Alexis Joyner is holding court inside the new Elizabeth City State University art gallery at the K.E. White Center. It’s an appropriate space since he’ll be showing a retrospective of his work inside the space.
Joyner is proud of the gallery. He helped design the space and he says it’s a laboratory, offering students the chance to experience art and understand art.
But those days are numbered, he fears. The university’s studio arts program has been cut and Joyner isn’t clear about the future of art at the historically black university.
Raised in South Hampton County, Va., Joyner has been a public school art teachers, as well as the chairman of the fine arts department at ECSU. His work is influence by a number of sources, not the least of which are artists from West Africa.
The subject matter of some of his work has also been influenced by the role models that helped shape his upbringing — the women of his neighborhood.
Joyner is fond of talking about the old days when the neighborhood helped rear you and you understood that you must respect your elders. The lady next door, if you were to get out of line, she might offer you a swat on the back of the head. And you knew you had just been schooled.
“I’m reminding people, especially African American males, that there was a time when there was a little old lady with a broom that could keep you in check,” Joyner said in a 2011 interview about his latest body of work.
Many of his pieces carved in wood and some in clay are figurative memorials to these women. Much of his work, in fact, is a salute to the world that has helped shape the artist that is Alexis Joyner.
The Daily Advance: Why did you choose to be an artist?
Alexis Joyner: I didn’t choose it. It chose me.
As soon as I found out that I could activate space with a mark, I was hooked. … I was five years old. … I was off and running
TDA: What does art mean to you?
AJ: First of all it’s a means of communication. It’s a way of communicating things I see. It’s a way of making social commentary. It’s a way of staying in touch with my sanity.
A lot of things you have no control over but I can communicate it through the arts. It’s a way to teach young people value.
TDA: Describe your art. What style do you work in?
AJ: For the lack of definition, I would say it is what comes natural to me. I have canes I did (carved) when I was 12 and the faces are still the same.
I try to communicate. I’m simplifying form and having fun working with figurative kinds of things. Just enjoying the discovery. I just enjoy the challenge and exploration of art.
TDA: What have been your artistic influences over the years?
AJ: I guess my first influence is nature because I get off on the way the creator handles roots, vegetation, plants. … I respond to that.
As far as other artists, there are several sculptors I have enjoyed over the years. Elizabeth Collette is just one. And then there are ethnic groups from Africa.
TDA: What do you want people to take away from your art?
AJ: I hope they can identify with what I’m doing because a lot of what I’m doing comes from memories and situations growing up.
It’s a human experience. I want them to relate to what I do on a human level.
TDA: Why is art important to society?
AJ: I think art is one of those things that keeps us civilized. It’s so important that people don’t realize how they are being affected by it.
I can’t imagine life without it. It would be a pretty bleak place without art. It’s about design. … Everything is about arranging and designing.
TDA: Why is art education important?
AJ: Art education, it touches something – especially children – that no other discipline can touch. We’re talking about critical thinking and problem solving.
It’s a thing where children are not pressured and not intimidated by it.
TDA: If you were able to tailor art education for all students, regardless of their declared major, what would be the minimum you would want them to come away with?
AJ: I really had hoped we could move in that direction. All students, regardless of their discipline, should be involved in art. … We all have innate design sensibilities. If you develop that right brain, it’s important.
TDA: Studio art has been taken away from the list of offerings at ECSU. Why do you think that, despite the evidence that studio art has been a viable program, it was shut down?
AJ: I think it goes back to the old way of thinking. People who are calling the shots don’t value art. They don’t understand the impact it has on the life of people. The people who are calling the shots are scientists and I don’t know how you can be a good scientist without being an artist.
TDA: What do you think will be the long-term effects on the university?
AJ: The end of studio art spells the end of us producing art teachers, which is sad because we have art teachers in practically every county in the region.