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Art Lovers Mingle with Artists in Their Studios

After a foray to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, two years ago and to Brooklyn, New York, last year, the destination for the third annual UMUC daylong art trip was south of the Mason-Dixon line. The Arts Program took a few dozen art lovers and supporters on a 15-hour excursion to museums and artists' studios in the Virginia tidewater region.

UMUC Arts Program Director Eric Key explained that the trips were started three years ago as a way for friends of the arts to come together and learn more about the arts program. "The trips are also a way to take them out into the community to learn about art in the area," he said.

On June 6, a group of roughly 30 students, faculty, and community members boarded the bus for a "Southern Odyssey," which included a private tour of Hampton University Museum and visits to the studios of artists Sonya Clark in Richmond, Kwabena Ampofo-Anti and Richard Ward in Hampton, and Greg Henry in Newport News.

Key, who is a Hampton University graduate, said he drew on familiar names and researched area artists when developing the trip's itinerary. "I was aware of Sonya Clark from many, many years ago, but I wasn't aware of what she is working on now," he said.

Clark's recent work, Key discovered, involves exploring the concept of hair—particularly African American hair and its texture. One of Clark's pieces involved unraveling strands of a Confederate battle flag in a manner that suggests hair. Another Clark work incorporates interlocking combs all melded together in a sculpture.

"She's a pretty intellectual artist. A lot of us are more attuned with traditional art. This was more modern and contemporary. A lot of people had questions for her," Key said, noting that trip participants stood in rapt attention as Clark explained her work.

Richmond isn't typically the first place that springs to mind when people think about art, so the trip really opened participants' eyes to art in Virginia, Key said, adding that the art lovers also appreciated the opportunity to interact with artists one-on-one in their studios and, on occasion, to handle works of art directly. "[They] expressed a joy at being able to touch the pieces."

The tour of Hampton University's campus, which is home to strong collections of African, Native American, and African American art, including works by Charles White and John Biggers, was a particular treat.

"There just doesn't seem to be enough time to take in all that they have," Key said. "Hampton University is known for art throughout the campus. You name any of the African American artists, and they're in the university's collection."

In the studio of Ghana-born Ampofo-Anti, whose work was shown at UMUC in 2013, participants saw six-foot tall architectural ceramic pieces that contain geometric patterns that reflect the structures of houses in Ghana. "You see the African elements in the work," Key said.

For his part, Key was struck by how clean and organized Ampofo-Anti's studio was. The artist had laid out smaller vases and bowls, as well as his taller architectural pieces, to show participants. Ampofo-Anti also showed the group his ceramic wheel and kiln and demonstrated his technique for working with clay.

Richard Ward's work could hardly have been more different. Ward, an African American artist who studied in Washington, D.C., creates public art pieces, such as benches, chairs, tables, and chess sets. Ward's earlier paintings have bright colors and thickly applied paint. "He builds them up," Key said.

In Newport News, the group learned about Maryland Institute College of Art graduate Greg Henry's artwork, which reflects Henry's Guyanese heritage. Key recalled one work that juxtaposes a rooster on a fence with a bright yellow background; the color is reflective of Guyana's hot South American sun.

Another piece replicated the space underneath the raised houses that the artist grew up with; he lived below sea level. There is a burlap sack under the house, which serves as a bit of a tease. "He never tells you what is in the sack," Key said. "It's up to you to imagine."

Said Key, the day trip is exhausting and requires a delicate balance, but it relates to the broader educational missions of the Arts Program and UMUC, and it underscores a sense of cultural identity.

"It's a fine line to spend just enough time with the artists but not to overpower them," he said. "At the same time, if you're going to drive for four hours, you want to see as much as you can. You make a small impact and plan to come back."