LYNN ― For Wendy Ekolé, art is about healing.
When the 10th-grade math teacher was forced to shelter in place during COVID-19 quarantine, she found herself painting ― and eventually selling her art ― as a way to express her creative energy.
“I started painting more, I think, because of the pandemic, the sadness within the pandemic, and not being able to communicate with people face to face,” she said. “I use that as my outlet.”
The artist was encouraged by Galleries at LynnArts (GALA) President Annette Sykes to keep the momentum, and eventually a pop-up exhibition of Ekolé’s work emerged in July.
“Annette started looking at my work and she said ‘Wendy, I want you to keep going,'” Ekolé recalled; she and Sykes met when both were teachers at Lynn Vocational Technical Institute.
Now showing her second pop-up exhibition at GALA as one of the four artists featured in “Past and Present: Black Art and Artists,” Ekolé’s focus is still on the restorative and transcendent power of artistic expression.
Her paintings, at once eclectic and serene, show Black women and tropical blooms in front of candy-colored backgrounds. The forms are rendered in thick, confident lines that cannot mask an intimate attention to detail: The women gaze softly into the middle distance; the flowers hang heavy as if suspended in the air of a humid morning.
“One thing that I wanted to make sure that I conveyed in my art was that it was an escape from hardships, especially around the time of Black Lives Matter,” she explained. “I think that, for me, it was like an escape of seeing the overwhelming images that were in the media. In my art, I think I project a lot of softness, a lot of femininity. That’s my go-to space where I feel safe and I like to show that in my art.”
Ekolé’s art is truly, earnestly feminine, and the flowers and butterflies she commits to the canvas are rendered without irony ― but not without purpose. Ekolé is not just painting Black femininity, she is communicating with Black women.
“Especially for Black women, I want us to always be reminded that we are also soft and feminine,” she said. “There’s probably a lot of negative stereotypes or limiting stories, (but) I want us to be the mermaids, the princesses, the ones that can also get saved in the castle. That can be our narrative, also.”
As an element of the “Past and Present” show, each of the four featured artists were asked to present the art of a historical Black artist, whose work would be shown beside their own. Ekolé chose Clementine Hunter, whose soft, feminine palette and nostalgic representation of her subjects mirrors Ekolé’s own ― as does (Ekolé thinks) the reason behind these choices.
“Even though she grew up in a terrible period of our history, I noticed that her colors were soft, just like my choice of colors were soft,” she said. “For me, it relates to the softness that we’re both speaking about in terms of the world being difficult, but we have to find a place where we have our own internal peace and our own internal softness. That’s what I would believe when I look at her art.”
Hunter, who was born during the Reconstruction period in rural Louisiana, was a folk artist deemed “the most celebrated of all Southern contemporary painters” by the Museum of American Folk Art in Washington, D.C. Hunter’s work depicted her world: plantation labor, menial work, church services, second-line funerals and other aspects of turn-of-the-century Creole life. Never learning to read or write, she was the first African-American painter to be shown in what is now the New Orleans Museum of Art, was lauded by two U.S. presidents, and the State of Louisiana celebrates “Clementine Hunter Day” every Oct. 1 in her honor.
While Hunter’s inspiration came from the everyday, Ekolé looks more toward otherworldliness, magic, and mythology.
“My last show that I did (in July), I focused a lot on mythology; the stories that are told are about women, but I feel like we’re always being portrayed in a negative way,” said Ekolé, who often turns her focus on misunderstood women of lore, like Medusa and Eve. “I had one piece that was an African-American version of Eve handing you the apple. She’s within the garden, and she’s sitting on a swing so that there’s an element of innocence that I love.”
As for real-life women, Ekolé has no shortage of positive figures in her life. The show’s co-chairs, Sykes and North Shore Juneteenth Association founder Nicole McClain, are dear friends and supporters.
“I’m thankful for Annette because she has really been instrumental in giving me the proper tools to create the arts that I need,” she said. “Nicole has supported me from the very beginning. I want to say she’s been coming to almost every single one of my events; she was one of the first people to come to my pop-up show… you never know who’s gonna come, and when she walked through the door, I was like, ‘wow.'”
Meanwhile, Ekolé is something of an inspiration herself. In addition to keeping math fun by incorporating creative challenges into her 10th-graders’ assignments, her presence at collaborative art events like Arts in the Park has an effect. Perhaps the most healing aspect of the artistic process, she noted, was that it forges community bonds.
“A little girl came up to me (at Arts in the Park) and she was just asking me about the art pieces,” she recalled. “Maybe she might want to go home and start doing art. We influence each other, especially through art.”