Downtown Pittsburgh exhibit showcases artists’ works of healing, empathy |
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Rudy Shepherd's 'We are All Trayvon Martin,' 2014

“The Invisible One,” an exhibit at the Society for Contemporary Craft’s satellite gallery in the Steel Plaza T-Station, encourages viewers to consider the implications of stigmatizing and stereotyping populations such as minorities, women and those with mental illness.

The exhibit features the work of Michael Brolly of Bethlehem, Andrea Donnelly of Richmond, Va., and Rudy Shepherd of New York City. It’s running at the same time as a mental-health-themed exhibit, “Mindful: Exploring Mental Health through Art,” at the society’s main gallery in the Strip District.

Art aficionados might remember Shepherd from “Black Rock Negative Energy Absorber,” which was part of the 2015 Three Rivers Arts Festival. The sculpture of a giant rock was meant to absorb “negative energy” for all who embraced it.

Here, Shepherd offers much smaller versions of that bad-vibe-absorbing monolith in the form of nearly two dozen “Healing Devices.” Shepherd says the idea with these smaller ceramic pieces is to create healing objects that can bring peace and tranquility to the homes and areas people inhabit.

“The forms are quite intuitively created but meant to somehow speak to their function — with filters, antennas and references to other everyday objects one might find in their homes,” he says.

Hung above one of the two tables that holds these “Healing Devices” are the paintings “Trayvon Martin” and “We Are All Trayvon Martin.” The former work depicts Martin — the 17-year-old African-American who was fatally shot in 2012 by neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla. — with his father, and the latter shows Shepherd with his son.

Shepherd says he created both paintings after finding a photo of Martin and his father shortly after the teen was killed. “It was a touching photo that brought me to tears for many reasons, one of which is that I have a son and I can only imagine the pain that father must be going through,” he says.

“This is what inspired me to re-create the photograph with my own son and then make a pair of paintings of both images,” he says. “I think there is something about this photograph of Trayvon Martin and his father that cuts through the politics of the story and forces people to empathize, and I think this is the key to fixing the problems that this story epitomizes.”

Not far away hang several works from Donnelly’s “Woven Ink Blot” and “Body Blots” series, which not only reference Rorschach tests, but tackle the subject of dual identities in a further exploration of psychological experience.

Donnelly says she is “obsessed” with the idea of the inkblot as a shared language. “To me, it’s a symbol of human complexity, of personal experience meeting cultural knowledge.”

Two pieces from her “Body Blots” series — “Body Blot #2” and “Holding In” — take the notion of body language even further, as each combines Rorschach-type designs with paintings Donnelly has done of her own body with textile paint.

“I hope they communicate a sense of vulnerability and intimacy through both their imagery and material, and, perhaps counter-intuitively, their large scale,” she says.

In a style evolved from carving and texturing wood through sandblasting, Brolly displays several sculptures that offer viewers a kinetic element in which works appear to morph into something new when moving from one side to the other.

Brolly says these changing views “speak to those who put on their face before coming into contact with others,” adding that these pieces on display here explore postpartum depression and domestic violence.

“Domestic violence, sibling-on-sibling violence, incest, alcoholism — all of these cast long shadows,” Brolly says. “Genetic shadows, learned shadows, responsive shadows. Shadows that darken the horizons of most, if not all, upon whom they fall.”

Some, like “Fleur,” are about personal narratives that many actively choose to hide.

Others, such as “Ghost of the Hand That Rocked the Cradle of the Father” are about the effects that ancestors have on future generations. Taking the form of five wooden dinner plates with silhouettes of different family members carved into the bases, each faces the wall, side-by-side on a shelf.

Brolly says the reason they are facing backward is that “we bring topics to the dinner table, and we let our kids watch really horrible stuff on the news — ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ — and we wonder why they are the way they are,” he says. “Also, we think we hide stuff from our children, but it is all out there, the elephant in the middle of the room, but we go blindly forth, convinced of our correctness.

“Thus, the family heirlooms, proudly displayed on the dining-room wall, their real meaning seeping into our children’s subconscious, a hidden, unwanted agenda, poisoning the wellspring of our future.”

Kurt Shaw is the Tribune-Review art critic. Reach him at [email protected].

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