Dillard High School senior Lewis James had planned to throw out one of his paintings that he simply didn’t like. Instead, it now hangs in Fort Lauderdale’s New River Inn.
Several of James’ pieces are part of the museum’s 60 Years of Black Art exhibit, which runs through March along with work by other Dillard students. The exhibit, which opened Feb 1 is a celebration of Black History Month, with art reflecting a variety of themes from Dillard Advanced Placement students.
“I feel like this exhibit isn’t curated for me, like a single theme,” said Lewis “It’s more like individual pieces on their own.”
When they began showing off their work about seven years ago, the students shared their art outside the museum during a Fort Lauderdale jazz festival. A short time later, the New River Inn gave them the space to exhibit inside.
“They’re introducing their work into the scheme of what’s being presented here at the museum,” said Celestin Joseph, a Dillard instructor and curator for the exhibit. “They’re making their own history just by having their work on exhibit here.”
James, who works with themes like isolation and horror, plans to study photography in college with hopes of becoming a fine artist.
Originally, he was unsure of presenting his art. So he re-edited his pieces until he was satisfied. Although he was very private with his art, he’s seen the community connect to it through the exhibition.
“It still surprises me that I almost never showed anyone these pieces, but so many people tend to like them,” said James, whose piece The Sword of Damocles, is a modern take on the ancient Greek story.
Other former and current Dillard students have been able to use the exhibit as a starting point for their careers.
Senior Jennifer Turner sold her piece, Her, a personification of feminism and equality, along with the rights to the image to Pompano Beach ballet company Brévo Theatre.
“I believe it’s one of my best pieces,” said Turner. “I feel more proud than anything not because they bought my piece, but because they’re utilizing it for a universal purpose that the piece itself represents, which is feminism and equality.”
Being part of the museum has helped Turner think about her work.
“I feel like it really prepared me and it really gave me a sense of purpose,” Turner said. “I really felt connected towards my art being powerful in the sense of representing a meaning for a community and I felt really proud of that.”
Ruth Barotte, a Dillard alumna, was able to work on several community art projects after graduating, from painting traffic signal boxes to working on art for South Florida’s STAR Street Art Regatta.
Her participation in the exhibit helped her get the job of painting traffic signal boxes.
“She was actually one of the first students to do a public art commissioned for the city at the age of 18, the youngest person ever commissioned to do anything like that,” Joseph said. “It’s one of the things I tell them all the time: you never know when an opportunity will arise.”
The exhibit presented Barotte with many other opportunities to share her art.
“That got me used to actually showing and exposing my work more,” said Barotte. “It got me more comfortable with that because for a while I was really shy and kind of reserved to show my artwork.”
For Barotte, Black art is especially important because it communicates the range of experiences of her community.
“I think these are all things that need to be highlighted, especially being from all aspects of life,” Barotte said. “I think it’s all about owning the narrative.”
Joseph hopes the exhibit will continue to be a way for Dillard students to step into the broader stream of learning how to be artists and share their work.
“My end goal is really to have them be as prepared as possible,” said Joseph. “They can really enjoy their careers and really give back to their communities wherever they might end up.”
The exhibit runs through March at the Fort Lauderdale New River Inn at 231 SW 2nd Ave, Fort Lauderdale.
The inn, at 231 SW 2nd Ave, Fort Lauderdale, is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission to the exhibit is $15 for adults, $12 for seniors, and $7 for students up to 22 with a valid I.D. Admission is free for children under six, as well as members of the military or History Fort Lauderdale.