Good Trouble: Civil Rights Past & Present
Museum Gallery: February 2, 2021-March 26, 2021
“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” -Congressman John Lewis**
The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s brought the fight to end segregation, systemic racism, and disenfranchisement of African Americans in the United States to the forefront of American life. While the Civil Rights Movement achieved landmark Civil Rights legislation, such as Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act, it did not end deep-seated hatred and systemic racism in the United States. The struggle for equity continues today with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Kentuck’s premiere 2021 exhibition, aptly titled “Good Trouble,” spans the Museum, Teer, and SoNo Galleries and features the work of at least seven Alabama Black artists. It is the hope of Kentuck Art Center that “Good Trouble” achieves several goals: to highlight Black voices, to provide a space for these artists’ works to continue the conversation about the Civil Rights Movement past and present, and to inspire empathy and the desire for change through the visual storytelling of these Black artists. Art is what connects us—it has the power to educate, break down barriers, and give us hope for a more equitable future.
Tony Bingham, Lynthia Edwards, That’s Sew Gee’s Bend, Darius Hill, John “Jahni” Moore, Ruth Robinson, Sir Chris Da R Tist, Yvonne Wells, and Bernard Wright.
Bernard Wright is a folk artist from Fayette, Alabama who specializes in mud painting. Wright learned his artistic process from Jimmy Lee Sudduth, the “father of Alabama Mud Painting,” who has been included in museums, private collections, and galleries all over the world.
“When I paint, I use the technique that Jimmy Lee taught me. I teach that same method to keep the tradition of painting with Alabama mud alive,” Wright says.
Wright is listed as Sudduth’s only apprentice in Contemporary American Folk Art: A Collectors Guide. His work has been featured at the Arts Council Gallery in Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Kentuck Art Center in Northport, Alabama; and the Kennedy-Douglass Center’s Arts Alive Fine Arts and Craft Festival in Florence, Alabama. He is a member of the Sipsey Arts Alliance, and his work can be seen in museums in South Carolina, Massachusetts, Washington D.C., and his hometown of Fayette.
Darius Hill is Chair of the Visual Arts Department at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. He holds a BFA in printmaking from the Atlanta College of Art and an MFA in studio art from the University of Alabama. He is an exhibiting artist, participating in shows throughout the southeast at venues including New Vision Gallery, Atlanta, Georgia; the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama; and the Crossroads Initiative, New Orleans, Louisiana. Hill's work is represented in many collections throughout the United States. He has earned several honors including an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and Operation New Birmingham Best in Show Award at the Magic City Art Connection. He was one of thirteen Alabama printmakers selected to work with the University of Montevallo’s Big Print project. Work generated from the project traveled to major museums throughout the state of Alabama. Hill’s work has been selected by many juried exhibitions such as The Red Clay Survey (Huntsville), and the Energen Exhibition (Birmingham). His work has been reviewed in publications such as Art Papers, Birmingham Magazine, B-Metro Magazine, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the Birmingham News, as well as the recently published Alabama Creates: 200 Years of Art and Artists.
“Participation in exhibitions such as this one hold significance for me. I see it as a path toward a renewed look at the issue of identity - a look that truly encompasses the complex nature of my make-up as an African-American today. More than ever, I feel that the civil rights conversation is one that must be continued. Art has a unique way to bridge gaps from one opinion to the next.”
Grand Bay, Alabama
While growing up in Grand Bay, Alabama, Ruth Robinson experienced a childhood of work on the farm where her grandfather and his brothers were sharecroppers. The families, including young Ruth, grew corn, picked cotton, raised chickens, and plowed fields with a mule. At the age of eight, Ruth began painting and continued through her teenage years until all her paintings were lost in a tragic house fire. The loss of her work devasted Ruth, and she did not paint again until the year 2000, when she spent a lot of her time caring for her elderly parents.
Ruth’s paintings are about the people—often family—from her past and present. By painting memories of her loved ones, Ruth brings those people back to life. She paints onto a variety of surfaces including canvases, small objects, chairs, tables, and almost anything she can find that is made of wood or metal.
Tony Bingham is an artist based in Birmingham, Alabama. Bingham teaches Studio Art at Miles College, and the theme of his artwork in the Good Trouble: Civil Rights Past & Present exhibition, takes its cue from the Negro Traveler’s Green Book. The Green Book was a travel guide used by African Americans to safely navigate their journeys through America during the era of segregation (1930- 60s). For this series, Bingham used materials such as found photographs, 8mm home movies, 1950’s newspapers and magazines, gathered from a secondhand shop in Birmingham. With them he created the movie still and digital print images for the exhibition. The exhibition features “With a Green Book as my Guide” a stop motion animation film, which incorporates a collage technique incorporating archival media and collected audio sources. To view the animation, scan the QR code on the artwork labels by each piece.
