Johnny Coleman's art usually has been something you can stand inside, not just beside. The 2003 Cleveland Arts Prize winner and professor of studio art and African American studies at Oberlin College specializes in installation pieces that use architectural constructions, audio, and even smells to immerse audiences. Now, as part of Zygote Press' artist in residence program, Coleman condenses his expression into two dimensions in a series of printworks he calls Some Spirits: The Free Side of the River.
Coleman's work has always been an ongoing, nonverbal history of the African American experience, and he doesn't have to go far to find links to that history. Oberlin played an important role in the Underground Railroad as a milestone for freedom-seeking slaves in their journey to Canada. In Some Spirits, Coleman strives to memorialize some of the slaves whose search for liberty brought them to Northeast Ohio. He has both success stories and chronicles of loss to tell.
In one series, Coleman takes up the case of Lee Howard Dobbins, a four-year-old boy who fell sick during a northbound caravan and was left with a good Samaritan family to die. Locals took up a collection and gave Dobbins a big, rich tombstone, rubbings from which Coleman had printed onto paper, glass, and slate.
Out of Oberlin College's general catalog, Coleman dug up the student record for one John Parker, the youngest son of an escaped slave who eventually built an iron foundry. Parker died before graduating, and now Coleman gives him a commencement of sorts. A reproduction of his record (pictured) has been printed on paper and underlaid with an image of ironwork from his father's company. A pair of footprints overlay the text, joined at the heels and fanned like angel's wings. The feet suggest solidity and an undeniable declaration: "He was here; his life happened." But these traces of human contact are just that — traces. Coleman makes the past present by reminding us of absences.
"It's an opportunity to extend my own working process, my parameters and motivations," says Coleman of his Zygote residency. But while he isn't sure how the new endeavors will be received, Coleman does not see the body of work produced here as distinct from his usual projects: For him, it's all storytelling. "It's an opportunity to explore a recurring theme in two dimensions, and see how I can reference the fourth dimension of time and spirit," he says.
An opening reception will be held Friday, September 7, from 6 to 9 p.m. An artist talk is set for Thursday, September 13, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. The exhibition continues through October 6 at 1410 East 30th St. Call 216-621-2900 or go to zygotepress.com.