Clay Center celebrates 20th anniversary with ‘The Possible Dream’ exhibit

History of the Center highlights collections from several Black artists

By: Katelyn Aluise, Intern Reporter

This summer, the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences of West Virginia in Charleston is celebrating its twentieth anniversary with its exhibit, “The Possible Dream.” 

The Charleston Art Gallery at Sunrise Mansion obtained its first piece in 1963, and soon the Sunrise collection would set the foundation for the Juliet Art Museum. This year marks the 60th year of collecting.

According to Curator of Art and Engagement, Elizabeth Simmons, the name of the exhibit comes from a quote from one of the founding members, John McClaugherty, during the initial fundraising for the Center.

“You have to have a dream, and you can’t curtail it,” he said. 

This quote was featured in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, and several years later, McClaugherty’s dream of having visual and performing arts and sciences under one roof came true.  

Now, that dream is to be celebrated with a gallery that showcases some of the most prominent pieces collected throughout the Center’s history. The artwork includes some famous artists or those with regional ties or who had personal exhibitions at Sunrise or the Clay Center.

Overall, 20% of the artists in the collection are native to West Virginia. 

There is also archival material in the exhibit that highlights some of the scholarships produced by the Center, including catalogs of different exhibits, shows and photos of paintings and artwork throughout the Center’s history.

“I think folks familiar with Sunrise and the Clay Center will recognize and think of them as, you know, old friends,” Simmons said. 

There are five sections of the exhibit, starting with the “Early years at Sunrise” that displays works from the first two decades of the Charleston arts gallery in the 1960’s and 70’s. The sections continue into the purchases from the 80’s to the present, purchased works, West Virginia artists with significant solo or group exhibitions in the past and “Clay Center Icons,” featuring friends of the community and images of the Center’s collection.

While Simmons said there are around 50 pieces in the show, she said they have tried to feature several women and artists of color in the history of the Center. 

“I am very proud to report that Sunrise was collecting Black artists from the beginning,” Simmons said. 

In fact, the second work ever acquired by Sunrise, according to Simmons, was a print titled “Winged Justice” by Leon Hicks, who was teaching at Concord University at the time. 

The show also includes works from Sam Gilliam, who is best known for his “drape paintings” that combine elements of painting and sculpture in a work resembling a hanging sheet. The Center also has a print from Gilliam titled “Ghia #5,” that is the first piece guests see when they walk into the exhibit and is presented on the Center;s postcard and members’ magazines.

Jacob Lawrence, known for his art portraying contemporary Black life in a colorful and cubist style is also featured in the exhibit with a print from his “Migration” series titled “The Migrants Arrive and Cast Their Ballots” that tells the story of Black folks during the Great Migration while exercising their voting rights.

Faith Ringgold, best known for her “story quilts,” creates paintings with quilted borders, like the one showcased in the Center titled “Jazz Stories: Mama Can Sing, Papa Can Blow #7, Love Me,” which Simmons said is one of only two textiles in the Center’s collection.

“It’s colorful and fun. The rhythm of the lines invoke the jazz music that was being played at the scene. It’s definitely a fan favorite,” she said.

Works from Betye Saar reflecting the African diaspora and the African American experience, as well as one of Gary Kirksey’s photographs from his series “A Vanishing Generation,” that portrays elderly relatives from a small town in Ohio that moved to work in the steel industry, are also part of the exhibit. 

“We are fortunate to have, I think a large number of Black artists represented, but always need to work on that number, of course, as well as other artists of color,” Simmons said. “And women artists, traditionally in the art history canon, all of those groups are not as represented as they should be, so we and other museums are always trying to work more toward that.”

The exhibit opened June 15 and will stay open until Oct. 15. General admission to the museum is $12, $8 for children, and there are discounts available for both seniors and students. 
For more information on the Center and other upcoming events, visit the Clay Center website.

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