On their own, sheets of tissue paper may not hold much visual appeal, but in the hands of Maya Freelon, individual pieces in varying colors and sizes become vibrant structures that tell a story.
An exhibit titled The Feeling Is Mutual: New Work by Maya Freelon featuring Freelon’s delicate manipulations of the gossamer-like fiber opens on March 14 at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. On display will be a signature, site-specific tissue paper quilt that she’s creating for the KIA.
“It will take about two days to install. I’ve been working on it for about six months,” Freelon said of the exhibit’s key piece.
Tissue paper has been her material of choice for the last 12 years. She said it’s an interesting medium because it’s fragile when wet but gains strength when it bonds with other materials and dries. The overarching theme of her work is “protection” and what fuels individuals’ desire to preserve or protect.
“It’s high art if it’s found in a museum,” she said. “This is the juxtaposing of the hierarchy of art materials and lifting something ordinary into a place of honor. It’s such a fragile medium. This is a way to expose its strength.”
The title of the exhibit was born out of a current political climate that Freelon describes as “polarizing.” She wanted to come up with something people could mutually agree on.
“It could be a conversation like the weather where we can agree that it’s beautiful or this kind of weather makes me feel this way. There’s no right or wrong answer,” Freelon said.
Fari Nzinga, a postdoctoral curatorial fellow with the KIA, said Freelon is an advocate and champion of the work of black artists. She described Freelon’s ability to take a lesser-regarded material and create something beautiful as “brilliant and genius.”
“We’re excited to expose young people and artists to what art can be,” Nzinga said. “We’re holding her up as an example of what happens when you let creativity and imagination do its thing.”
The piece that will be on display at the KIA pays homage to her grandmother who “never wasted a single grain of rice,” Freelon said. It’s also about quilts as a medium for transmitting personal memory and cultural history even as they evoke comfort, warmth and healing.
Family both inspires and influences Freelon, who says she “draws on inspiration from her ancestors who really sacrificed” so that she could be an artist. Her journey to use tissue paper as her artistic material of choice began when she found a stack of the material in her grandmother’s basement.
Her grandmother was a schoolteacher and hairdresser who did not have the same opportunities that we have now, but still found ways to inject her own creativity into whatever she did, Freelon said.
When she announced to her parents that she wanted to pursue a career as an artist, Freelon’s decision was met with support and encouragement and a story.
“My father told me that my great grandfather, Allan Freelon, was a pioneer African American impressionist painter during the time of the Harlem Renaissance. He told me to do some research on him,” Freelon said. “I was able to see where my desire to be an artist came from and I was able to recognize that it wasn’t just sitting in me dormant and that it was partly inherited.”
Although she never really knew her great-grandfather, she has had the benefit of being surrounded by other family members and close friends who have given her the encouragement to follow her passion. Her father is an architect, her mother is a jazz singer, and her godmother and namesake is the poet laureate and author Maya Angelou.
“The toughest part is believing in yourself and making the leap to say, ‘I can do this.’ You just have to take the plunge,” Freelon said. “All successful artists took art to a higher place and honored it and in doing so they’ve let others see the value.”
In addition to Kalamazoo, Freelon’s work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian Museum of African American Art and the Nasher Museum of Art. Internationally, she has had exhibitions in France, Italy, Jamaica and Madagascar. She also has been commissioned by Google and Cadillac.
As Freelon empowers herself, she also empowers others, Nzinga said.
“I find it really empowering because she can make something so cool with tissue paper that makes us look at the world in different ways,” Nzinga said. “I feel inspired. I can bring some flair even if it’s not necessarily in an art piece.”
Freelon’s decision to mount an exhibit at the KIA was the result of a chance meeting at the North Carolina Institute of Art with Belinda Tate, executive director of the KIA. For her part, Freelon is excited to visit.
“I’m having so much fun telling people that I’m going to Kalamazoo,” Freelon said.
The Feeling is Mutual: New Works by Maya Freelon
Kalamazoo Institute of Arts
314 S. Park St., Kalamazoo
March 14-May 31