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Alice Thorson, Kansas City Star: HIV/AIDS-themed art exhibit at jazz museum draws on music for inspiration

HIV/AIDS-themed art exhibit at jazz museum draws on music for inspiration  
by Alice Thorson, August 6, 2011

“Harmony,” at right, is one of a group of color etchings by Dean Mitchell displayed in “Reflections of Jazz.” He created them for the book “Music, Deep River in My Soul” by Maya Angelou.

Artist Sonie Ruffin knows how to put together an exhibit that crosses cultures and disciplines, appeals to a broad public and brings new names into the art loop.

As visiting curator for the American Jazz Museum, Ruffin accomplishes all this and more in the summer show “Reflections of Jazz.”

Jam-packed with paintings, poetry, photographs and sculptures by 19 artists, including poet Glenn North, the exhibit has a festive air. The first things to catch the eye are elaborately decorated guitars by Leawood-based Cynthia Litwer, who covers the instruments with glittering stained-glass mosaics.

Kansas City musician Ennio Valente III transforms guitars and other stringed instruments by covering them with patterned papers. His “Intensity” is a mandolin collaged with a crazy quilt of black-and-white patterns, including checkerboard and houndstooth, zebra stripes and florals.

Several of the artists in this show are self-taught; others work or have worked for Hallmark but are committed to pursuing independent creative expression. Some are musicians; others turned to art as a second career.

Personal fulfillment and inspiring others are high on their list of goals.

Award-winning children’s book illustrator and artist Shane Evans achieved both when he opened his Dream Studio in midtown, where he makes his own work and presents events featuring musicians, spoken word artists and actors. His handmade book, “Jazz Land Collection,” is displayed in “Reflections of Jazz.”

In 2008, Evans traveled to Lesotho, a small nation in southern Africa, to work with children affected with HIV/AIDS. Self-taught artist J. Leroy Beasley joined him on the trip and took photographs.

In the museum exhibit, Beasley pays tribute to African drums in a series of close-ups. “Beasley gives us … the raw truth of how music began with the beat, the drums, the instrument and music of black African slaves,” Ruffin notes in her curator’s statement

Self-taught artist Rhoda J. Powers brings shimmer to this exhibit’s many depictions of musical instruments. Her works of kiln-formed art glass include the eye-catching “Swing It,” a gold disk bearing marbled pearlescent images of a wavy keyboard, clarinet and guitar.

In Anthony High’s collograph portraits of Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong, gold backdrops give them the aspect of Byzantine icons, befitting their status as gods of jazz.

Musicians and singers capture the eye and the imagination of photographer David Shaughnessy, whose sensitive black-and-white close-ups hang with the Langston Hughes poem “Song for Billie Holiday.”

Diallo Javonne French takes a different tack, freezing the action in his black-and-white photographs of performers, shot in natural light.

In contrast, Bob Barry employs dramatic chiaroscuro lighting in his portraits of jazz musicians such as Joe Diorio and Paul Bollenback.

Olathe-based Steve Butler, a former teacher, converted an 80-year-old chicken coop into a photography studio where he devotes his time to taking photographs, including jazz still lifes of instruments and sheet music.

For jazz musician James Ward, moving from music to picking up a camera was “a spiritual transfer of learning.” Ruffin’s observation, “the church has been the home of humble beginnings for many a jazz musician,” provides the backstory for Ward’s portrait of a boy seated at a piano, dressed in his Sunday best with a red boutonnière.

As with the museum’s previous show of works by Kansas City artist Harold Smith, “Reflections of Jazz” includes a wall text by Zachary Hoskins, the museum’s jazz film fellow.

“(Jazz) is traditional and it is contemporary. It is spiritual and it is sexual,” Hoskins writes.

In her “Jazz Noir” collection of photographs, Michelle Beasley equates the lure of the musical instrument with the allure of women, whose presence she suggests with strands of pearls or a high-heeled shoe, presented in intimate contact with stringed instruments. North’s poetry enlarges the relationship: “The six-string is a sepia-skinned scintillating seductress,” he writes.

Former Hallmark artist Keith Shepherd honors Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman and other jazz artists in small paintings of their records. In three larger canvases the artist brings a spirit of fun to his penchant for nostalgia and history, capturing the camaraderie of the pool hall and the dancing, singing and flirting of the juke joint.

The focal point of “Jazzin to the Max” is a spotlighted female singer, arms outstretched to the crowd.

“Bands were usually a boy’s club, but the diva often became the crown jewel,” Shepherd writes in an accompanying text. All three paintings employ a hint of caricature, in what Hoskins identifies as a nod to Harlem Renaissance painter Archibald Motley.

“The world has changed. Jazz had changed,” Hoskins writes. “Now the representations have to change too. ‘Reflections of Jazz’ is an exhibit about this shift, from hazy snapshots of nostalgia to windows on our shared lives.”

Hallmark artist Frank Norfleet portrays everyday people in a group of pencil sketches that also includes a portrait of a statuesque female singer, sparsely rendered save for her detailed, expressive face.

A series of New Orleans photographs by 18-year-old Emmet Merrill captures a sense of place. They include shots of empty cafe tables in a courtyard, a sousaphone leaning against a pillar and a rain-slick cobblestone alley titled “Origins of Jazz.”

Robert J. Quackenbush Jr. says his tiny, weathered geometric compositions draw inspiration from “abandoned vehicles, run-down subway stations, deteriorating buildings, rusting equipment, construction debris.” The works resonate with North’s poem “Jazz Remains” and its claim: “Jazz is a city slicker that feeds on grit and brick and bone/ not at all dismayed by urban decay …”

Jose Faus, muralist and president of the Latino Writers Collective, also employs the vocabulary of abstraction to convey his feelings about jazz. Undulating nets, drawn in colored pencil on black backgrounds, evoke the music of John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk. Faus calls the works “mood paintings.”

Dean Mitchell’s color etchings from the book “Music, Deep River in My Soul,” by Maya Angelou, are all about mood. Works like “Trumpet Player/Blue Angel” and “Drummer/E. Pluribus Unum” evoke the inner world of his subjects for whom music is a source of solace.

The award-winning Mitchell is the highlight of this eclectic show, which expands on themes he has been exploring for decades.

“Reflections of Jazz” continues at the Changing Gallery, American Jazz Museum, 1616 E. 18th St., through Sept. 23. Hours are

9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free.

For information, go to or call 816-474-8463.


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