In conversation with Espi Frazier

Veteran Middle School art teacher, Espi Frazier, unveiled a stunning new solo show on Friday, October 31 to a sizeable crowd that included Friends staff, students, fellow artists, and even a few former graduate school classmates. The show, which is now on display at the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Museum, includes 40 years worth of Frazier’s work. FSB Dance Instructor, Torens Johnson was also on hand to pay tribute to Frazier’s legacy with a moving series of dance performances that he choreographed for the special occasion. 

Frazier, who has been teaching at Friends for 26 years, came to Baltimore to complete a graduate program at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in 1993 and has stayed ever since. She recalls the intense hustle of her graduate school experience as she often worked during the day at Friends before heading downtown to her studio in the Fox Building to spend long nights working on her thesis project. One piece from her thesis show is featured in the solo show at Douglass-Myers. The piece, entitled The Mother of Us All, is one example of her copyrighted “wood graphics” technique.

She learned the craft of woodworking at an early age—eventually teaching herself how to use power tools— and describes her initial encounter with it as a fluke. After a drawing teacher gave an assignment to draw on a surface she had never worked with before, Frazier came across a piece of plywood underneath her mother’s house and started drawing on it with black ink. While experimenting with wood, she encountered vibrant drawings of aboriginal figures and drew inspiration from their forms. She would never stop experimenting and exploring, soon adding color to her work, and later incorporating mosaic tiles after an artist friend suggested she add in other materials.

“It’s wonderful to be around other artists because they give you ideas that you wouldn’t ever think of,” Frazier says.

Another source of artist inspiration came during her time as a member of the Black Arts Guild (BAG) in Chicago. The Guild, founded by Turtel Onli in 1970, will celebrate a major anniversary next year. Frazier recalls that the Guild’s first studio space was located next to the iconic Operation PUSH! headquarters by Hyde Park, and offered an inspirational environment to work in.

An important artistic element that Frazier carries with her from her early years with BAG, is the recurring use of watermelon in her work. The watermelon is a tribute to the BAG logo, as the group sought to redefine a negative stereotype. It is red, black, and green— the symbolic colors of the Black Liberation movement— and the seeds within “continue life,” she adds. “People of African descent have to decide for themselves who they are.” The watermelon motif can be found in most of her solo works.

This show also marks an interesting artistic transition for Frazier from wood to canvas. She notes that she uses the same process to paint these new canvas works as she does with her wood pieces, except for the use of colored inks. She readily admits that drawing has always been her passion, and returning to it via these canvas pieces has presented her with a full-circle moment. “Everything is a circle,” she says.

The solo show will be on display through the end of February in the Bearman Gallery on the third floor of the Douglass-Myers Museum. An artist talk and small works on canvas sale will be scheduled sometime in February 2020.

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