Sunday, September 25, 2022

New Exhibit Showcases Local Voice in Story of Contemporary African-American Art

Betty Blayton, “Reaching for Center” (1970), oil and mixed media on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.
Betty Blayton, “Reaching for Center” (1970), oil and mixed media on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

Betty Blayton became an artist as she rode her bicycle down 1940s Duke of Gloucester Street, stopping to watch the silversmith hammer metal or the sparks fly at the shoemaker.

She knew from an early age her destiny was one of paint and clay, color and creativity.

“I can remember, like at about age 4, wanting to do murals up the stair. It was a bone of contention for my mother,” Blayton laughed.

Still, the road was a winding one – starting in the Williamsburg area, taking her around the country and almost to London, before she settled into long love affair with New York City.

Now her artwork has made its way back to the place where it all began. Blayton is among the regional artists featured in “Looking Both Ways,” an exhibition opening at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center on Saturday.

The show examines the work of contemporary African-American artists, within the context of the legacy of slavery, the Jim Crow era and the struggle for Civil Rights. Tracing the arc from African art to the present, it includes historical photographs alongside the pieces.

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See “Looking Both Ways” at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center

The show opens Saturday and runs through March 22. PFAC, at 101 Museum Drive in the Mariners’ Museum Park in Newport News, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Admission is $7.50 for adults, $4 for children ages 6 through 12 and free for children ages 5 and younger.

To learn more, call 596-8175 or visit the museum website.

Blayton will give a talk, along with Hampton artist Crystal Johnson, at 2 p.m. Sunday at the museum. The event is free and open to the public.

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The daughter of James Blaine Blayton – the doctor who opened a hospital for the local black community, the first black member of the James City County’s school board and the namesake for J. Blaine Blayton Elementary School – Blayton grew up in the City of Williamsburg until her father moved the family to settle in Grove in James City County when she was 10.

For high school, James Blaine Blayton sent his daughter to boarding school in North Carolina. The segregated schools in the Williamsburg area were not of a high enough caliber to ensure her college acceptance, and he wanted to make sure every door was open for her future.

Blayton picked Syracuse University for its art education program, one of top in the country at the time.

“My father was very open-minded about his children following their bliss, so to speak,” Blayton said. “My mother was much more practical and concerned about how you were going to make a dollar.”

It was her mother’s judgment that led Blayton to add a second major of illustration to her painting concentration in school.

She did a short stint as an illustrator with the federal government after graduating – and hated it, Blayton recalled with a chuckle – and another teaching art on Saint Thomas. It was the summer before she was slated to start a teaching gig in London that Blayton went to New York City to study.

She fell in love with the city, and its artists, then broke her teaching contract.

Blayton spent the following decades making her home in many spots throughout the boroughs, as well as co-founding the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Harlem Children’s Art Carnival, a school for shaping young artists from age 4 through college. She served as executive director there for 29 years before retiring, though she continues to create and exhibit her work.

Looking back at her time in Williamsburg, she remembers racism, but not as a personal affront or topic of conversation at home.

“[My mother] dismissed everything having to do with racism as ignorance. You don’t discuss it. You knew that there were injustices, but you didn’t dwell on it. Life is full of challenges and you do the best with what you can, with what you have,” Blayton said.

Betty Blayton, “Shape of Sound.” Courtesy of the artist.
Betty Blayton, “Shape of Sound.” Courtesy of the artist.

But attitudes about race shaped her everyday experiences nonetheless.

Blayton was taunted by white children as she walked past Matthew Whaley Elementary School to the school for black students.

“I can’t remember it as being vicious, I just remember it as being ritual,” she said. “And of course separating and alienating, but I don’t remember feeling bad about it.”

When her father opened his hospital, she demanded he include an ice cream counter – Blayton remembered being upset she could not enjoy an ice cream soda after church, at the shop downtown, because it was segregated.

She started working at the one in the hospital, and Blayton swears she made the best banana splits anyone had ever tasted.

Race did not always translate to privilege, though, and she was acutely aware of the classmates who were not as fortunate as her, no matter their skin color. Her mother packed baskets to give to the needy at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and her father did not charge rent to some of the white families who lived on his property because he knew they could not afford to pay.

Blayton does not like to dwell on the subject of racism, especially now – there are too many bright lights in her life to outshine the dark history.

The journey she has taken, and the course of her artistic career, will be the subject of her talk at 2 p.m. Sunday at PFAC. The event is free and open to the public.

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