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HIGH PROFILE: Claudette Sharon Killian opens opportunity for artists

Sharon Killian struggled to find her place in art. Her nonprofit, Art Ventures, offers a space for other marginalized people. by Lara Jo Hightower | January 30, 2022 at 2:04 a.m.
“We are honored to represent many accomplished artists, and we are trying to make sure that the artists are from various cultures, and it’s not as though we only go looking for them once a year,” she says pointedly. “We want to show you all year; you’re part of the whole fabric. That’s part of the way we work — that’s a little different than what’s generally found.” -Sharon Killian (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

Since moving to Northwest Arkansas in 2005, artist Sharon Killian's contributions to the community have stretched far and wide.

As president of Art Ventures, she has helped shepherd the organization through a global pandemic. As the board president and co-founder of the Northwest Arkansas African American Heritage Association, she is part of a community that is "dedicated to preserving and documenting the heritage of African Americans in Northwest Arkansas."

According to Jeannie Hulen, associate dean of fine arts in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, interim director of the School of Art, and associate professor of ceramics at the University of Arkansas, Killian has served as a mentor and advocate for countless UA art students.

"She was an art educator for many years in Washington, D.C., before she came to Arkansas and was a practicing studio artist for her entire career," Hulen says. "This was something we wanted in the classroom for our art educators. After teaching for us for a few years, she then began to advocate for our students and alumni in the community art scene.

"She has done so much to help these young, emerging artists begin their professional careers through exhibitions, studio support, and really just being an amazing role model that says and does what she says she will and encourages others to just make it happen."

All of these achievements and contributions were cited when Artists 360, a program of the Mid-America Arts Alliance, named Killian as its inaugural recipient of a $25,000 Creative Impact Award in 2021.

"The vitality of the arts in Northwest Arkansas is undoubtedly enriched through the influence of Sharon Killian," Todd Stein, president and chief executive officer of the Mid-America Arts Alliance, says. "Through her work and dedication to the arts community in the region, Killian was an excellent choice for the inaugural Artists 360 Creative Impact award."

The award was adjudicated by a panel "composed of Northwest Arkansas arts and cultural leaders," according to the Artists 360 website. To be singled out by a committee of your peers is no small honor. Killian admits it took her by surprise.

"I had no idea that people were looking at me that way," she says. "I stay focused, I try to achieve a goal, I try to listen and try to be honest when people have questions. I had no idea that I was being seen. It doesn't always feel great to have to do some of the things that you have to do to make sure that things happen. Or to wonder, 'Should it be that hard?' It's not been an easy road, and sometimes people don't understand when you say that; they don't understand that this is not the same for everybody. And, so, I was so surprised and pleased."

JAMAICA MON

For Killian, the need for an art-filled life came early. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, she was the third of six children and would sometimes spend time with her paternal grandparents who lived in St. Catherine Parish, Jamaica.

"And that is where my looking at the sky, a lot, really started," she says. "Getting up early to do chores and having the sky to myself. So one of the first series of works that I did in the medium that I use, still, really, primarily for showing, for sharing with the world -- dry pastel and watercolor paper -- that first connecting series that really resonated with me was 'Jamaica Blue.' And so that's where that looking up and feeling that everything was an abstraction for me started. I was under 9 years old, then."

Around three years later, the family moved to Harlem in New York, a transition made easier because Killian's mother was Cuban.

"It was so significant," says Killian of the memory. "It was Feb. 16, 1968. It was the coldest day of the year, in many years, in New York City, when we landed at Kennedy Airport. My father, Wesley, and his brother Anthony greeted us at the airport, all six kids and mom. Flying in: You know that adage, 'the streets are paved with gold'? The lights were reflecting off the snow in the streets, and the amazing lights on all of those buildings -- the New York City skyline was just amazing. And it was like a dream. It was kind of like a fantasy, a movie, [embodying] all these things that you had heard before."

The excitement of the city was palpable, and she was overjoyed to be reunited with her parents; they had gone to the United States ahead of the children to ready a life for them there. But some of the new circumstances she was adjusting to were difficult and sad.

'IT WAS VERY VIVID'

"In the early '70s, the opioid crisis was a thing, but it wasn't seen in the same light as it is today, because you would mostly see Black people, and they're usually blamed for the problem, as opposed to 'We need to help our people,' like it is now that it's epidemic in white communities," she notes. "It was very vivid. It affected everyone, even me, and other people like me in that community. We weren't doing drugs, but it was all around us, and you could see it, and sometimes we had to walk in the street because addicted people were on the sidewalks. Harlem was overpopulated -- when we don't have access to housing, we end up in overcrowded places. And then you get visitors with drugs, you get people coming and forming exterior communities, too, that affected us."