For more information about Tony's artistic process, listen to this podcast:
Yvonne Wells taught physical education in public schools for most of her adult life. But, in 1979, while her Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home was undergoing major renovations, she had to sit near the fireplace to keep warm. She decided to make her first quilt to warm her legs until the heating system was restored. With knowledge of how her mother, many years before, made utility quilts – the kind that were “made in the morning and used [th]at night” – Wells made her simple pieced quilt. She liked her quilt and the experience inspired her to make story and picture quilts to express the messages in her heart. Wells stated in a recent interview, “What my head sees, my heart feels, my hand creates.” Wells is African American but does not use African American quiltmaker as her primary identity.
Wells’ first quilt, made from necessity in 1979, was the initial step on a path of discovery. Her story and picture quilts express her spirituality, humor, and life experiences. Her self-taught approach to quilt construction and her work in isolation from others has solidified her own voice. She makes her quilts for herself--to satisfy the compulsion to create and to express something she wants to say.
Her work as an artist has encompassed seeing her quilts exhibited in galleries, included in museum collections, and acquired by folk art collectors. She has earned the prestigious Alabama Arts Award and the Visual Craftsmanship Award from the Alabama State Council on the Arts. Her style has attracted attention far beyond Tuscaloosa, and in recent years her work has been featured in traveling exhibits at museums across the country. Six of her quilts are now part of the permanent collection of the International Quilt Study Center and Museum in Nebraska.
“I taught myself and have had no formal training in quilt-making. I consider myself a quilt artist and take pride in making big, bold, primitive and unusual quilts.”
Born and raised in Alexander City, Alabama, Lynthia Edwards grew up as a round peg in a square hole. At an early age, she and her imaginary friend would spend hours drawing with fat pencils and broken crayons on Piggly Wiggly brown paper bags. Lynthia always knew she would become an artist. She has an Associate’s Degree in Graphic Design from the Art Institute of Atlanta, a Bachelor’s Degree in Art Education from Auburn University of Montgomery, and a Master’s Degree in Art Education from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She currently teaches art for the State of Alabama Department of Youth Services School District servicing adjudicated male offenders.
Her pieces grace private collections throughout the United States—including that of the late Congressman John Lewis—and have been featured in galleries and exhibits from Montgomery, Alabama, to Vicksburg, Mississippi, to New York, New York. When Congressman John Lewis passed in 2020, Edwards was invited to paint live at his funeral procession on Dexter Avenue in Montgomery, Alabama.
“As an artist, I am inspired by the ordinary existence of black girls raised in the south. I create art that expresses her emotions, thoughts, and ideas about the world she lives in. I create these works of art with intention and purpose of igniting a dialogue amongst the viewers that glorify black girl magic.”
Sir Chris da R Tist
Christopher Washington is a self-taught African American artist from Bessemer, Alabama. At the age of five, Washington was inspired to draw by his two oldest brothers, both who spent time drawing at the kitchen table in the evenings. However, it was not until August 25, 2016 that Washington found his calling. He says, “I was inspired by God to pick up the brush and minister through arts. Every creation is born from a vision, dream, or divine inspiration. Art for me is not a job, hobby, or habit—it is who I am.” In the less than five years that Washington has been creating, he has found a voice to share his messages about faith, personal experience, and social justice.
John “Jahni” Moore
John “Jahni” Thomas Moore, born June 20 in Huntsville, Alabama, is an African American artist and art collector. With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art from Alabama A&M University, Jahni has worked as an art instructor for years, teaching kindergarten to the college level, while maintaining a busy schedule as a prolific artist. When he “got to a place with art where I wanted to go deeper,” he studied at The Art Institute of Chicago, where he earned an MFA in studio arts in 2019. His public work is well known in Huntsville, where his first mural from 1999 is still on exhibit at Early Works Children’s Museum. One of his most well-known pieces, commissioned by Google Fiber, is the “Space Is Our Place” mural at Campus 805. “Space is our Place” was recognized in Parade Magazine as the best mural in Alabama in 2019. He has also painted murals in Chicago, Seattle, and South America and has won many awards for both creative and humanitarian accomplishments. He believes that creativity should be an integral part of any effective educational and healing process. Social commentary is a central theme to his artwork. Moore says, “Alabama, the place where I made my entry on this plane, resplendent with winding roads, cresting hills, rolling rivers, towering pines, reaching oaks, and the smell of magnolia, honeysuckle, and sassafras is also the haunt of a dank history of injustice and subsidized gains. Behind the sounds of summer cicadas and crickets echo the voices of many thousand gone into the grave starved of freedom. That is the oxymoronic nature of this state I call home. It’s a place where my deep brown baby feet first hit that terra rossa; that red clay, rich with the blood of my ancestors. My roots run deep here and subsequently I continue to plant my influence and spread the seeds of, resurrection and redemption, and restoration through art.”
