Mixed-media artist Phoebe Beasley brings ages of history back to life through art.
A well-renowned artist, Beasley spoke to students about the history behind her artwork on Tuesday in the Harris Gallery.
Beasley’s exhibit “Unsung Requiem: Lost Then Found” represents the struggle, success, and everything in between from the 1960s to today. Her artwork includes paintings, 3D mixed-media works, and collages focused on her personal stories and the stories of those who have impacted her life.
Beasley emphasizes the importance of remembering the past and the obstacles previous generations had to overcome in order for society to be where it is today.
“Sometimes it’s easier to look at an artwork and understand the history that goes with it than to read a 300 page textbook,” Beasley said. “I’m here to make it easier.”
Understanding the past is an essential part of knowing where you are in the present and where you are headed in the future, Beasley said.
“People nowadays are so caught up in what is going on today that they forget where they came from and who brought them to where they are,” Beasley said. “At times, we’re not thankful enough for what we have.”
“Class of ’33,” a piece displayed in the exhibit, features her stepmom’s graduating class and was created to honor her.
The piece depicts hundreds of students, faculty, and administrators lined up in rows before Wilberforce University, the first historically black college in the United States. Towards the bottom of the piece, a train and railroad tracks that represent the manner in which many people of color left the south can be seen, as well as individuals of all colors with blurred faces.
“For my stepmom’s parents to get her to go to school was historical to me because very few black people in the past would attend school,” Beasley said.
Beasley collaborated with students from the art and art history department, as well as students from the Makerspace, to recreate “Class of ‘33” into a panoramic version.
In the panoramic version, the faces of the students and faculty members, as well as the vivid colors and narrative, can be seen in greater detail.
Amy Jiang, the library technology coordinator, described how Beasley used new technology to emphasize certain parts of the piece.
“Phoebe had the idea of using our 3D printer at the Makerspace to make the railroad tracks in her art piece appear as if they are coming out of the painting,” Jiang said.
Beasley is a traditional artist, Jiang said, but is also someone who explores new techniques with modern technology.
Sabrina Herrera, a sophomore criminology major, is a student at the Makerspace and said Beasley had asked them how she could make the railroad track on her painting appear more realistic.
“In order to create the track for Phoebe, we used PLA plastic, which is a biodegradable thermoplastic and is used in plastic cups or plastic implants,” Herrera said. “We place the plastic in the 3D printer and then it heats up that plastic and melts it into any shape you input into the computer.”
Beasley also paints historical figures that many people are not necessarily familiar with, such as Paul Revere Williams in “Wheels Down at LAX,” a painting depicting the elegance of the Beverly Hills Hotel and the architecture of the Los Angeles International Airport, both built by Paul Revere Williams himself.
“I think of Paul Revere Williams as a father of invention,” Beasley said. “And many people do not know that the famously known Beverly Hills Hotel was essentially created by this man, or that one of the airports used by people all around, the Los Angeles International Airport, was structured by him too.”
Dion Johnson, director of the Harris Gallery, said Beasley takes a unique approach to enhance the culture and impact of the past.
“There is a figurative, autobiographical narrative and rich history of events that Phoebe sometimes weaves in with artistic fiction that gives the audience a distinctive taste of the past,” Johnson said.
“From South by North to West” is a collage that depicts the journey of those who left the South during the 1960s.
“The one thing I can say I am definitely good at is tearing, twisting, and cutting paper to the point where it feels like the paper has emotion or excitement,” Beasley said.
The collage consists of different patterned paper layered all around the canvas in different sizes and angles. Some of the patterns are a dark gray while others are beige. The collage gives a chaotic sensation, one that reflects the people who left the South but did not really know what they were doing after that.
“We all go through chaos of what to leave behind in our lives and what to keep and where to head to next,” Beasley said. “I compared this feeling of overwhelmedness to my grandparents’ mentality when they moved from the South.”
Abstract patterns are very common in Beasley’s work, along with vivid colors and abstract figures. In her painting “Political Postures,” Beasley combined the patterns of color, people, and background into one piece.
In the painting, six individuals of mixed genders are seen sitting next to each other. The color of their clothing ranges from a royal blue to a dark brown.
The patterns in the painting consist of stripes both on the clothing and chairs, flowers on two dresses, and a background of orange, purple, brown, blue, and pink.
“Color is hugely important to Phoebe,” Johnson said. “She is very intuitive as to how she uses color and where she decides to place it.”
Myra Garcia, the senior director of University Advancement and Beasley’s close friend, attended Beasley’s talk and was amazed by the amount of color in the art.
“There is just so much vibrant color that captures your eye so fast,” Garcia said.
“The way she manages to do collages and abstract paintings is absolutely fascinating.”
One of Garcia’s favorite paintings is “Elegant Outing Through French,” where an African American woman in a white dress is standing inside a house. The dress is three-dimensional and hangs off the painting. The house is the background of the painting and is shown with windows and flower vases.
“The detail is so specific in the background,” Garcia said. “This painting signifies the hard work of the woman’s ancestors and is part of the African American experience and how far we’ve gone and how far we have to still go.”
As successful as Beasley is today, the mixed-media artist did not always have the support of the people around her.
During her talk, she shared some of her struggles in her early life as an artist.
“I remember telling my high school counselor that I wanted to major in art and she laughed and said I had to choose another major because there was no such thing as ‘black artists,’” Beasley said.
Nevertheless, Beasley stuck with her dream career and, through her journey of self-discovery, realized that only she could control what was going to happen in her life.
“You are the chairman of the board of your life and you decide what happens next,” Beasley said.
Beasley is an award-winning artist who has collectors across the country, including Tyler Perry, Oprah Winfrey and Samuel L. Jackson.
Her art exhibit, “Unsung Requiem: Lost Then Found” will be on display in the Harris Gallery through May 16.
Alondra Campos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.