Enshrined in the work of a dozen local artists, a new class of Black icons will soon help teach the next generation of students about the contributions of Dayton’s Skyscrapers — people who are considered tall because of their contributions to the community.
The annual Visual Voices: Dayton Skyscrapers exhibit began in 2007 as a community collaborative spearheaded by iconic Dayton artist William “Bing” Davis who curates the show. This year’s partnership is with the EbonNia Gallery, Davis’ space in Dayton’s Wright Dunbar District, Dayton Public Schools and Shango: Center for the Study of African American Art and Culture.
“Our Skyscrapers are about high achieving African Americans from the Dayton Miami Valley region who have achieved in their chosen field and has or is giving back to the community,” organizers said in a press release.
The 2023 Dayton Skyscrapers exhibit captures a dozen leaders including sports broadcaster and former NFL football player Keith Byars, Ohio State Representative Willis Blackshear Jr., Dayton Contemporary Dance Company Artistic Director Debbie Blunden-Diggs and Father Benjamin E.K. Speare-Hardy.
Among the artists involved in exhibit is textile artist Andrea Walker-Cummings who began experimenting with needlework after retiring from her career in data communications and technology. Her mother was a seamstress and always made sure young Walker-Cummings had a needle and thread in hand. As an adult, she said there was never an opportunity to mess around with textiles unless she was sick or taking care of her children as newborns.
A little over a decade ago, she had the opportunity to fully dive into the craft and connect with other artists in the Dayton community. Her sister Yvette Walker-Dalton is also an artist and has a piece in the exhibit as well. Walker-Dalton helped her sister integrate into the community and pushed her to believe in her work.
“She’s always believed in me more than I actually did myself as far as artistic capability,” Walker-Cummings said.
Walker-Cummings became involved with the African American Artists Guild where she met Davis. She said his “super-mentorship” lead her to learn an “unfathomable” amount about herself and the world of art. Davis recognized there was something within her that could create the kind of art he was looking for when curating the Dayton Skyscraper exhibit, Walker-Cummings said. So much so that she’s been asked to create art for the collection four times.
In this year’s exhibit, she created a piece honoring Skyscraper Renee McClendon, director of the McClendon Institute in Dayton.
The artist pool for the 2023 exhibit, hand-picked by Davis, also includes Abner Cope, Clifford Darrett, Craig Screven, Dwayne Daniel, Erin Smith-Glenn, Gregory DeGroat, Horace Dozier Sr., James Pate, Morris Howard and Reginald Harmon.
When Walker-Cummings was selected to create McClendon’s portrait, she didn’t know who she was, but the artist had seen McClendon’s dance troupe perform. She began researching McClendon and her community impact before sitting down with her subject for a conversation.
The Dayton Skyscraper exhibit often highlights the legacy of iconic Daytonians who are deceased. Walker-Cummings said she was grateful this year to be able to honor someone who she could get to know, not through research, but by actually meeting and speaking with her.
All of Walker-Cummings’ work is hand-stitched, so the whole Skyscraper process from conception to completion took around four months. She said it’s important to her to find common ground with her subjects and get a sense of who they are as she is creating her work.
“It’s a stitch-by-stitch exercise for me,” Walker-Cummings said. “It means a lot to me to be able to sit down with the person and just kind of absorb who they are and the environment they live and work in, and then just talking with them at length about their background and sharing some of myself.”
She said talking to McClendon and learning her personality sparked colors in her mind’s eye that Walker-Cummings then incorporated into her portrait.
McClendon — Mama Renee — has been at the helm of the McClendon Institute as director for four decades. The institute was founded by her father, the late John McClendon, and it serves the Dayton community through programming that brings art education, martial arts, cultural diversity and more to young Black girls.
Over the years, the institute has grown to offer Saturday school, self-defense courses, a summer youth program, etiquette classes, sewing classes and Juneteenth celebrations, as well as a space for young women to learn and perform plays, cultural dances and poetry.
Another of Dayton’s Skyscraper community leaders is Karla Garrett Harshaw. She is the administrator of the Iddings Foundation in Dayton, which provides grants to nonprofit organizations in Montgomery and surrounding counties.
Garrett Harshaw has dedicated herself to helping the Dayton community by leading fundraising efforts for Advocates for Basic Legal Equality and Legal Aid of Western Ohio as its regional director of development for over a decade prior to joining the Iddings Foundation in 2021.
She made a name for herself in Dayton as a longtime employee of Cox Media Group, serving in the newsroom for Dayton Daily News beginning in high school and working up to become the editor of the Springfield News-Sun before becoming vice president of community development for the newspaper group. In her journalism career, she served as the founding president for the Dayton chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and on the journalism jury for the Pulitzer Prize.
She serves on several community boards including Community Health Centers of Greater Dayton Board, Wright State University Foundation Board, Wright Dunbar, Inc. Board, Rotary Club of Dayton and Ohio-based Law and Leadership Institute.
Garrett Harshaw’s portrait was created by artist Gregory DeGroat who shared a common thread with his subject; He too had a long career working for Cox Media Group, but as a graphic designer. The two met when Garrett Harshaw was editor of the Springfield News-Sun.
When she received the call that DeGroat wanted to capture her portrait for this year’s exhibition, Garrett Harshaw said she was surprised and humbled but a little hesitant to agree.
“I didn’t know if I belonged in a Skyscrapers exhibit,” Garrett Harshaw said. “... I have to say I was also humbled when I saw the other Skyscrapers who were displayed because they have extraordinary accomplishments.”
DeGroat said he was so pleased when Garrett Harshaw agreed to be the subject of his Skyscraper portrait. He praised her as a role model and pointed out that she too had a laundry list of extraordinary accomplishments and contributions to the Dayton community.
“Despite her well-deserved accolades, she is such a humble, down-to-earth individual,” DeGroat said. “Her inclusion in the exclusive Skyscraper club is way past due!”
Garrett Harshaw recognized how flattering it was to be nominated for such an exhibition by DeGroat, who’s work she greatly admires, and Davis who is deservedly world-renowned, she said.
In creating the exhibit, Davis said it was his mission to celebrate African American pillars in the Dayton community alongside African American artists. He also wants the Skyscrapers’ recognition to go beyond the walls of his gallery and be role models for Dayton’s youth.
”The goal is to have the Skyscraper and their achievement woven into the school curriculum by the classroom teachers,” Davis said.
2023 Dayton Skyscrapers
Dr. Lewis Jackson
General Lester Lyles
Carl Edward Moyler
Debbie Blunden Diggs
Father Benjamin E.K. Speare-Hardy
Willis Blackshear Jr.
HOW TO GO
What: 2023 Dayton Skyscrapers
When: Through Sept. 30
Where: EbonNia Gallery, 1135 W. Third St., Dayton
Note: At the end of the exhibit, the artwork in the collection will each find a home in one of the 27 schools in the Dayton Public Schools district.
For more info: https://www.bingdavisartstudio.org/