Atlanta artist Jerushia Graham’s new exhibition examines what it means to be free

Artist Jerushia Graham poses for a portrait with her new exhibit, “Freedom Isn’t Free,” at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center in Atlanta on Tuesday, July 20, 2021. The show runs through Sept. 2. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Artist Jerushia Graham poses for a portrait with her new exhibit, “Freedom Isn’t Free,” at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center in Atlanta on Tuesday, July 20, 2021. The show runs through Sept. 2. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Callawolde features new textile work that explores the meaning of liberty in America today.

One day, about 170 years ago, a young, enslaved Black mother named Rose raced through her quarters gathering a survival kit for her nine-year-old daughter. The child, Ashley, was about to be sold, alone, to another plantation.

Into a cotton sack Rose tossed pecans, a tattered dress and a braid of her own hair. Then she sealed the bag with her love. Ashley told the story to her descendants and passed the bag down to a granddaughter. In the 1920s, the granddaughter embroidered the story — about the pecans, dress, lock and love — on one side of the sack. Nine simple lines relayed a tale of historic importance but also humanity. Eventually the sack was lost to time until it was discovered at a flea market in 2007 by a shopper. Through a series of twist and turns, by 2016 the bag was on display in the lower gallery of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The rough cotton sack captivated Atlanta artist Jerushia Graham.

“Just thinking about the care put into those few stitches and in the weight that they carried,” Graham said recently. “Putting some of your soul in the stitching.”

Graham’s latest exhibition, “Freedom Isn’t Free,” is loosely inspired by the sack, and is now on view at the Callanwolde Fine Arts Center gallery. The show is a collection of new pieces and older works, that, taken together, are meditations on three rights set forth in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Those weren’t afforded to Ashley and Rose. They’ve also proven elusive for generations of Americans, especially those not born into lives of privilege or favor. Through paper, fabric, thread and ink, the 18 works in Graham’s show drive that point home.

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Artist Jerushia Graham speaks with art teacher Brook Hewitt about her new exhibit, “Freedom Isn’t Free,” at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center in Atlanta on Tuesday, July 20, 2021. The show runs from July 15 to Sept. 2. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Artist Jerushia Graham speaks with art teacher Brook Hewitt about her new exhibit, “Freedom Isn’t Free,” at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center in Atlanta on Tuesday, July 20, 2021. The show runs from July 15 to Sept. 2. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Artist Jerushia Graham speaks with art teacher Brook Hewitt about her new exhibit, “Freedom Isn’t Free,” at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center in Atlanta on Tuesday, July 20, 2021. The show runs from July 15 to Sept. 2. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Never Surrendered”

Graham has made a name locally over the last 15 years with her paper-cut compositions that reflect Black life in ways vibrant, knowing and tender. Reared in a military family that supported her early pursuit of the arts, Graham came to the medium of paper while still an art major at the University of Georgia. She wanted to be a children’s book illustrator, but discovered painting wasn’t as good a fit.

“I was horrible in both painting and photography,” Graham said. “One photography class I got kicked out of the dark room.”

Paper — making it from scratch with pulp and water, manipulating it into shapes with blades and printing on it with ink — felt natural to her. From there, on through her present position as coordinator at Georgia Tech’s Robert C. Williams Museum of Papermaking, she has told stories of what it feels to be on the outside. The people represented are often Black and female.

Three paper-cut portraits from Graham’s 2017-2018 series, “From Where I Stand,” are included in the Callanwolde show. Even so, they speak both to the current show’s theme and to the sense of exclusion. That feeling is especially palpable in a blue and brown paper cut of two women, mirror images of each other both in stance and expression. Their brows are slightly furrowed, their noses and lips wrinkled almost imperceptibly, perhaps with displeasure. Depending on a viewer’s ideas about Black women, the picture could be interpreted as a take on the derisive, stereotypical caricature of the “angry black woman.” Another viewer might read the look as a mask shielding the women’s profound hurt or disappointment. What is the source of their displeasure?

