Triple Feature: Review in Upstate Today including “Blues Chapel” by Vista Studio Susan Lenz

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By Matt Wake
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PICKENS — Blues singers, dusky oils and Reedy River clay vie for attention in “Three South Carolina Women Artists.” The Pickens County Museum of Art & History exhibition is actually a trio of solo shows, featuring the work of Victoria Blaker, Glenda Guion and Susan Lenz.

“If we tried to intermingle them, I think it would have watered it down,” said Pickens County Museum Executive Director Allen Coleman.

“Natural Impressions” showcases Blaker’s oil paintings and quill and ink drawing. Her work provides an alternative view of familiar reality, according to Coleman.

“With Victoria Blaker and her work, she tries to represent places in life that aren’t always something you look at right away,” Coleman said. “She’s relatively new to me. I first saw her work last year. Victoria is very energetic in the way she works with the medium of oil painting. She’s developed that into her own language.”

Blaker was active in the arts community for years — even prolific, exhibiting in Washington, D.C. and Virginia. Then she took a break from promoting her work to raise a daughter. Even during this self-imposed sabbatical, Blaker continued to create.

With her daughter now enrolled in college, Blaker is returning her art to the public eye.

“Now we’re trying to tell everyone, ‘Look, she’s back,’” Coleman said.

“Natural Impressions” includes 39 works. A Greenville resident since 1991, Blaker extends her creative zeal to others — as adjunct faculty and through adult education programs at Furman University.

In her own work, Blaker hopes to mimic flicker and capture movement.

“My goal is for every piece to pulsate with an artistic expression that is unique to my own intellect and perception,” Blaker said. “Energetic pen or brush strokes and movement of light direction often accompanied by thick paint are employed to help give each work a surface vitality that can further enhance the visual experience.”

Guion’s “Twenty Years of Ceramic Sculpture” also transmits commotion, albeit in a more abstract manner. Stylized silhouettes — which the artist calls “shadows” — are a recurring theme in her Pickens County Museum material.

Living in Easley, Guion finds equal inspiration from psychoanalyst Carl Jung and the enigma of human spirit.

“It is the contrast between the organic, the synthetic and the psychological that interests me,” Guion said. “I hope to communicate in my work that which surrounds me both physically and mystically — from earth, gardens, and man-made forms to archetypal symbols and theories.”

Pickens County Museum Curator Helen Hockwalt helped Guion compile “Twenty Years.” As its title suggests, the show presents an overview of artistic growth over two decades. Guion’s last solo show at the Pickens County Museum was in 1988. In arranging the new 34-piece exhibit, Hockwalt wanted to connect past and present.

“A piece that actually hung here in 1988 is on the right flank of the room, and on the other side is one of her latest works,” Hockwalt said. “I find her work interesting in her repeated use of silhouette figures. As a viewer looks at them, they could become any number of people or things. She doesn’t answer all the questions.”

All of the “Twenty Years” pieces are wall hangings. “Seven Generations” is comprised of seven smaller works, while clay excavated from Greenville’s Reedy River was used to create “River/Shadows.”

An instructor at the Fine Arts Center in Greenville, Guion has been a chairperson for Greenville Open Studios — an annual tour of artist workspaces — since 2004. Her artwork can be seen in various public collections, including those at Clemson University, Columbia College and the Sumter County Museum of Art.

If the Blaker and Guion collections are Friday and Saturday respectively, the Lenz show is Sunday.

In her ambitious mixed media installation, “The Blues Chapel,” Lenz pays homage to great female blues singers from the ’20s and ’30s. In those days, the blues was a gritty vocation. Trouble in mind, whiskey in hand and hell hounds on your trail. Being female didn’t help matters, Lenz said.

“Early female blues singers lived in a male dominated society, in a segregated country, and worked in an industry that took advantage of their lack of education and opportunity. Physical abuse, drug and alcohol dependence, and poverty plagued most,” Lenz said. “They struggled, made sacrifices, and sang of their woes. They were exploited, mistreated or simply neglected — but their music is still played. “

Lenz believes yesterday blues queens, like Bessie Smith, opened doors for modern video vixens. Based in Columbia, Lenz developed her own acumen under renowned British fiber artists Valerie Campbell-Harding, Jean Littlejohn and Jan Beaney.

The “Chapel” installation’s centerpiece, “Tapestry in Blue,” is a traditional block pattern quilt adorned with images of 24 blues legends. Flashy doodads echo the gaudy stage clothes worn by race-record stars.

Church pews and a floral altar continue the Sunday vibe, a curious atmosphere for gals devoted to fast times.

Coleman marveled at the transformation of the museum space.

“It’s an amazing feeling walking inside. Susan has really turned the gallery into a chapel,” he said.

A 78-song mix CD of the singers depicted spins non-stop inside the shrine. If you listen hard enough, you can hear a few ghosts humming along in the key of E.

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