Behind WHAT A RELIEF—Who is Washington Sculptors Group?

Currently on view at Phillips@THEARC is What a Relief: small relief sculptures, organized with the Washington Sculptors Group (WSG). 2021-22 Sherman Fairchild Fellow Shiloah Coley speaks with board members of WSG and participating artist Alonzo Davis.

Members of Washington Sculptors Group view Adam Bradley’s Struggle at WSG’s show, ARTINA 2021: Balancing Acts, at the Sandy Spring Museum

Artists helping artists—that’s what the Washington Sculptors Group has been doing for nearly 40 years as one of the oldest and largest sculptor groups nationally. “And that’s how the group started,” said Joan Weber, advisory board liaison of WSG. “It had been a bunch of sculptors in their studios alone, lonely, and wanting to talk about materials.”

The Phillips Collections recently partnered with Washington Sculptors Group to present WHAT A RELIEF: small relief sculptures at Phillips@THEARC, juried by the Phillips’s Nehemiah Dixon III, Director of Community Engagement, and Vesela Sretenović, Cross-departmental Director of Contemporary Art Initiatives and Partnerships. This is the inaugural in-person exhibition held at Phillips@THEARC since the onset of the pandemic.

Works by 37 artists ranging in age from 15 to 81 were selected for the show. Alonzo Davis, member of WSG for nearly 15 years, had his piece Microclimate VI accepted into the show.

Alonzo Davis, Photo: Sheena Asun

Davis’s life and career spans across the US and internationally from Brazil to West Africa, but he’s called Maryland home for the past 20 years. When he first found a studio to rent in Baltimore in 2002 from fellow artist Ivy Parsons, she told him about WSG. New to the area, Davis decided to join. “I liked the opportunities they presented for artists, and a lot of the exhibits and dialogue,” Davis said. “It was a network.”

His story of being introduced to the group is not uncommon in WSG. Many more senior members heard about it via word of mouth from other artists back in the day. “And they got together, and the meetings were held in each person’s studio–that person was responsible for wine and cheese,” said Weber. “And then, they had their meeting, really a community-based, let’s get together event.”

As the organization updated and shifted into the early 2000s, some began to stumble upon the organization online. Steve Wanna, exhibition manager of WSG, came across the group just as he was beginning to dip back into visual art and sculpture. He describes himself as lurking on their online presence, but feeling intimidated to join what appeared to be a highly professional organization. He soon found out it was a grassroots collective of artists.

“It is a very robust organization that is entirely volunteer run, entirely member-driven,” shared Wanna. “We do a ton of work for what seems like an impossibly small budget, and somehow it works, and it works pretty spectacularly.”

The entire operation is run from the ground-up with not a single paid position. So when the pandemic hit in March of 2020, it’s no surprise that artists continued to help artists. “It’s like positive peer pressure in a way. We somehow ended up doing way more than we normally do during the pandemic, which I think is the case for a lot of people,” Wanna said.

As they moved virtual, they introduced Zoom happy hours in place of studio gatherings and webinars for professional development. Pre-pandemic, the organization provided three shows annually for their members to submit work to. In 2020 and 2021, that number increased to five. Weber said, “It’s like you’re not doing enough so you run double time.”

Installation image of What a Relief: small relief sculptures, featuring Jean Sausele-Knodt, Fragment Dance, Three (2021), and more. Photo credit: Ryan Maxwell

Meanwhile, they managed to decrease their costs during the pandemic. Outdoor venues helped cut costs by assisting with installations, and they spent less money to promote and advertise shows.

After moving virtual, membership increased from international artists and artists across the country, from Australia to California. Many artists found themselves alone and a bit lonely since the onset of the pandemic with less in-person studio visits on the schedule and timed-tickets limited to small groups for visiting exhibitions. Alonzo Davis still spends most of his time in his studio even as the world around him begins to open up. He’s seen the work from What a Relief online and shares, “It’s fascinating seeing how people come to the relief in so many different ways.”

The Phillips Collects: Nekisha Durrett

2021-22 Sherman Fairchild Fellow Shiloah Coley speaks with Nekisha Durrett about the recent acquisition of her work from the juried invitational Inside Outside, Upside Down

Nekisha Durrett, Eleanor Bumper killed by police on October 29, 1984 | Age 66, 2020-21, Magnolia leaves, poplar, velvet, acrylic, LED lighting, 19 1/4 x 19 1/4 x 5 3/4 in.. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Luke Walter Photography

Nekisha Durrett always knew she wanted to be an artist, and her chance encounter with Jacob Lawrence at The Phillips Collection made it seem a little more attainable. He was one of the first examples of a Black person she saw operating in that space, making a life as an artist. “You know that you want to be an artist, but you don’t see anyone else like you or in your family doing it. You’re not seeing people who look like you who are doing it and are successful in the ways that you see white artists—white male artists are successful,” said Durrett. “There is no roadmap. Everyone’s pathway is very different. Add on top of that not seeing any representation of anyone who looks like you who’s making a life of it. So in that regard, meeting Jacob Lawrence, seeing his work hanging in the museum, I think it probably became more of a maybe. It did feel just a little a bit more in reach.”

