Personal to Political: Celebrating African American Artists of Paulson Fontaine Press

February 21, 2019 | By Lucy Hoffman

There is no one correct way to address the conversation about African American history and how it continues to shape modern society. The “Personal to Political” exhibit currently on display at Northeastern’s Gallery 360 proves this fact through the variety of stories and styles presented by the artwork . The exhibit displays the personal and political battles that African Americans have been fighting for decades, each piece contributing to the collective history in its own unique way. The work displayed is from 14 African American artists who completed a residency at Paulson Fontaine Press in California with a master printmaker. For many of the artists, it was their first time working with printmaking.


Photos by Lucy Hoffman

Regardless of their experience with the medium, the artists produced a beautiful medley of a variety of stories in their works. From purple tambourines arranged in a specific T-shape on the wall to pyramids of basketballs to magazine cover-esque posters, the art is captivating and calls upon viewers to think about the ways in which each artist is displaying their personal  experiences.


Thomas Vannatter,  a program coordinator at the Northeastern Center for the Arts and the curator of the show at Gallery 360,  had creative license over how the pieces were displayed. He explained how he wanted the show to begin with a “punch” of realism. The gallery therefore opens with artist David Huffman’s lifelike basketball players and transitions into a more ephemeral realm with Martin Puryear’s amorphous pieces. Puryear has traditionally done 3D sculpture work but explores 2D in the show by doing 2D prints of his 3D sculptures. These, described by Vannatter as “2D explorations of volume,” warp dimensions and force viewers to literally look at the pieces in different ways.


The show continues with Lonnie Holley’s black and white contrast pieces, abstract works by artists Samuel Levi Jones, McArthur Binion, Radcliffe Bailey, and Gary Simmons. Viewers walking through the exhibition can clearly follow Vannatter’s thought process but are also able to see each artist’s work as its own entity. Gallery 360 has a glass wall which allows passersby in the hallway outside to look in on the art. For this reason, Vannatter displayed the work in this manner as a way to give those outside a “completely different experience,” hoping to draw them into the gallery to see the full exhibit.


Photos by Lucy Hoffman

One of the key artists in the show is Kerry James Marshall. Marshall creates portraits using a metal printmaking technique which allows for  every mark to be seen, including mistakes or places where his hand rested. For Vannatter, these printed portraits are the most striking and the accidental marking, which “allow you to see the hands of the artist,” makes the work all the more insightful.


Though it was challenging to set up, the “Personal to Political” exhibit has been Vannatter’s favorite that he has curated at Northeastern so far. Although Vannatter had to omit some pieces due to the limited size of the venue, he was still able to capture the exhibit’s essence with the art he chose to display.

The “Personal to Political” exhibit is powerful and thought-provoking. The variations between the pieces of art truly allow viewers to gain insight into the many different stories the artists have, all of which represent a collective experience of oppression, hardship, and perseverance.  Pieces such as Huffman’s black figures wearing white helmets and Marshall’s strong and stoic portraits invite the viewer to glimpse the deep connection the artists have with their background. Race and African American history play a key role in American politics and each of the works in the exhibit display that important relationship in a unique way.


The show is currently on display at Gallery 360 in the Curry Student Center and just celebrated its opening event on Feb. 13, in conjunction with the Northeastern’s Center for Diversity and Inclusion and the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute.  The exhibit is open through Mar. 13.