Killian loved school, loved learning, but with two parents working long hours, there was a lot of support required of her at home. She wanted to study art but rarely got the opportunity until attending Brandeis High School, where teachers started encouraging her. High school was in closer proximity to galleries and museums, and Killian started venturing out beyond her usual path from home to school and back home again.

"My parents weren't going to be home by a certain time, and I had it orchestrated," she says with a laugh. "Would they know exactly what time I would be home? I loved it. I started to draw, draw, draw, and a teacher said to me, 'There is a class at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that I think you would be perfect for.' It was all ages, a life painting class. We had nude models, a range of ages in the sessions. That was like, 'Ahhhh. Sweet.' That was on Saturdays, and I had to deal with my own personal, cultural things first. I had to earn going to my art class."

A DRIVING FORCE

She knew art was a driving force in her life but, like many creatives, Killian didn't think of it as a career possibility. Her success in school landed her a scholarship to the University of Rochester on the pre-med track.

College was a double-edged sword: For the first time in her life, she had the freedom to pursue her studies and her art without family responsibilities competing for her time. But the excitement of this sudden freedom was tempered by the message she received all too often from her white peers.

"This was the time when Black people were all of a sudden being invited to come to school, to come to predominantly white institutions -- 1973, 1974," she says. "It seemed there were no more than 20 of us in the whole institution. We were dealing with people saying stuff like, the only reason we're in school is because we got preferential treatment. I dealt with all of that, and it hasn't really stopped. My daughter attended Princeton by earning that opportunity. And she experienced that, too, through high school more than college, I think. 'You're getting preferential treatment, just because you're Black.' I mean, hell, I wish."

It didn't take Killian long to figure out that pre-med was not her destiny. She confronted her true passion by earning separate degrees in art history and in painting.

Her plan was to become a working artist, perhaps one who supported herself by teaching, but marriage her senior year of college took her temporarily off course. The marriage would not last, but when the dust settled, she had two beloved children. Supporting them as a single mother took her focus, and having time to foster creativity became more difficult.

"But I painted every day in my head," she says. "I've never, not thought about composition. The same thing, even when I was a child, and I didn't even know I was creating these things. But there are periods there where I was painting and selling and exhibiting and creating."

In 1991, her urge to create got a big boost when she was asked to take a position as an art teacher at a private school; that familiar passion was part of her workday once again. The school where she worked had an ample budget for art instruction and, in what had become a hallmark of hers by then, Killian wasted no time in leveraging her position in a way that benefited public school students with no such access to supplies. She took those resources into the schools and mentored and collaborated with public school students.

By this time, she had met Charles Killian, a man she describes as "the love of my life," and the two married in 1993. Charles, a native of Fayetteville, was called home by aging parents who needed help with the family farm; Killian had been visiting Fayetteville since she met Charles and was familiar with -- and beguiled by -- the Northwest Arkansas area.

NORTHWEST ARKANSAS

The two moved in 2005, and, in the ensuing 15-plus years, Killian has become ingrained in the cultural landscape of Northwest Arkansas. In 2007, Killian co-founded the Northwest Arkansas African American Heritage Association with Melba Smith, a close friend of Killian's who had traveled the world as a staff member for the United Methodist Women for the United Nations.

The Black heritage organization was born out of Killian's and Smith's desire to preserve and promote the oral histories of Black communities in Northwest Arkansas that they and others had been researching for generations. Killian says that gentrification of traditionally Black neighborhoods in Fayetteville threatens to eradicate the history and contributions of the men and women who lived there before and after the Civil War, and beyond.

"When we were enslaved in this country -- everywhere else too, we were 100% human beings -- it's not that great to think about that, but that's what happened to Black people, that's what slavery did," she says. "It's horrible. But that does not mean I have to be disappeared. We want to bring forth the heritage and the history and the intensely important event of survival of all of these atrocities allows me, that allows Melba, all of us, to still be here. ...We want to make sure Black children understand that they have a strong heritage and that they have a sense of pride, and power."

Killian's creative process was in a high gear when the Fayetteville Underground contacted her around 2009 to exhibit some of her work, and, later, to join the Board -- just as the organization was breaking up. In 2014, almost all the original members walked away, leaving Killian and those who wanted to hold on to a faltering organization with little to no funding. Killian and Ralph Nesson contributed their own money to the revitalization effort, and Fayetteville Underground was reborn as Art Ventures, a 501(c)3 nonprofit.

