New Lynchburg outdoor art installation puts women of color front and center in a big way | Local News

Emilee Geist

Michelline Hall poses for a portrait at her art installation “Americanwoman?” at the Midtown Outdoor Art Gallery in Lynchburg on Tuesday, August 25, 2020. An art installation by Michelline Hall titled “Americanwoman?” […]

Driving down Fort Avenue, the portraits are impossible to miss. Sprawled across the midtown landscape — amid the crowd of auto shops and telephone wire, of kudzu-choked fences and industrial warehouses — the women look like Amazons, 8 feet tall and ethereal against a stark, black background.

Lynchburg artist Michelline Hall is showcasing the debut art installation of the Midtown Outdoor Art Gallery (MOAG), newly established at 2520 Fort Ave.

The brainchild of Randy Smith, owner of the creative collective Craft Crucible, the MOAG is part of a push to bring more art to the midtown area of Lynchburg, hoping to encourage the spread of public art and murals beyond the city’s downtown.

The installation, “Americanwoman?” is a series of stylized portraits of Black and brown women, exploring identity, culture, ancestry and beauty standards, according to Hall’s artist statement.

The 120-foot-long wall, the backside of a commercial building, was the perfect canvas to display the series of 10 photographs. Completely exposed to the elements, the display literally stops traffic — cars slow to get a better look at the installation, and pedestrians crane their necks to see the portraits, to study the textured costumes and glittering makeup made mammoth on the 4-by-8-foot frames.

Hall, 38, said she wants girls to see themselves “billboard big.”

Americanwoman? by Michelline Hall

An art installation by Michelline Hall titled “Americanwoman?” at the Midtown Outdoor Art Gallery in Lynchburg on Friday, Sept. 4, 2020.

She grew up just around the corner on Grady Street and said it’s surreal to have her own work showcased within walking distance of her childhood home. Now a co-owner of the marketing and design agency Blackwater Branding in Lynchburg, when she was kid, it was nothing to bike to The Plaza, or walk to 7-Eleven. But she called it a “forgotten corridor,” never an avenue where she thought she would see a vibrant art presence, particularly one with women of color at its center.

A few buildings down, tucked deeper into the industrial sector, is Christina Davis’ mural, “Make Waves,” a profile of a Black woman in blues, browns and yellows. Davis painted it this summer, another part of the movement to bring more art to midtown.

Americanwoman? by Michelline Hall

Michelline Hall poses for a portrait at her art installation “Americanwoman?” at the Midtown Outdoor Art Gallery in Lynchburg on Tuesday, August 25, 2020.

“One of my big things, always, is getting art into places and spaces that get overlooked,” Hall said.

She stressed the importance of diversity and inclusion in art and said women have approached her in tears after seeing her installation.

“They are so happy. It’s almost like you are seeing an extension of yourself on a platform that people don’t necessarily think about,” Hall said. “I don’t know if people think about ‘Black’ and ‘fine art’ in the same sphere, but it does exist.”

The MOAG has been in the works for about two years, and Smith said he approached Hall about displaying her art there after seeing “Americanwoman?” showcased in Riverviews Artspace in 2018. He said the yellow-beige wall was just “begging for something,” and Hall’s photos were the perfect candidate to be blown up to size — each as big as a full sheet of plywood — and printed on vinyl banners to help withstand weather and wear.

He wanted something free and accessible for people in the neighborhood, a way to provide art without creating any barriers around it.

“We’ve got something happening here that isn’t happening downtown, and isn’t happening other places,” Smith said. “This is something that we have here that is unique and it’s our own.”

Hall said she and Smith would work to select a new artist to be exhibited there likely in about a year, and they hope more artwork and efforts to bring these cultural elements to the area will ripple out across midtown.

“It represents a different aspect of the community that lives right there, who are maybe not seen on this level,” Hall said.

She began working on the photo series about four years ago, inspired by what it means to be an American woman, a melting pot of cultural influences and identities, where “color, pattern and texture are woven as a multicultural tapestry.”

Americanwoman? by Michelline Hall

Michelline Hall poses for a portrait at her art installation “Americanwoman?” at the Midtown Outdoor Art Gallery in Lynchburg on Tuesday, August 25, 2020.

All of her models have ties to Lynchburg, and Davis, creator of “Make Waves” — a mural celebrating the beauty, power and resilience of Black women — is among them. She and Hall have worked together for years, and Davis said they often act as a “sounding board” for each other’s ideas.

Her own background a blend of Irish, Ethiopian and Native American roots, Davis said each portrait represents an intersection of culture, and Hall captures an emotional connection to art and identity.

“I don’t think everyone is supposed to have the same answer, but you really do think every last one of these women are beautiful and have something to be proud about,” Davis said. “We are seeing them through Hall’s eyes.”

Like Hall, she never expected for her work to find such visibility in midtown, and is excited to watch the art scene continue to grow. Already, she said they are seeing a bigger creative coworking network in Lynchburg.

“We are getting Lynchburg on the map, one project at a time,” Davis said.

Front and center along a highly trafficked Lynchburg corridor, “Americanwoman?” demands an audience. That’s the beauty of an outdoor exhibition, said Hall: it doesn’t require a special trip or admission at the door. The gallery seems to luxuriate in its comparatively mundane surroundings, encouraging viewers to recognize possibility and beauty in other forms. 

“Hopefully our society, even in our local spaces, can move to a place where it is commonplace to see different colors, different backgrounds, even different religions,” Hall said.

“Don’t look over any community. They should have the same access to art and the same opportunities to interact with art as anybody else. That is another trait of human nature that feeds the soul.”

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