J’Lee Gales smiles during a selfie with Demario “Paco” Leggons.  Gales’ painting is behind them. Photo by Clint Confehr

‘Black Art Matters’ art show Celebrates Unity in Columbia, Tenn.

By Clint Confehr

COLUMBIA, TN — Artists painted pictures worth a thousand words describing America’s unrest, local leaders said during “Black Art Matters, a celebration of unity at the Maury County Arts Guild Building.”

Vice Mayor Dr. Christa Martin leads access and diversity services at Columbia State Community College where she says improving life includes recognizing the value in each other. At the Guild, Martin commented on reactions to Black Lives Matter.

“When people try to change that narrative — when they try to make it negative instead of positive — that’s a problem for me,” Martin said. “I hope it’s a problem for you.”

People who want change should run for election. “The elections are coming up,” Martin said. “If you’re thinking about running, you need to think about: what your platform is; what things are important to you; and how we make Columbia a better place to live.”

Columbia Art Council member Bob Kimball said artists were given square boards with the image of a fist in a circle. The assignment: Take it from here; finish it. A couple dozen did. “All the pictures are the same, but different. Art has a way to make a point where words fail,” Kimball said.

J’Lee Gales used flag colors from Jamaica, the United States and the Philippines “to show we are all connected with a common issue today.” Police brutality exists in those countries where “a broken system — one that’s to serve and protect — has tons of killings.”

Kimball said George Floyd’s murder was a motive for this art show. COVID-19 postponed it. “Everything” prompted it, including Eric Garner’s 2014 death, Kimball said.

Martin said, close study of the images can reveal deep-seated feelings about equity and equality. A relative traced their genealogy. Martin knows who enslaved her ancestors. Born in 1899, her grandmother lived a life in struggle until five months before turning 100. “Look at where we’ve come from,” Martin said. “People were brought here without permission.”

She called out reversals. Her mixed media picture — Education Adds Value to Our Lives — includes: a civil rights timeline; Nelson Mandela’s quote, education is “the most powerful weapon” for change; and opposition to school closures in underrepresented communities. The oldest and most diverse school in Maury County, McDowell Elementary, is being closed.

“Schools … build community,” Martin said. “When you shut them down you, you shut down a community.” She said $4-5 million could fixed it. “But we’re spending $40 million on Central High School and on a school in Spring Hill. We’ve got the money … if we don’t stand up and speak out, they’re going to continue to spend it how they choose…”

Brandon Sprowl of Columbia — a podcaster on “Who Dat?” with Demario ‘Paco’ Liggons — offered spoken art by reading his 1,490-word poem, “Why?”

“Why set up a system like this especially specially for me? / Why you come get me but beat me? / Why you don’t want me? / But every 4 years come saying how much you need me?” Sprowl concludes: “Black lives will matter when black lives don’t have to die. Until then, all I can ask is: ‘Why?’”

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The vice mayor said, “One of the key things that I see going on … is good people, who may become drunk and impaired with power, do bad things to other people.”

Diane Davis saw diversity “from various aspects of life” in the show. “It’s more about justice and equality for us.”

Kimball used many toy soldiers and BandAids for a metaphor on healing.

The 5-9 p.m. May 1 art display was disassembled. Martin’s board was headed for her office. Others may be displayed publicly.

Clint Confehr

Clint Confehr — an American journalist since 1972 — first wrote for The Tennessee Tribune in 1999. His news writing and photography in South Central Tennessee and the Nashville Metropolitan Statistical...