A new exhibition at Syracuse University’s Sue and Leon Genet Gallery features Peter Piening’s dynamic abstract commercial work and his role as an educator. According to exhibition curator Meri A. Page, assistant professor of communications design in the College of…
Community Folk Art Center: A Welcoming Place for All to Discover Art, Culture and Community
The Community Folk Art Center (CFAC) has been a vital part of the University and city for nearly 50 years—a hub of art, cultural understanding and community.
“CFAC is a bridge between the Syracuse University community and the local community, through the vehicle of art,” says CFAC Executive Director Tanisha Jackson. “We bring in the talent of our students, faculty and staff and the community brings in their knowledge and art and we can have a dialogue.”
A unit of the Department of African American Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, CFAC is an arts and cultural organization dedicated to the promotion and development of artists of the African diaspora.
“CFAC in a very organic and genuine way demonstrates the diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives of Syracuse University,” says Jackson, a professor of practice in the Department of African American Studies, who teaches a course each semester. “We do it in practice and we do it in who we are and how we engage with those themes through exhibitions, workshops and classes.”
CFAC, which employs University students in various roles, launched an online gallery over the summer in response to the pandemic. Visitors can also schedule appointments to visit CFAC. It also offers live stream art classes, wellness and fitness classes, performance classes, and concerts and performances.
In celebration of Black History Month in its latest exhibition, CFAC features New Jersey-based artist Lavett Ballard’s work, “Stories My Grandmother Told Me,” running through March 20. Ballard will give an artist talk on March 5 at 6 p.m., via Zoom. Online visitors can also check out Jackson’s video series, “Black Arts Speak,” with Ballard, which Jackson produced and alumna Brittany Wait G’17 served as director of photography.
In this Q&A, Jackson discusses the latest exhibition and all the different ways the community can engage with CFAC.
Q: What are some ongoing ways people can enjoy all that CFAC has to offer?
A: Upon returning for spring 2021, we now offer live stream arts classes, along with our online exhibitions. Our Creative Arts Academy, which is one of our signature programs, allows for anyone to enroll and take art classes with an instructor who is live streaming from CFAC. We have programs connected to wellness and livestream Zumba, African dance and African drumming classes. We also have live concerts and performances. On Feb. 26, we will have a showcase of work by the Black Artist Collective. We stream all of these things, and more information on how to access these events can be found on the website.
Q: Tell me about the latest exhibition. What themes does the artist Lavett Ballard explore?
A: Lavett submitted her work for exhibition a couple of years before I arrived. It was in queue, and I was combing through the submissions and came across this beautiful work of mixed media collages on wooden fences. Lavett’s exhibition, “Stories My Grandmother Told Me,” is very timely. It speaks to the journey of the African diaspora, because there are many historical references and iconography.
Good examples would be her work highlighting the bus riders in Montgomery, Alabama, with Rosa Parks and images about the Tulsa, Oklahoma, massacre, which happened 100 years ago. She doesn’t just center on historical images, but she talks about the beauty and connectivity of community. There are images of unsung heroes so that you may see an image of Rosa Parks, but then she has within her collage the copy of court cases and other documents that includes the names of other women who were instrumental in galvanizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
I find her work to be beautiful because there are flowers and beautiful colors as well as being informative, and it really is an exhibition that fosters a lot of dialogue around Black artists, Black art and the African American experience, in particular.
Q: What do you find particularly fascinating about her work?
A: I love her personal stories interlaced within her work. Some of the images reflect people like her father, her sons, her mother and her grandmother. The title of the exhibition itself talks about the legacy and inheritance of those stories and how they build on our understanding of ourselves as well as our community.
Her pieces are on large-scale wooden fences, that have been repurposed to be her canvas, and she uses them as a metaphor of how it keeps people in as well as keeps people out. It’s a powerful metaphor that is connected to playwright August Wilson’s work “Fences.” Her work brings up social injustice, community, women’s empowerment, respectability, politics and justice to name a few. Looking at Lavett’s work may compel you to ask yourself what are the fences in my own life?
When Lavett was not able to access her studio because of COVID, in early spring, she had to work on a smaller scale, using circular wood slices. We also see images of victims of violence due to police brutality and images from the Black Lives Matter movement.
Q: What do you see as the mission of the Community Folk Art Center?
A: CFAC’s mission is to exalt cultural and artistic pluralism by collecting, teaching and interpreting visual and performing arts. We provide public programs that include exhibitions, film screenings, workshops, studio courses, gallery talks and performances.
CFAC, which came out of the Black Power movement, was organized in 1972 at the grassroots level by Professor Herbert T. Williams, in the Department of African American Studies, and other faculty and students and community members. The conversation at the time was that they didn’t want to just read about Black art and artists but they also wanted to engage with them. They also wanted to create a space for these artists since mainstream art museums and galleries were not providing space and opportunities to artists of color, and in particular Black artists.
When we think about CFAC now, it continues to embrace underrepresented emerging artists, and mainstream artists as well. We hold true to our mission in providing a platform for artists and the community to engage with each other.
Q: What do you want visitors to take away from their experience when they engage with your exhibitions and events?
A: I want people to take away a sense of community. We partner with people in Syracuse, faculty, students and staff, and I want them to know that CFAC is a space that is welcoming, and where anyone can learn, particularly through the cultural narratives that come out of the arts that are there.
We infuse cultural and especially Black cultural capital within the communities we serve. This is what lends to people’s understanding of African diaspora experience. That is very important if you have a lack of exposure to people within our community, so that CFAC provides space to foster sometimes critical dialogue that you might not necessarily have.
Prior to COVID, we were in the city school district and working with seniors at the Nottingham. It is through these outreach initiatives that we demonstrate how CFAC has always been an organization that will come to you. We speak to the needs of everyone of diverse backgrounds, demographics and age. Even if you don’t identify as an artist, you can be entertained and most importantly you can learn and experience new things through art.
The Community Folk Art Center is located at 805 E. Genesee St.