibition immediately.

“It’s very significant,” Mr. Waters said. “It brings people out to be fully aware of black culture.”

“It’s an expression as far as the art itself because it’s personal if you look at each of the pieces in the gallery,” he added. “It pretty much tells a story of what the artist felt at that time or about themselves.”

Mr. Waters and Ms. Ruffin submitted some of their favorite pieces; each has a different artistic style.

“I paint my family and those that I love,” Mrs. Ruffin said. Some of her pieces at the museum include a painting of her father, her and Mr. Waters on vacation and her grandmother.

“When my grandmother passed away, there was always a part of her with me,” Ms. Ruffin said. “She raised me until I was 7. She was the strongest influence in my early life.

“She raised me in Korea and when I came to the United States it was a big cultural change. I just wanted to pay homage to her and remember her. She died in Korea. I didn’t have a cemetery plot here to visit her, so that was my way of visiting her and having her here with me at all times.”

Mr. Waters said his inspiration comes from the history of the Buffalo Soldiers.

“I was really inspired by what they went through,” Mr. Waters said. “I wanted to tell a story of what happened and I did a lot of research on them. I did three months of research, as with me everything needs to be authentic.”

Following the U.S. Civil War, regiments of African-American men known as Buffalo Soldiers served on the western frontier, battling Indians and protecting settlers. The Buffalo Soldiers included two regiments of all-black cavalry, the 9th and 10th cavalries, formed after Congress passed legislation in 1866 that allowed African Americans to enlist in the country’s regular peacetime military.

“The Scout,” “The Congressional Medal of Honor” and “The Honor Guards” are three different pieces that can be viewed at the museum that Mr. Waters created, representing the different stages of the Buffalo Soldiers during that time period.

“Lil Patriots” by Nina Spencer

It took Mr. Waters 98 hours to complete each painting.

“I read a lot of what they went through and they became one of the best soldiers in the military,” Mr. Waters said. “I wanted to do a series on them that told their whole story.”

The exhibition entitled “African American History Live” will be on view until April 29. A “Meet the Artists” reception was held in February.

The reception capped off a series of events that highlighted local African American history, culture, art, music and theater presented by the Delaware State News in partnership with the Biggs Museum of American Art, Delaware State University, Sankofa Cultural Arts Center and DonDel Productions.

“I’m delighted and excited about everything that has happened,” Ms. Blakey said.

“It’s great to see all kinds of different art. You see photography, drawings and fabrics, as it blossomed to something that I never even envisioned.”

“It was always one of my goals to lift up African-American artists in the area to let them know that we’re here. There is a lot of talent in the area that needs to be recognized and I hope that this is just the beginning and that all of us can get together and continue to create other opportunities for us to show our work.”

Mr. Waters shared the same sentiment.

“As far as Delaware and African-American art it’s making people aware to what African Americans have contributed,”

“Garden of Eden” by Michael Morris

Mr. Waters said. “That’s what Black History Month is all about. It’s not about just one month. It’s an ongoing process.”

Mr. Grover said he hopes the Biggs Museum continues to be involved with the Citywide Black History Celebration for years to come.

“I think they’re planning to grow,” Mr. Grover said. “We would want to be involved. Maybe we try and look at particular subjects or a theme; maybe we talk about certain artists, or bring African-American voices from outside of Kent County. The possibilities are endless. We’ll be happy to respond to the community’s needs.”

Arshon Howard is a freelance writer from Dover.

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