Oakwood artist, 2 other women to talk about exhibits at The Contemporary

Free artist talks, films are part of increased focus on art education

If you’ve been to a bookstore or library for an author’s talk and book signing, you know just how fascinating those sessions can be. It’s a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the inspiration for the book, as well as the individual who penned it.

The same is certainly true of artist’s talks. The Dayton Visual Arts Center, now known as The Contemporary or The Co, has a rich history of offering free admission to the galleries, as well as hosting entertaining and informational artist’s talks. The idea is to educate visitors about the artistic process and to get to know individual artists on a more personal basis. There’s typically time for questions and answers at the end of the presentation and for interaction with the guest speakers.

With the expansion of gallery space at the Arcade, the focus on art education at The Contemporary is being expanded as well. You can pick up a free Gallery Guide for each of the three main exhibits. The informational sheets include a detailed description of the specific show, a biography and photo of the artist, and a two-page full-color reproduction of one of the works on display. You’re welcome to take these educational pieces home with you.

The Contemporary is also producing short films that give us a behind-the-scenes peek into the studios of prominent Dayton and Ohio artists, and enable us to watch them at work and hear them chat informally about their passions. These 10- to 15-minute films will continue to be available on the gallery’s website. To see an example, check out the film on artist Mychaeyn Michalec that’s already online.

Small books about featured artists are also being published by The Co and will be available at the annual Holiday Gift Gallery (Nov. 19-Dec. 2) and at the CoSHOP, which opens Feb. 12.

The new retail space will sell fine crafts by Dayton and Ohio artists, including work from the Ohio Craft Museum in Columbus. Art books, prints and cards also will be available.

Free curatorial tours of the galleries are being held once a month on Saturdays.

All told, The Co is providing a wonderful opportunity to glean free art education from the experts.

Meet the artists

The current exhibits at The Contemporary focus on three female artists — Nina Chanel Abney who lives in New York; Sara Cwynar from New Jersey and Oakwood resident Mychaelyn Michalec. All of them will be participating in upcoming artist’s talks; one will take place at the gallery with social distancing and masks required; two will be held online.

“We’re presenting shows that have challenging themes of social justice and social unrest and we feel it’s important to hear the artist’s voices and allow them to give you their perspectives,” explains executive director Eva Buttacavoli. “Gallery talks will be a priority in our continuing education program.”

A case in point? Abney’s use of spray paint in her paintings. “People like to know how she uses that spray paint, it’s an incredible process that comes with years of experience,” says Buttacavoli.

Nina Chanel Abney

Abney is known for large-scale figurative paintings that touch on topics ranging from race and gender to pop culture, homophobia and politics. She’s produced everything from public murals and toys to interactive animation, augmented reality pieces and even a deck of UNO cards. She was named one of the top 20 Black Lives Matter artists by Vanity Fair and created the May 31 cover of the New Yorker.

Her colorful paintings are typically multi-layered and filled with an abundance of images she has labeled “information overload.” In contrast, the work she’s been creating during the pandemic is less hectic. “They have a lot of breathing room,” she says of the work she has produced recently. “I was thinking about people leaving the city and what it would mean to own a bunch of land and kind of start your own thing.”

Michael Goodson, curator and director of public programs, will moderate the artist’s talks. He says Abney’s three large paintings on the large gallery’s east wall were all made during COVID. ”They are paintings that depict Nina’s reaction to the isolation and disparity of the pandemic,” he explains. “Her reaction, largely, was to imagine activities by these quasi-families, these gatherings of like-minded people who are racially fluid as well as fluid in their gender, gathering together in a rural setting to do physical normal joyful things.”

In his view, they also comment on the fact that we don’t always think of people of color engaged in the outdoor activities depicted in Abney’s paintings, like camping, fishing, picnicking. “In a way, these works try to dispel both the sadness and isolation of the pandemic and these notions that people of color do not engage in these very human activities.”

Mychaelyn Michalec

Michalec’s exhibit is entitled “From a Basement on A Hill,” a reference to the sixth and final studio album by the American singer-songwriter Elliot Smith. In her case, it also refers to the artist’s basement studio in Oakwood.

The gallery is filled with a new body of her work: large and dramatic tufted rugs that cast light on her own family’s life during the pandemic. Her process begins with cell phone shots that she snaps when her spouse and kids are going about their day and mostly unaware of the camera. The images are then transformed into rug paintings. Michalec says her work is a dramatic contrast to what she frequently observes on social media where family life is idealized. Instead she seeks to show what goes on in a real family on a day-to-day basis, capturing both the connection and love we have for one another as well as the distractions caused by electronic devices and smartphones.

Michalec’s creativity is also featured on an installation in the adjoining gallery wall. She’s collected embroidered quips from the 1960s through the 1980s about the nature of motherhood, many of them ironic. In some instances, she’s embroidered an image of herself over the original.

They were all created in the era of second-wave feminism when women were trying to “do it all” and the focus was on workplace issues, reproductive rights and legal inequities. “A lot of my work is about invisible labor,” Michalec’s explains, in this case referring to women’s unpaid work that often goes unnoticed and unacknowledged.

“Our house has a maid, a cook, a butler, a gardener and a chauffeur: ME,” reads one. Others say, “Every mother is a working mother,” and “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men. Fortunately that’s not difficult.”

“My mother said you could do all these things, but it is difficult to be an artist who’s taken seriously and also have children and a career,” she says, adding there was a disconnect between what she’d been told and what she actually experienced. “You have to make choices. I was unable to keep my job because of the cost of child care.”

When artists like herself are creating work, notes Michalec, they are removed from the world. When she can engage with her audience, she adds, she can see her art the way others see it. “I get ideas when we’re discussing the art,” she says. I’m looking forward to my artist talk.”

Sara Cwynar

The Co’s new video gallery is featuring Cwynar’s work entitled “Soft Film.” She has collected, arranged and archived her eBay purchases of dated objects.

You’ll see her working in her studio and the film’s voice-over blends her own writing with quotes from others. “At the heart of the project is a set of questions,” she explains. “Why would anyone care about a discarded thing? Why should you care and why do I? And what other systems of power are all these things caught up in?”


What: The Contemporary Artist Talks

Where: 25 W. 4th St., Dayton

When: Nina Chanel Abney will be live online at 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 18; Mychaelyn Michalec will speak at 6 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 1 and Sara Cwynar will be live online at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 20. More information at thecontemporarydayton.org/artisttalks

Admission: Free, with donations appreciated.

Gallery hours: These three exhibits will be on view through Oct. 24. Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays. For more information: www.thecontemporarydayton.org or call 937-224-3822.

Related programming: Curator’s tours are being offered at 2 p.m. on Saturdays on Sept. 11 and Oct. 9. Reservations are not required.

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