The works of art in the exhibition Cosmologies from the Tree of Life: Art from the African American South at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts embody stories that may remind you of your own family’s artistry, perseverance, and traditions passed down through generations. The art on view includes sculptures, quilts, paintings, and works on paper by African American artists such as Jessie Aaron, Louisiana Bendolph, Thornton Dial, Lonnie B. Holley, Ronald Lockett, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, James “Son Ford” Thomas, Mose Tolliver, and Purvis Young. There is also an impressive selection of quilts made by several women from the famed multigenerational group of quilters in Gee’s Bend, Alabama. The exhibition celebrates the resolve and resilience these artists and their ancestors summoned to create art despite the institutional and systemic barriers they faced.
As a way to honor the rich cultural legacy assembled in Cosmologies from the Tree of Life, take time out this summer to celebrate family, sow seeds for artistic development, or uncover your own family’s creative roots. Here are seven artful ways to do just that.
1. Visit the exhibition. Beginning on June 8, when the exhibition opens to the public, and continuing through the summer, Cosmologies from the Tree of Life: Art from the African American South displays the impressive works of art acquired by VMFA from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, an organization whose mission it is to showcase works by African American artists from the South. Deriving its name from “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” a 1921 poem by Langston Hughes (1902–1967), the Souls Grown Deep Foundation celebrates the indelible contributions that African American artists have made to art and culture in the United States and beyond.
The Arnett family, William and his sons, compiled the majority of the art now in the Souls Grown Deep Foundation’s holdings. Five years ago, the Foundation launched a national transfer program, and since then, more than 200 works of art have moved into the permanent collections of leading American art museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the High Museum. When VMFA acquired 34 works from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, it joined a historic and profoundly intentional national effort to include these works—which are rooted in African aesthetic legacies, familial tradition, and communal training—in the finest art museums in the country.
2. Attend VMFA’s next Family Day for hands-on activities and live performances. These wildly popular events take place only a few times a year and focus on a different cultural theme each time. On Saturday, June 8, from 11 am to 3 pm, VMFA will celebrate African and African American Art showcasing the art and culture of Mali. The museum-wide event will include music, activities, storytelling, dancing, performances by musician Cheick Hamala Diabate, and so much more. Participate in collaborative hands-on art projects and create your own pieces inspired by jewelry, masks, and textiles from Mali. Family Days at VMFA are free and no tickets or reservations are required.
3. Write a family cookbook. If you have a collection of family recipes tucked away in a box or pressed between the pages of a high-priced celebrity chef’s cookbook, why not put together your own book of family recipes? The project can be as simple or as sophisticated as you make it. Ask other family members to contribute their favorite recipes. Write about memories of holiday gatherings and special occasions when particular dishes were prepared. Add inspirational quotes that you associate with your loved ones or song lyrics reminiscent of those get-togethers. As part of the writing process, test the recipes, and have fun photographing the finished products. Include old family photographs and captions. Check out the printing and binding options at your local copy center or an online printer like Shutterfly. You may inspire the next generation to carry on those culinary traditions.
4. Bring the family to Summer Breeze Fridays. Anytime is a great time to bring the whole family to VMFA, and Friday nights are no exception. The museum is open until 9 pm and the permanent collection galleries are open and free. On select Friday nights, bring a blanket or lawn chair and your dancing shoes for Summer Breeze events, which take place this summer on June 28, July 26, August 30, and September 20. On these nights, the museum’s magnificent sculpture garden becomes a backyard party with lively DJ music. Admission to Summer Breeze is free, and specially priced drinks are available for purchase. Amuse Restaurant, Best Café, and the VMFA Shop are also open during the museum’s extended hours. Reservations are always a good idea for the highly popular Amuse.
5. Make a quilt either by yourself or as a meaningful group project. Get the younger family members involved, encouraging their self-expression in the colors, patterns, and narratives they piece together. There are several quilting classes in the Richmond area, including Quilting Adventures, Blue Crab Quilt Company, and Quilter’s Corner. For inspiration, visit Cosmologies from the Tree of Life to view the impressive display of quilts made by Linda Diane Bennett, Louella Pettway, Linda Pettway, Loretta Pettway, Rita Mae Pettway, Ruth Kennedy, Creola Bennett Pettway, Lucy T. Pettway, Nell Hall Williams, Nettie Young, Louisiana Bendolph, Mary Lee Bendolph, and Jennie Pettway.
6. Nurture someone’s love for art and reading. The exhibition catalogue, which tells the artists’ personal stories, is not only the perfect companion to Cosmologies from the Tree of Life but also a permanent record of this momentous time in history in which art from the African American South is taking its rightful place in the canon of American Modernism.
For younger readers, Stitchin’ and Pullin’: A Gee’s Bend Quilt is a collection of poems about the community of quilters in Gee’s Bend, Alabama. The book is written by Patricia McKissack and illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera. McKissack learned the individual and collective stories of the multigenerational artists of Gee’s Bend, whose quilts hang today in museums around the country. Readers will learn about the family history and the cultural and spiritual significance in their work.
7. Create a digital family archive. What better way to share family history with loved ones near and far than by creating digital archives they can access no matter where they are? Think about building a website devoted to your family’s past and even its present. Update it regularly with news and new additions to the archives. This is also a great way to share the work of artists in your family. Their passion and artistic talent could be a source of pride and inspiration for current and future generations. Discover your own creativity as a storyteller and the countless ways you can use words, still images, personal letters, official documents, videos, and audio files. Consider using free software such as WordPress to build the site, adding JPG files, PDF files, links to videos, MP3 audio files, and more.
Cosmologies from the Tree of Life: Art from the African American South is on view June 8–November 17, 2019. The exhibition is FREE. No tickets required. The exhibition is organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
A Legacy Project of￼