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This papercut from Atlanta artist Jerushia Graham is part of her new show "Freedom Isn't Free" at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center.

Credit: Jerushia Graham

This papercut from Atlanta artist Jerushia Graham is part of her new show "Freedom Isn't Free" at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center.

Credit: Jerushia Graham

Combined ShapeCaption
This papercut from Atlanta artist Jerushia Graham is part of her new show "Freedom Isn't Free" at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center.

Credit: Jerushia Graham

Credit: Jerushia Graham

“There are themes of survival and weariness in her work, but the figures are never subdued, they’ve never surrendered to the trauma they’ve experienced,” said John Chase Campbell, a member of an artist’s collective of graduates of UGA’s art school. “Think of her cutting all of that by hand, but also think of the mental real estate it takes up to wrestle with the ideas and render them.”

Jamaal Barber, a board member of the Atlanta Printmaker’s Studio, has worked alongside Graham. His medium is wood, but he said what Graham does is more difficult. To make an image she can go through an entire pack of X-Acto knives in one sitting. The sharpest of blades is necessary to render gentle details such as a collarbone or a wrinkle in a pair of jeans in less than an eighth of an inch of paper.

“She gets in the zone and then pulls it up and you can’t believe it,” Barber said of the paper Graham works with. “If you lift it wrong, it’ll snap. I’ve seen her start whole pieces over again because a line snapped when she lifted it. You don’t realize how delicate one line is. They are just as delicate as they are bold.”

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Artist Jerushia Graham poses for a portrait with her new exhibit, “Freedom Isn’t Free,” at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center in Atlanta on Tuesday, July 20, 2021. The show runs from July 15 to Sept. 2. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Artist Jerushia Graham poses for a portrait with her new exhibit, “Freedom Isn’t Free,” at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center in Atlanta on Tuesday, July 20, 2021. The show runs from July 15 to Sept. 2. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Combined ShapeCaption
Artist Jerushia Graham poses for a portrait with her new exhibit, “Freedom Isn’t Free,” at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center in Atlanta on Tuesday, July 20, 2021. The show runs from July 15 to Sept. 2. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Creating Empathy”

The textile work in “Freedom is Not Free” is a pivot for her, a chance to tell those stories with needle rather than blade, yet striving for the same complexity.

The exhibition’s heart is a small series of (primarily) hand-stitched, quilted banners, rendered in shades of spring and summer: bold yellows, pinks, greens and reds. Graham embellished each with one of the three key words in the Declaration of Independence. Her chosen hues suggest promise. Alongside them are three mammoth quilts riffing on the United States flag — pennies or cowrie shells for stars; blue, brown, or gray stripes replacing the official red and white. Paired with excerpts from the classic anti-slavery treatise, David Walker’s Appeal, and poems by the late Lucille Clifton, the flags’ subdued hues suggest progress thwarted, a covenant broken.

Even so, Graham said, she wants people to find a way to see some bit of their own story in her work, to see that no matter the walk or station of life, as Americans and human beings we are connected and should enjoy the same rights.

“My through line for my artwork is creating empathy in the viewer and in myself,” Graham said.

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This is one of a series of papercuts by Atlanta artist Jerushia Graham. Her work is the subject of the solo show, "Freedom Isn't Free" at Callenwolde Fine Arts Center.

Credit: Jerushia Graham

This is one of a series of papercuts by Atlanta artist Jerushia Graham. Her work is the subject of the solo show, "Freedom Isn't Free" at Callenwolde Fine Arts Center.

Credit: Jerushia Graham

Combined ShapeCaption
This is one of a series of papercuts by Atlanta artist Jerushia Graham. Her work is the subject of the solo show, "Freedom Isn't Free" at Callenwolde Fine Arts Center.

Credit: Jerushia Graham

Credit: Jerushia Graham


ART EXHIBITION

“Freedom Isn’t Free” by Jerushia Graham

4-8 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays. Through Sept. 2. Callanwolde Fine Arts Center. 980 Briarcliff Road NE, Atlanta. 404-872-5338, callanwolde.org.