Dec 8, 2023
When it comes to selecting artists for Akron Soul Train’s residency program, Executive Director Pita Brooks said one trait is always top of mind: a willingness to try something different. “We’re always looking for artists who want to use this residency as a way to push the boundaries of what they’re already doing,” she said.
That boundary-pushing is on full display in Akron Soul Train’s winter exhibitions. Currently, the downtown gallery features shows from two of its artists-in-residence: Debra DeGregorio’s “co≈rrelate” and Raja Belle Freeman’s “Consider This Your Trigger Warning.” Although the two Northeast Ohio artists have different styles, both created exhibits that challenge viewers to grapple with themes that are on many peoples’ minds in this post-COVID world.
For “Consider This Your Trigger Warning,” Freeman was inspired by the media’s portrayal of the deaths of Black people.
“A lot of times in poetry settings, before a poet reads, they’ll give a trigger warning. They’ll say, ‘Trigger warning: I’m about to mention suicide. Trigger warning: I’m about to talk about grief.’ But I’ve noticed that a lot of the time, there won’t be a trigger warning when someone’s about to talk about Black death,” she said. “It’s like we’ve become so desensitized to it that we don’t even feel the need to give a warning for it at all.”
A poet by trade, Freeman utilizes red and blue lights to give her words and drawings new meaning. She began experimenting with light when she moved into a new apartment. She realized that if she wrote or drew something in red or blue on white paper, it would disappear under the corresponding colored light. This disappearing act gave her an idea.
Her exhibit “Consider This Your Trigger Warning” combines her poem of the same name with hand-drawn images. As the lights change from red to blue, so too do the images and words on display. “When was the last time you saw a black rose?” becomes “When was the last time you saw a Black boy?” A drawing of a Black boy with angel wings becomes a bird in flight. All the while, a recording of Freeman reading her poem plays.
This is Freeman’s first visual art exhibit, and she said the experience gave her a “deeper understanding” of her poem. “It’s also gotten me to start thinking about my words in a more meaningful way. … How can I get people to understand it from an angle that’s not just what the words on the page say?”
In “co≈rrelate,” DeGregorio sought to broaden her exploration of connection and disconnection. Influenced in large part by her own feelings of isolation post-pandemic, she asked others to share their experiences. The mixed media artist incorporated the anonymous responses she calls “shares” – some typed, some handwritten – into her exhibit. Some responses are tucked into colorful see-through envelopes and strung on red yarn like Tibetan prayer flags. Others are incorporated into collages of varying sizes. Some are displayed just as they came: missives written by hand on paper torn from a notebook.
“I feel connected when I sit in my car and gossip all night with my friend,” one share reads.
“My disability makes me feel outcast from the rest of my peers,” says another.
DeGregorio gathered responses from a variety of people, both online and in person.
“It’s really interesting to me the way the different ages have different things to say and the levels of vulnerability,” she said.
Despite the breadth of respondents, she said many shares reflected similar experiences. In terms of connection, nature, water, childhood and meditation were common themes. For disconnection, people shared their experiences with loneliness, family struggles and feeling isolated because of their race or religion.
For DeGregorio, the experience changed how she views her own isolation. “The way that it’s helped me more or made me feel more connected is understanding that I am not the only one at all, which you know always, but it’s different when you read it 100 times,” she said.
“Consider This Your Trigger Warning” and “co≈rrelate” will be on display until Dec. 16. That same day, Akron Soul Train will announce its 2024 class of artists-in-residence.
Brooks said between 12 and 15 artists will be selected from almost 90 applicants. “I’m really excited because it felt like people really thought about the community engagement piece a lot,” she said.
Community engagement is a large part of the artist residency program. Besides having an exhibition, each artist is required to host a community program. Freeman hosted a creative writing workshop and DeGregorio held an event for a group of senior citizens from Maplewood Senior Living in Cuyahoga Falls, where they discussed connectedness and isolation and their effects on health and well-being.
“I think what is really critical is bringing it to the community and making art accessible to all,” Brooks said, “because I think that art has a way of unifying communities.”
Culture & Arts Reporter (she/her) Brittany is an accomplished journalist who’s passionate about the arts, civic engagement and great storytelling. She has more than a decade of experience covering culture and arts, both in Ohio and nationally. She previously served as the associate editor of Columbus Monthly, where she wrote community-focused stories about Central Ohio’s movers and shakers. A lifelong Ohioan, she grew up in Springfield and graduated Kent State University.