As the sun reaches its highest point of the day, most of East Pennington Street near North Stone Avenue in downtown Tucson remains in the shadows.
But the bright lights from inside the Blue Lotus Artists’ Collective (BLAC) gallery at 15 E. Pennington St. help illuminate the dark and chilly area as office employees make their way back to work after a quick lunch break, school children excitedly wander over to Jácome Plaza for recess and curious minds take a quick peek through the gallery windows as they pass by.
Unlike its surrounding exterior, the inside of the BLAC gallery is bright and warm, not only in temperature but in ambience.
When entering one of Tucson’s newest gallery spaces, visitors are greeted at the front desk by one of the nonprofit’s volunteers like Laura Pendleton-Miller, the board president of BLAC, who is excited to welcome guests and show them the work and stories of Black artists.
“We want to demystify galleries and museums and tell people ‘You do belong there,’” Pendleton-Miller says. “They can be warm and inviting spaces.”
The gallery is dedicated to amplifying the work of local and national Black artists.
“We want to give that visibility to artists who are struggling to be seen. Especially here in Tucson, we want to keep them. And if they're not seen and they can't sell their work, they can't stay,” she says. “The other thing, much like with this ‘John Brown’ series by Jacob Lawrence, we want to bring great examples of Black art to the community that otherwise wouldn't come here.”
“We also want to create teachable moments. Especially at this time in our society, where the little nugget of history they wanted to, or were being forced to give to Black people, they don't even want to do that now. So, we feel like we have an opportunity to fill a little bit of that void. We're looking at things like having people come in from the University (of Arizona), who can talk about the historical perspective of what we're doing here.”
The gallery’s current show features the works of artists Jacob Lawrence and Nikesha Breeze. The 22-piece collection of Lawrence’s “John Brown” serigraphy series focuses on the story of abolitionist John Brown.
Breeze’s “Within this Skin” collection showcases nine oil-painted closet doors of figures representing her ancestry.
“These pieces are works that came to her, basically, in a dream,” Pendleton-Miller says. “She was in a period of her life where she was doing a lot of work on her ancestry and she said these images kept coming to her. She felt like the ancestors were telling her that they needed out. So, she went out to get canvas to do these pieces and found that it was really expensive. She decided to go to junkyards and find some doors to do it on. Personally, I'm glad she did because these are all closet doors. And I feel that the pieces being on closet doors, when our history is so closeted, just gives it more meaning.”
Breeze, who is an artist from Taos, New Mexico, recently recreated her ceramic “108 Death Masks” piece into bronze for a new sculpture park that’s set to open in Alabama next year, The New York Times reported in October.
BLAC gallery’s current show runs until Jan. 31, 2024. The all-volunteer-run gallery is open noon to 6 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, noon to 3 p.m. Sunday or by appointment.
Pendleton-Miller says she would like to see even more mediums in future shows, such as textiles and sculptural pieces.
“We are focused on Black artists. That's not happening anywhere else (in Tucson) and that's why we're here,” Pendleton-Miller says. “We are kind of a hybrid because most galleries are in the business of selling art. We have in this show 31 pieces, but only three of them are for sale. So, we made a conscious decision that there are things that we want to bring to this community that financially really doesn't benefit us. When I started putting together the costs of bringing these things here to the community, (I knew) we were not going to sell something and recover, but we thought it was important to share this with the community.”
Blooming through it all 🌼
The collective was founded last year after Pendleton-Miller, who works as an independent financial advisor, invited some friends to chat about how they could help amplify Black artists and their work.
“I just called some folks and said, ‘Let's have a happy hour and talk about what we as active community volunteers can do to help get more visibility for Black artists,’” she says. “We didn't get together thinking ‘Let's open a gallery.’ It was just ‘What can we do?’”
After several months of conversations with each other and artists, the collective decided to take the plunge and open a gallery. Since those conversations in May 2022, things have moved pretty fast for the collective.
They held a soft opening for the 2,300-square-foot gallery in the spring, hosted an official grand opening celebration in early November and received nonprofit status from the IRS just last week.
“I think it speaks volumes about Tucson that an innovative, creative, meaningful community-impact idea can go from zero to 60 very rapidly,” says Mary Walters, a volunteer at the gallery and colleague of Pendleton-Miller who reconnected with her after seeing an article about BLAC in Tucson Lifestyle Magazine. “I believe that Tucson communities are very supportive of making things better and moving things forward and I think this is an example of that.”
Artist Willie Bonner came up with the name for the collective — Blue Lotus — which is a water lily native to Africa. The flower can blossom through muck and mud, yet still bloom into something beautiful despite its conditions.
“It makes me think of the resilience of Black people and dealing with a lot of adversity and still figuring out how to get through it,” Pendleton-Miller says.
As BLAC continues to set its roots in the heart of downtown Tucson, Pendleton-Miller would like to see the collective bloom into a hub of Black artistry and education, including eventually getting more space to host presentations, classes and more.
“I think we live in troubled times, divisive times and any small step that you can make individually to try to close that divide, to open eyes to see another perspective, I'm convinced that this gallery will have an impact that way. And so as time goes on, that impact will continue,” Walters says.
For more information about BLAC, check out their website.