COMMUNITY AND DIVERSITY

"We changed everything," she explains. "And it was really good, in the end, to be able to live up to the parameters of our 501(c)3 nonprofit where artists and community and diversity are centered."

"She's been excellent for Art Ventures -- she's such a good representative out in the community," says close friend Cece Box. "She's put in the time and the energy and built a network. I can't imagine there's anybody who knows her who forgets who she is, or doesn't come away from an encounter with her saying, 'I've met somebody special, and they're doing something special.' She has a way of making you want to get on that train."

"Sharon is just one of my favorite people," Box says, "and I treasure her friendship because she brings so much to the table. She brings so much passion. But it's a very focused passion. Some people talk the talk, but Sharon definitely walks the walk on the things that she feels deeply about. It's wonderful having a friend like that, that you know is always going to bring a fresh view, and help her friends to see the world with a fresh view."

When covid-19 was shutting the doors of many arts organizations, Art Ventures had a leg up; their gallery space was sold to a church at the end of 2019 and the organization had already learned how to launch its members' artwork into cyberspace, an effort supported by CACHE (Creative Arkansas Community Hub & Exchange).

Ultimately, they would mount nearly a dozen exhibitions in 2020, some in person but many virtually. When a supporter donated a space for their use in fall of 2020, they moved into a historic home in Fayetteville at 20 S. Hill Ave. and hired a new executive director with an impressive nonprofit background, Lakeisha Edwards, to helm the ship.

Killian has worked hard on the goal of widening Art Ventures' impact on the community: Art Ventures now hosts four college students a year in its internship program, an intense, supportive experience that gives ambitious art students the opportunity to delve into the practice of curating exhibitions and managing a gallery space.

OPENING UP OPPORTUNITY

Accessibility, as always, is important to Killian, and she has made a point of opening up this opportunity to both UA students and those studying at Northwest Arkansas Community College.

For younger students, Killian has helped establish the Art Ventures K-12 Gallery Initiative, which includes gallery tours, classes and workshops; opportunities for students to collaborate with peers who live in different parts of Northwest Arkansas; and gallery exhibitions, where kids exhibit their own art, pen artists' statements and address gallery visitors about their art and the meaning behind it.

And, above all, Killian continues her admirable goal of creating a space that also embraces and promotes the voices of marginalized groups, because she hasn't forgotten the difficulty she experienced in finding a place for her art.

"We are honored to represent many accomplished artists, and we are trying to make sure that the artists are from various cultures, and it's not as though we only go looking for them once a year," she says pointedly. "We want to show you all year; you're part of the whole fabric. That's part of the way we work -- that's a little different than what's generally found."

In this, Art Ventures has been successful so far.

"Crystal Bridges appreciates our being here, because they are able to find artists through us," she notes. "And artists continue to come to us knowing we are a small but sensitive machine."

"I can see a difference, that change is happening in Northwest Arkansas and, hopefully, it will be longstanding," she said in the Mid-American Arts Alliance award news release. "I found my home. I feel like I'm part of the fabric of this place. I just keep trying to do what I believe will make a huge difference in our community."

SELF PORTRAIT

Sharon Killian

• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: April 12, 1955, Kingston, Jamaica

• ONE THING THAT WOULD GET US CLOSER TO A PERFECT WORLD IS: We need more benevolence.

• I LEARNED FROM MY BIGGEST FAILURE THAT FAILURE IS: A lesson in finding a better path.

• THE GREATEST OBSTACLE I'M FACING RIGHT NOW IS: Will I live long enough to see white supremacy dismantled?

• THE HAPPIEST PERIOD OF MY LIFE IS: Now!

• THE BEST MEMORY FROM MY CHILDHOOD IS: My mom returning from New York City after three years in the United States as an immigrant.

• THE ART THAT HAD THE BIGGEST IMPACT ON ME WAS: The Gee's Bend Quilts.

• THREE WORDS THAT OTHERS MIGHT USE TO DESCRIBE ME ARE: Honest, persistent, accessible


  photo  Sharon Killian chats Jan. 19 with Lakeisha Edwards, executive director of Art Ventures, at the organization’s office in Fayetteville. “We want to make sure Black children understand that they have a strong heritage and that they have a sense of pride, and power,” Killian says. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)
 
 


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