Rachel Cherry’s tactile piece called “My Mind’s Eye” emerged – as the title suggests – from a deeply imaginative vision that she made visible with paint, nylon and other materials that softly erupt from the canvas. It’s one of the artworks that was on display at her one-day-only exhibit on Friday at Indigo Blue Coffeehouse & Bookstore.
This was the first formal art exhibit at the young coffee house, just a month old, in downtown Pine Bluff. And the coffee house, like Cherry’s piece, is unfolding a kind of imaginative vision.
“It’s a cultural environment and a creative environment as well,” said Mary Ann Lee, owner of the Indigo Blue Coffeehouse & Bookstore at 212 W. Barraque St.
Lee contemplated James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and other writers and artists who congregated in the cafés of Paris as she thought about the imaginative nourishment that can come from a coffee house.
“I think of all the black artists who went to Paris for artistic freedom back in the early ‘20s,” she said. “I just think coffee houses nurture that.”
Cherry, who lives in White Hall, displayed a vast range of pieces in her exhibit, including pen and ink sketches, watercolor paintings and later works that leaned toward sculpture. She described how the works reveal a kind of evolution in her art.
“Originally, I loved to draw trees and plants and the beauties of nature,” she said. “In the last five to 10 years (my art) has expanded into something much more textural. Almost everything has a 3D effect to it, and it’s much more abstract than when I started.”
Cherry’s work was surrounded, in the coffee house, by books and other artwork, including photographs, sketches and clippings acknowledging people who have contributed to social justice. A photograph of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. graces the wall, for instance, as does the writing of Frederick Douglass. Lee also pointed to a sketch of Alexander Hamilton with an excerpt from his 1801 letter stating that “great Ambition unchecked by principle, or the love of Glory, is an unruly Tyrant…”
Lee noted that Henri Linton Sr., a renowned artist and the director and curator of the University Museum and Cultural Center at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, frequently visits the coffee house. Linton has also served as chair of the UAPB Art Department.
“He comes in on a regular basis to see what books I have for sale,” she said – and then within hours, Linton was in the house, talking thoughtfully about art.
“The city of Pine Bluff badly needs eateries and places to come and to sit down and relax,” Linton said. “You can look at the art, but Mary Ann also has a large collection of books and magazines. We need these types of venues if Pine Bluff is going to be revitalized.”
As for Cherry, she said she was living next door to what’s now the coffee shop when she met Lee, who was then preparing the space. Cherry has lived in Arkansas for about three years. She served as the public programs coordinator of the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas from February 2016 to July 2017, before taking the position of director of operations for Jefferson County. She worked at that job until May.
Cherry’s time in Arkansas, then, has featured very different kinds of work, but she said she’s felt an imaginative freedom that’s nourished her art – making it, as she said, more textural and abstract.
She said she enjoys the way textures evoke emotions, noting that she doesn’t mind at all when viewers touch her work.
“I like that,” she said. “And I try to make it so that it’s sturdy enough so that it can be touched.”
Cherry recounted fondly art projects she’s worked on with children – something she continues to do. The tactile nature of her latest work makes it seem participatory even to viewers who can stand next to it, reach out to it, and touch it.
In her “My Mind’s Eye” piece, for instance, a bulging disk filled with nylon threads protrudes amid the other horizontal shapes.
“I think it’s an invasive thing,” she said. And then she added, “But just because it’s invasive doesn’t make it bad.”
Lee characterized Friday’s exhibit as the beginning of many more such artistic events, and she’s planning another exhibit in mid-July.
“I’m interested in all expressions of art,” she said. “I’ve learned that we have a significant artist population in Pine Bluff, and I just want to support that by letting them show their work here.”