Her work from Inside Outside, Upside Down now joins the permanent collection at the Phillips alongside Lawrence’s work. Eleanor Bumper killed by police on October 29, 1984 | Age 66 honors the life of a Black woman killed by the police. The magnolia leaf dawns her carved-out name. While the magnolia tree is popular for its beautiful flowers, its leaves stand the test of time, refusing to decay or wither. The work is part of a larger series, Magnolia, honoring many Black women.

“I always see the outpouring of emotion or attention when Black men were murdered, and I felt like it wasn’t the same for Black women,” Durrett said, recalling her thought process behind the work. The delicate pieces differ from the larger public pieces and projects she typically takes on, but she couldn’t work on those to the same extent amid the pandemic. During the spring and summer of 2020, Durrett collected the fallen leaves from a magnolia tree in Rock Creek Cemetery, where she would go to process her anxiety and grief over the covid-19 pandemic and the continued police brutality against Black bodies.

Noting the immense amount of videos and images of violence against Black people circulating, the leaf emerged as a useful metaphor. “I didn’t want to put that kind of labor on Black bodies so using this leaf as a metaphor for the Black body just seems to make sense,” Durrett said. This work is intimate, demanding the viewer’s attention if they are to truly see it, asking them to get closer.

Similar to how Lawrence helped open the door for Durrett, she now continues that legacy with her audience. Her therapist, who is located around the corner from the Phillips, visited the museum to see her work, sharing that she’d never been before and didn’t think it was a space where she would see herself, a feeling far too familiar for marginalized folks, and especially Black folks in museum settings. “That is a part of the work. It’s creating a space where you can see yourself,” said Durrett.

The Phillips Collects: Kim Llerena

2021-22 Sherman Fairchild Fellow Shiloah Coley speaks with Inside Outside, Upside Down artist Kim Llerena, whose work Stonewall Jackson (dismantled), Monument Avenue, Richmond, Virginia, has been acquired by the museum.

Kim Llerena, Stonewall Jackson (dismantled), Monument Avenue, Richmond, Virginia, Archival pigment print, 20 x 16 in., Courtesy of the artist

“I didn’t think I had made anything meaningful this year,” chuckled Kim Llerena as she reflected on going through the process of deciding which piece to submit for Inside Outside, Upside Down.

She likes finished projects—photographs that are a part of a larger body of work or series. At the time, Stonewall Jackson (dismantled), Monument Avenue, Richmond Virginia did not fit into that category. She now views the black-and-white print of the dismantled graffiti-covered Stonewall Jackson statue in Richmond, Virginia, on Monument Avenue, as an extension of the most recent work she’s been exhibiting, American Scrapbook, which depicts fragments of the American experience across the U.S.

Like so many of the other artists I spoke with, Llerena found herself needing to change the way she typically works when it became clear last year that everything would remain on lockdown for a while with travel advisories in place. Her practice is primarily grounded in her travels on cross-country road trips. “I typically like to explore the American landscape, but as it is influenced and marked by the human hand and the human experience, that certainly was put on hold during the pandemic as I was not traveling,” said Llerena.

American Scrapbook on view at Arlington Arts Center

While setting up a show in Virginia, she decided to document the deconstructed monuments to the confederacy, where activists and protestors held demonstrations during 2020, largely in response to police brutality and the police murder of George Floyd. She hoped to capture the after effects of the protests and demonstrations on the monument. “My most recent project American Scrapbook was very interested in remnants, remnants within our visual landscape that were sort of evidence of human interaction upon the landscape whether it was rural or urban.”

Public oversight of confederate statues has been a long contested debate in Virginia, where Monument Avenue props up the legacies of the confederacy quite literally on pedestals in the former capital of the confederacy, Richmond. After the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, the law protecting the monuments came under fire. In March 2020, Virginia lawmakers finalized a bill that removed state protection for the memorials, leaving the fate of the monuments up to towns, cities, and counties.

Llerena’s work investigates our “constructed relationship to place.” Given that the monuments occupy public land, it spoke volumes to see how the public engaged in the deconstruction of the monuments. What is signified when the legacy of the confederacy is glorified so much so that the monuments become a tourist attraction? What does that say about the narratives we value in America?

The Stonewall Jackson monument was the first of four confederate statues to be removed from Monument Avenue in early July of 2020. Some have connected the removal of confederate statues across the U.S. to the student-centered Fallism movement tied to Black liberation and decolonization, which garnered attention in South Africa in 2015 as students protested the glorification of British Imperialist Cecil John Rhodes, whose statue was removed from the University of Cape Town. While the removal of a statute does not make an institution or country equitable or actively engaged in decolonization, it provides evidence that there is hope in the possibility of what collective action from the public can achieve as we consider the removal of confederate statues in the U.S. Statues and monuments signify what we value, and what stories and narratives we uplift as truth.

As Llerena drove through Monument Avenue, she took in the demonstrations going on around the monuments. The space was filled with music, protest signs, and graffiti. “Like almost repurposing that monument,” Llerena said. “So I thought that was a very beautiful moment, indicative of hopefully where we go in the future—not to glorify these confederate soldiers and these monuments, but to glorify the dismantling of them and dismantling what that signifies for how we read and teach American history.”

Kim Llerena with her work in Inside Outside, Upside Down. Photo: Travis Houze