The newest exhibit at the Arno Maris Gallery at Westfield State University, “Something Extraordinary: A Visual Review of Story as Timeless,” showcases the work of 8 Black artists and is on display through March 31st

Through drawings, paintings, and mixed media installations, the exhibition delves into the process of visual storytelling and examines Black history through a creative lens. 

Zydalis Bauer visited Westfield State and spoke with JaJa Swinton, Tara Gorman, and Kahli Hernandez, three of the artists featured in “Something Extraordinary,” about how the project fosters a sense of unity and to learn more about the inspiration behind their installations. 

Hear “Something Extraordinary” co-curator Imo Imeh discuss bringing the exhibit to life in a digital exclusive clip.

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer Connecting Point: The newest exhibit at the Arnold Maris Gallery at Westfield State University,”Something Extraordinary: A Visual Review of Story as Timeless,” showcases the work of eight Black artists and is on display through March 31st.

Through drawings, paintings, and mixed media installations, the exhibition delves into the process of visual storytelling and examines Black history through a creative lens. I visited Westfield State and spoke with three of the artists featured to find out how the project fosters a sense of unity and to learn more about the inspiration behind their installations.

JaJa Swinton, Artist: Storytelling just joins all the artworks so perfectly. Whether we’re talking about personal stories of redemption or talking about stories of citizenship and belonging, storytelling really bonds everyone’s art.

So, I think it was just the perfect theme to center the entire exhibition around.

Zydalis Bauer: And so, this exhibition has eight featured artists, and I have three of you right here in front of me. Share with me some of the narratives that viewers will be able to see when they come view the exhibition at Westfield State.

JaJa Swinton: Well, there is Faustina Adeniran’s work, which deals with issues of freedom and belonging, being a transplant from Africa to here in the States. I really like the opening line of his artist statement: “You can really tell what a society is like by what it throws away.” And I think that definitely applies not only for material things, but also for people, as well on a on a human-social level.

So, there’s also Kimberly Becoat’s work, which deals with issues of displacement in the Black community in New York. And I really like the way that she kind of wove in just a little blurb about Robert Moses, who really shaped New York, and in many ways not necessarily positive for people of color.

But those are just two examples of how telling a story, which is both personal, but also other people’s stories that are connected to yours, the community that you share, I think is really important.

Tara Gorman, Artist: And I think when I look at Kiayani’s work, too, which — “The Women of the Antebellum” — learning the stories beyond what you’re taught in school, you know, these these people that came before us and her use of pattern in the portraits as well, it’s just really striking. And I think — I saw a lot of people responding really, really favorably to it. And it’s…yeah, right?

JaJa Swinton: Yeah, they’re awesome!

Absolutely! Yeah. And I like Omar’s portraits and the…when he talks about the — the shaft of light coming through to sort of interrupt how we see things and how our experiences. And…you could fall into them, you know, they’re just…and each one of these, like you said, comes from a different perspective. It just really drives, I think, home, the fact that you can tell a story in a thousand different ways.

Kahli Hernandez, The Artoonist: They’re not going to talk about themselves, but I’m going to talk about them.

JaJa’s work actually speaks to a lot about men’s experiences with court and dealing with the system and how it adversely affects them. And that’s something that a lot of people don’t see or know about because they haven’t experienced it. And it’s a very…I don’t want to say taboo, but it kind of is, because when you do talk about it, it’s almost — it’s hard, because people don’t understand.

Tara Gorman: It gets dismissed.

Kahli Hernandez: Right! Very easily. And and it’s hard for — being a man trying to express yourself, you know — you heard that sigh, right? — positively. And like he was talking about grief in his excerpt and how he projects it through his work. And that’s not something easy to talk about.

Zydalis Bauer: Not at all. And I don’t want to cut you off, but it’s exactly what I wanted to ask, because when I first saw your series, JaJa, “Beauty for Ashes,” I was really moved by how personal this story was. So, how challenging is it for you to talk about something so personal in such a public display?

JaJa Swinton: To be honest, I was really like, nervous opening night because this is the first time that I’ve shared any of this, like publicly. This is something that I’ve been working on since, like you could say, roughly 2017, 2018. But it’s taken so long because it just…it’s painful. You know, it’s not like I went through it. I came out on the other side and I’m talking about it. I’m making this work as I’m going through this experience.

And so, there was — there were a lot of times there were weeks, sometimes months, that I couldn’t work on it. Like, it was there. I looked at it, I would attempt it. But just like, emotionally, on a — on an emotional, psychological level — it was just — it was too much. It was like, I can’t…I just can’t, because to have to actually work on it now, I have to think about…I have to think about the fact that I’m not with them, you know what I mean? That I’m not able to be that presence. And — and it’s crushing, you know, it really is.

You know, especially when, you know, you really…you want to be there for your kids and, you know you’re a good dad, but there’s this this narrative of, you know, the absent black father in that we’re just irresponsible. We make babies and then we leave. And it’s not true at all. But it’s assumed when you enter that court that you’re actually not trying to do, you know, the right thing. And it’s assumed that mom is going to be correct in everything that she says. And so, it’s an uphill battle, you know, all the way.

Zydalis Bauer: And then, Kahli, I want to go to you, because you said they’re not going to talk about themselves. And I know you’re probably not going to talk about yourself —

Kahli Hernandez: Absolutely not!

Zydalis Bauer: — but you’re also known as the Artoonist — 

Kahli Hernandez: Yes.

Zydalis Bauer: — and you have very colorful and vibrant work. Tell me, how does that relate to your personality and how does that tell your story, especially in this exhibit.

Kahli Hernandez: In this exhibit, when Imo had talked to me about being a part of it, I was kind of like, “Am I — am I worth it?” You know? And it’s, like, all artists go through that like, right?

JaJa Swinton: Yeah.

Kahli Hernandez: Yeah! It’s like, am I — am I really an artist? And I had that happen when we were at the exhibit here and we had the reception. I’m just didn’t hit me. I kept saying it like, it didn’t hit me until I — ’til I got here. And I was like, Whoa! I’m a part of an exhibit. I am an artist!” You know?

JaJa Swinton: Yeah!

Kahli Hernandez: And, you know, with my work, I try to make sure that I’m saying something that has value because it’s — it’s hard to be an artist and not think you’re valuable and then make something valuable. So like, I want people to think when they look at my work, not just glaze over it. It just so people can experience a little piece of me.

Zydalis Bauer: Yeah.

As, as best as possible. And also, you know, enjoy, you know, all the colors and — and the little meanings, the little nuggets of information that I have.

Zydalis Bauer: Yeah, and maybe even relate through some of the work — because I know when I saw your piece, there was immediately something I’m like, “Oh my God!” It took me back to school writing on your notebook —

JaJa Swinton:  There’s a little bit of nostalgia in there! 

Zydalis Bauer: Yeah, nostalgia! 

Tara Gorman: And the physical feeling that you get from it.

JaJa Swinton: There’s a — there’s a — there’s a piece of nostalgia I like. It takes me back to like, fourth grade and seeing like — like with the S’s and I’m like, this is crazy! Just crazy. Yeah, It’s like, there’s nostalgia there.

Zydalis Bauer: And I think that’s the wonderful thing about this exhibit, is the unique techniques and styles. And Tara, I have to talk about yours because I never thought to look at figurines in the way that you do.

So, tell me about the materials you use and the stories that you’re able to tell through them.

Tara Gorman: Sure! So, I use a lot of railroad miniatures, so, you know, little tiny figurines like about this big, but also whatever — I like a lot of toy animals and things like that. And I think it stems from being a little kid. I was an only child, so when it was time to come inside, I had my toys to play with. So, I had my little doll house and my aunt’s hand-me-downs and I would make up stories and who can live here? What do they do? That type of thing. And…I think that that sense of play kind of just carried over with me.

And when Imo invited me to participate in this exhibit, like you, Kahli, I thought, you know,”I don’t belong here.” But working towards telling a story versus just a single image that, you know, “Oh, that looks cool. But where’s the why behind it?” So, I’m trying to get more into, you know, if I make up a diorama, well, whose house is this? What do they do? What do they like?

So, it’s been a good exercise for me and my work. It’s definitely pushing me to try different techniques and and and figure out different stories to tell.