Gee’s Bend Quilters (Background Info)
In the Black Belt of Alabama lives a small, rural community called Gee’s Bend. Known throughout the art world for the vibrant, improvisational quilts unique to the Gee’s Bend Quilters, the community of Gee’s Bend, officially called Boykin, has a history rooted in the disenfranchisement of African Americans. The area is named for Joseph Gee, a landowner who moved from North Carolina in the early 1800s and established a cotton plantation, which was later sold to Mark Pettway. Even after emancipation, many of the Gee’s Bend residents found themselves staying on the plantation as sharecroppers, and today, the seven hundred or so inhabitants of this small, rural community are mostly descendants of these slaves who worked the fields belonging to the local Pettway planation.
The community of Gee’s Bend is an inland island surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River. The only direct line to Camden and the “outside” world was the ferry. In 1962, white government officials closed the ferry to Gee’s Bend, making it nearly impossible for the Black residents of Gee’s Bend to register to vote in Camden, the county seat. In addition to preventing these residents from registering to vote, the ferry closure further isolated the community and deprived them of essential services like medical care. Without the ferry, the only route to Camden was a forty mile drive on rural, ill kept roads, and most of Gee’s Bend’s residents did not own a car. Sheriff Lummie Jenkins reportedly said, “We didn’t close the ferry because they were black. We closed it because they forgot they were black.”
In 1965, three weeks before Bloody Sunday, Martin Luther King Jr. came to Gee’s Bend and told the residents, “I came over here to Gee’s Bend to tell you: You are somebody.” However, despite local efforts, not a single member of the Gee’s Bend community was able to register to vote in Wilcox County during the Civil Rights Movement. Ferry service between Camden and Gee’s Bend was not restored until 2006, over forty years since service was suspended.
Tinnie and Minnie Pettway
Growing up as a “bender” in Gee’s Bend was unlike anything today’s children will ever know. Tinnie, the eldest sibling, along with her sister Minnie, the third of five, had to not only do the house chores along with their mother, but also had to take to the fields side by side with their brothers and father to prepare the ground for seasonal planting from sun up to sundown. It was then when their mother put some old shreds of fabric and clothes and a needle in their hands and had them to begin quilting little blocks. Quilting was used both as a form of punishment and a way to pass the time. Tinnie and Minnie never dreamed their “punishment” would one day hang in museums!
Tinnie, along with her brothers and Minnie, eventually moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut where they furthered their education. Tinnie earned her LPN degree in Nursing, and Minnie has a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree. Not long after the birth of her daughter Claudia, Tinnie decided to move back to Boykin (Gee’s Bend), where she owned a daycare and eventually took over the operations of the family mercantile store. When Minnie returned to Gee’s Bend, she taught physical education and served as a guidance counselor for many children in the Wilcox County School System for over twenty-five years.
Today, both sisters have their hands full—they constantly produce quilts, wall art, and potholders. Tinnie and Minnie know they have been blessed by God—they are incredibly thankful to be able to see this time in their lives and for the ability to pass down the quilting tradition to younger generations.
Claudia Pettway Charley
Pell City, Alabama
“When I was a small child, I would play underneath my grandmother’s quilting frame that covered most of the living room,” explained Claudia. Her grandmother, Malissa Pettway, her mother Tinnie, and Aunt Minnie are accomplished quilters from Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Although Claudia says she had no special training, she is the fourth generation of Gee’s Bend Quilters. Claudia’s artistic ideas follow the Gee’s Bend style that comes from the heart, but when “energized” she uses brighter colors. She works early in the morning with all types of fabric all around her—including cotton, denim, and linen. Claudia can create the small pieces in one day; however, wall art and larger pieces take two to three weeks to complete. Claudia attributes her artistic style to the Black Belt region of Alabama. She says the freedom of feeling and expression with “no rules or judgements, just you and your material,” is an essential part of her process.
Claudia is the CEO of That’s Sew Gee’s Bend and has taught privately with Alabama Folklife, Hobby Lobby, and other small groups. That’s Sew Gee’s Bend’s work is available at Kentuck Art Center’s Gallery Shop, Alabama Goods in Homewood, The Birmingham Museum of Art, and Goat Hill Art Museum in Montgomery.
More about Congressman John Lewis:
Congressman John Lewis was a leader of the Civil Rights Movement who dedicated his life to advocating for racial equity and human rights. In 1965, Lewis, along with Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders, led 600 nonviolent marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. That march, known as Bloody Sunday, and the subsequent march to Montgomery directly led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He remained dedicated to nonviolent forms of activism throughout his lifetime and was elected congressman by the people of Georgia in 1987 and served until his death in July 2020.
More about John Lewis: