A group of artists led by Nancy Tankersley created original portraits to draw attention to racism

By Maire McArdle | Photos by Stephen Walker

A display of 25 portraits hung along the fence at 11 S. Aurora Street on July 4. Local artists created the likenesses of Black people who have lost their lives unjustly due to the color or their skin.

If you stayed in town on the 4th of July and happened to notice the colorful sidewalk posters along South Aurora Street in the historic Hill neighborhood in Easton, you may have been curious enough to step inside the fenced courtyard to see what was going on. In a glance, you would have realized that there was a display of painted portraits carefully hung along the inside of the wooden enclosure, each labeled with the name of the subject and the artist. Twenty-five paintings of Black men, women and children who have died due to racial injustice were represented under a canopy of trees. You would have heard strands of soulful accordion playing; murmurs of conversation amid a solemn, respectful shuffle of face-masked visitors. Personal reactions to these visual statements were exchanged. “It felt kind of like a wake,” said a man as he was leaving.

The rally on Marlboro Street after George Floyd died inspired this art show. Nancy Tankersley, an Easton artist, had a personal reaction that day — her self-admitted guilt of not “getting it” until she witnessed Black residents driving by waving and thanking everyone who had gathered for justice. This was the moment Tankersley resolved to use her art and community connections to make a visual statement as a gesture to the Black community.

In the days and weeks that followed George Floyd’s death, the world was in an uproar. Protests, looting, injuries, and arrests made headline news while the nation was locked down due to the continuing spread of COVID-19. The idea of creating a quiet tribute amid the turmoil evolved to become a pop-up art show at Tankersley’s fenced courtyard.

Tankersley sent out an email to introduce the idea of painting portraits of Black victims of police injustice to a group of her students. The response was overwhelming. Artists for Justice (AFJ) was formed. Each artist chose a story to tell through their portrait and then wrote a short synopsis about the person, their death, and what they were feeling while painting their faces. The need to share the stories became just as important as seeing the portraits. Local artist, Mary Ford, compiled all the writings into carry-along binders so viewers could read what happened as they viewed each painting.

Early on the morning of a humid July 4, a group of volunteers carefully tacked up the portraits on the fence, brought in a bucket of icy bottled water, and set up a table with the binders and hand sanitizer bottles. A revolving presence of participating artists offered greetings and guidance throughout the six-hour art show.

At the end of the day, the family of Anton Black arrived to see their boy’s portrait and to meet the artist who painted it. Heartfelt conversations were quietly exchanged; words of hope, kindness, and forgiveness yielded emotional moments reflected in tear-filled eyes peering over facemasks.

Reflecting days later, Tankersley said, “Now is the time to address racism. So much is based on fear of what we don’t know about each other. From the first breath as a human, we are all the same.” She has resolved to “keep doing this, to keep the focus narrow, share these portraits and add new artists, especially artists of color and allow Artists for Justice to grow organically,” which it already has in the past eight weeks since July 4.

Shelton Hawkins, an Easton resident and artist who teaches art in Charles County, contacted Tankersley commending her “for putting together such a powerful show for our community.” Hawkins continued, “I think it’s important that we use our platform to shed light on what’s going on in the world today.”

Top left-right: The family of Anton Black, whose portrait was part of the display, arrive at the showing in the later afternoon and pose near his portrait with local artist, Lori Yates. Bottom left: Accordionist Randy Nielsen played softly as visitors viewed the paintings. Bottom right: Nancy Tankersely, the host and organizer of the show, stands behind her painting of Hattie Carroll, who was memorialized in the Bob Dylan song, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” and Katie Theeke’s illustrative painting of the little girls who died in the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963.

Hawkins, along with Miriam Moran, are two of the three new artists of color joining the painting group. Moran, an active artist in Cambridge, shared how she has used her art to bring people together. “My latest design is the mural on Race Street. I hope you have a chance to visit and see how our community and I have come together, using our art as a voice for unity. I really appreciate you and other artists who are paying tribute. It’s so definitely needed.”

An Artists for Justice Facebook group has formed and a month-long art show featuring the original group of paintings plus new paintings from artists who have joined since July will be on display September 4-26 at the Dorchester Art Center, located at 321 High Street, Cambridge, MD 21613 (410) 228-7782.

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