In October of 2015, a few dozen Buffalo artists and curators huddled in the community room of Buffalo Arts Studio to discuss diversity and elitism in the art world.
Most panel discussions on these topics are preach-to-the-choir affairs that rarely produce concrete action. This one was different.
Buffalo Arts Studio curator Shirley Verrico and director Alma Carrillo gathered actionable intelligence at that meeting. They asked themselves what more they could do to grow their circle.
And last year, they launched a multi-year collaboration with the progressive advocacy group Open Buffalo to highlight and fund the work of emerging local artists from underrepresented communities.
The first results of that project, a series of remarkable oil portraits of black men, women and children by painter Julia Bottoms-Douglas, are now on view in Buffalo Arts Studio's fifth-floor space in the Trimain Building. They are a testament to the untapped talent of Buffalo's arts community and the power of a small organization to confront a seemingly intractable problem.
It should be noted that many small and mid-sized Buffalo arts organizations, including Buffalo Arts Studio, Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, Young Audiences of Western New York and many others, have long striven to increase representation of marginalized communities. This program represents an important next step.
The show, "Tinted: A Visual Statement on Color, Identity and Representation," is a bravura attempt to combat the stereotypical images of black bodies that saturate the media landscape. The show, Verrico wrote, is designed to reject "the hyper-sexual, violent, and sinister portrayal of men of color that saturates contemporary media." Instead, Verrico writes, "Bottoms-Douglas uses traditional oil paint and classical portraiture to show men of color as sensitive, honest, loving and human."
That's an understatement.
The subjects of Bottoms-Douglas' portraits, rendered in a flat and photorealistic style on abstract backgrounds of varying volume, often seem to stare straight into viewers rather than through or past them.
Bottoms-Douglas' best portraits seem like organic objects, complete with with interior lives. After a bit of sustained looking, the paintings produce the strange sensation that they may be alive enough to understand you. And after a bit more, it should dawn on you that it's your job to understand them. They speak to a basic human need to be seen.
That owes to Bottoms-Douglas' deep familiarity with her subjects, each of whom represents a living antidote to the million grainy mugshots that constitute Americans' understanding of black bodies and black culture.
"In a culture that reduces the beauty, grace, and intellect of black men to a two-dimensional caricature, it is necessary to promote images that break the cycle," Bottoms-Douglas wrote in a post on the website Afropunk.com. "The main goal of this painting series is to accurately depict people of color as multifaceted individuals. We are more than a stereotype. We are more than a caricature. We are living works of art."
The portraits are straightforward, borrowing from the example of painter Kehinde Wiley. His insertion of black male forms into poses of Renaissance painting and against florid backgrounds has earned him a large following.
But Bottoms-Douglas' portraits, unlike Wiley's, have little to do with sexuality and their subjects are often more relatable. They are designed to strike an instant chord of human recognition, asking viewers to engage with them on a level that a tweeted image of Trayvon Martin or a grainy video of Michael Brown would never demand of its audience.
The disarming effect of the portraits is strongest in small-scale pieces like "Richie" and "Douglas Elliott," which depict their subjects' earnest expressions with near-perfect fidelity against neutral gray backdrops.
These smaller works include floral crowns for the subjects, which serve at least two purposes. They function as symbols of the subject and the viewer's common connection to the earth. And they are a nod to classical portraiture, an argument for the inclusion of non-stereotyped black bodies in mainstream culture after centuries of absence.
Bottoms-Douglas' larger works also are compelling in their portrayal of the subjects, but their backgrounds often feel unfinished or like afterthoughts. Those backgrounds sometimes feature geometric lines painted in gold, both as a reference to the Renaissance halo and to the sense of confinement many of her subjects may feel, But their effect, like the inscrutable handwriting that also appears on several larger portraits, is too subtle to have much impact and yet just loud enough to feel tacked on.
You can view that as a quibble or as a reason to take a trip out to Buffalo Arts Studio to see an artist on the rise as she works out new challenges in her work before your eyes. The show, and the project out of which it emerged, are a good sign for an arts community in search of ways to broaden its impact and make itself relevant to everyone.
The talent of underrepresented artists, as Bottoms-Douglas wrote in another Afropunk.com post, needs more than a token commitment.
"Take care of it and it can be shared, passed around and admired. But also, like china, it can be fragile," she wrote. "It can shatter if not respected and handled properly. This proper handling is two-fold. It comes in the form of talent cultivation and adequate representation."
This body of work, and the exhibition series of which it is a part, accomplishes both.
"Tinted: A Visual Statement on Color, Identity and Representation," featuring portraits by Julia Bottoms-Douglas, is on view in Buffalo Arts Studio (2495 Main St., Suite 500), through June 2. Call 833-4450 or visit buffaloartsstudio.org.