MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Black History Month didn’t end on Feb. 28 at Columbia High School, as the associated art show on display at the school’s Domareki Gallery was extended to March 11. The show, which has art by CHS students and teachers alike, is a celebration of black history and culture and was a new addition to the high school’s usual Black History Month programming. It was conceived by Marcia Hicks, a CHS counselor and the director of the Minority Achievement Community, with help from the staff in the art department.
“It was exciting to do something new and outside of the assemblies and discussions we usually do for Black History Month,” Hicks said in a phone interview with the News-Record on Feb. 28. “Having everyone in for an assembly became hard because of COVID, and I realized we would have to change some things. I was definitely in a rut with coming up with new things to do.”
The staff put out a call for artwork to all students at CHS, rather than limiting the gallery space to those who are already taking art classes. Hicks said she was surprised to see how many students she already knew personally submitted work, when she hadn’t even known they were artists.
“It was great to see how many kids I know have these facets that we didn’t see,” Hicks said. “I didn’t realize how many talented students we have at this school. And I think we reached a different group of students this year, because there were also kids I didn’t know saying, ‘This is a cool space,’ and participating.”
Art teacher Curtis Grayson III’s art students have pieces in the show, as does he. One of the teacher’s pieces is a large painting of Virgil Abloh, the fashion designer who was the artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection until his death from cancer in 2021. Abloh was also an artist. The piece, which Grayson worked on both in class with his students and at home, broke one of his long-standing personal rules of not depicting celebrities or people who are no longer alive.
“I never usually paint celebrities or people who have died,” Grayson said in a phone interview with the News-Record on Feb. 25. “I don’t want to capitalize on someone’s death. If you can give people their flowers while they’re here instead of when they can’t smell them anymore, you should. But he was really an artist in his own right and broke through that glass ceiling. I felt compelled to do something for him.”
Hicks said many students who submitted artwork for the show had enough to fill the whole gallery on their own, so she, the staff and two student interns had to whittle it down. She wanted to make sure everyone had a spot somewhere on the wall; because of the volume of work submitted they couldn’t identify a show-wide theme. It was instead broken down into sections, featuring areas for photography, portraiture and music, among other categories.
“Now, more art is being shown and getting more (acclaim),” Grayson said about black artists in the gallery scene. “There have been so many years of not being shown and not being part of the decision about what gets shown in galleries. Here, a lot of students were able to decide.”
The show was extended and will now be on display through March 11. For the last two days, the artists will be able to post price tags on their pieces if they want to sell them. Overall, the show has been a rousing success.
“I give them all a lot of kudos,” Grayson said. “It’s been one of the most impactful shows since I’ve been here.”
Hicks, who doesn’t spend her day to day with artists in the gallery like Grayson does, said building the show was a learning experience for her that she wants to keep around in the future.
“This was different and meaningful in a way I wasn’t expecting,” she said. “We have so many diverse students who are so talented. They’ve definitely made this a special Black History Month for me.”
Photos Courtesy of Curtis Grayson III