Spirituality infuses 2 art exhibitions at Sumter County Gallery of Art

Artists present for opening reception



Multidisciplinary artists Michi Meko and Angela Davis Johnson will attend Thursday's opening of their individual exhibitions at the Sumter County Gallery of Art. Both exhibitions will remain in the gallery through June 21.

Alabama native Meko draws influence from Southern culture and contemporary urban. He received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting from the University of North Alabama. His work has been featured in recent solo exhibitions at Dodd Galleries, University of Georgia; University of North Georgia, Dahlonega, Georgia; and the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

Recent grants and awards include a Joan Mitchell Award, Artadia Award, MOCA GA Fellowship, a Flux Projects Grant and a residency at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

In addition to being a serious artist, Meko is also an avid fisherman. He infuses his hobby with a spirituality that informs his work, and vice versa.

In his artist statement, Meko writes of a life-changing event, his near-drowning in 2015, which influenced his "recent paintings and sculptures (that) focus on the African-American experience of navigating public spaces while remaining buoyant within them. This work contributes to an important conversation, as African-Americans in public spaces are consistently threatened, now more visibly and openly with the sharing offered by social media. This barrage of images simulates an experience of drowning under the heavy weight of 10,000 pounds of pressure while being held to the ocean's floor.

"The work incorporates the visual language of naval flags and nautical wayfinding, combined with romanticized objects of the American South as a means to communicate the psychological and the physical. These references signal the warning of a threat, or the possibility of safe passage. Working beyond the physical image of the body, objects of buoyancy and navigation become metaphors for selfhood, resilience and the sanity required in the turbulent oceans of contemporary America."

Meko refers to his artistic practice as Mekovision. His Sumter exhibition will feature two on-site installations as well as his large-scale 2- and 3-D work. He will give an artist talk Saturday, June 8.

Johnson's art relies heavily on storytelling and the evolving identity of black people throughout history. A mostly self-taught artist, she highlights overlooked aspects of black life - facial expressions, the struggles and joys of daily living and personal style. Her textured work combines oil paints, scrap paper and fabric - the latter an homage to her seamstress mother. Born and raised in Arkansas, Johnson moved to Atlanta in 2014. She's had work displayed at Elevate Atlanta and Mason Murer Fine Art, as well as galleries across the South, from North Carolina to Texas and Mississippi.

She always considered herself to be an artist, even as a child. When Johnson was 4 years old, her mother decided to go back to school for fashion design. What she learned in class she would share with her daughter. Johnson attended a magnet school for the arts in Norfolk, Virginia, where she had access to equipment and skills - printmaking, oil painting, exhibition prep - at the local college and university. When she was 14, Johnson's family moved back to rural Arkansas and lived off the grid and on the land for several years. It was during this time that Johnson learned to lean into her artistry as a method of healing. She utilized found objects and paint to help process traumatic events and life in general.

The subjects of Johnson's work range from women foraging or gathering at a bus stop to the ancestral pain of American lynchings, or domestic violence. The choice of color and economy of brushstrokes she uses to create the human form is her way of illuminating the soul within. Each color and mark reflects an emotion or spirit. Her portrayal of the black experience is something that is past, present and future - something that spans beyond this current moment.

Finding ways of recognizing the universal within the specific is what Johnson wants to explore. There has to be a space for creating outside of our current reality, in addition to the transformative work people are doing through policy changes and disrupting societal complacency through protest.

Johnson notes we must do something to counteract the narratives of violence, fear and scarcity, not only because it distorts and destroys who we are as a society, but also because our children are watching us and emulating this madness.

Of the opportunities to show her work, Johnson said, "Every time I get the opportunity to share a painting, an installation, a performance, I do not take it lightly. I honor the yes. I value the space made for me by hopes of generations before me. I honor all the women in my family who were told no but kept dreaming anyway. I make art to remember who I am when the world tries to define me by my race, my gender, my socioeconomic status, my sexuality, my education. I make art to make myself big in freedom - big enough to make space for my children's children to dwell in."

SCGA Executive Director Karen Watson recognized the importance of community support in making the gallery's exhibitions possible. Community partners include the Sumter County Cultural Commission, which receives support from the John & Susan Bennett Arts Fund of the Coastal Community Foundation of SC, the SC Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, SAFE Federal Credit Union, Tammy and Ernest Finney III, Ben Griffith and Tammy Kelly-State Farm, Rep. and Mrs. J. David Weeks and the Glenmore and May Sharp Trust.

Michi Meko's "And Then There Was Sky" and Angela Davis Johnson's "Weatherin' Between the Canebrake Blues" will open with a 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. reception Thursday at the Sumter County Gallery of Art, 200 Hassel St., adjacent to Patriot Hall, 135 Haynsworth St. For more information, call the gallery at (803) 775-0543.