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Suffolk Art Gallery features Black artists of Hampton Roads

The oil painting "Bonita" by local artist Ray Johnson is one of the pieces included in Suffolk's “Color, Form, and Soul" exhibit. (Photo courtesy of the City of Suffolk)
The oil painting "Bonita" by local artist Ray Johnson is one of the pieces included in Suffolk's “Color, Form, and Soul" exhibit. (Photo courtesy of the City of Suffolk)


Clayton Singleton’s artwork tackles heavy subjects through raw storytelling. Ray Johnson’s figures of perseverance come to life against bold backgrounds. Tim Giles enchants with texture in his watercolors, which attract a second look and longer gaze. Nationally acclaimed Ken Wright creates with a depth and whimsy in his abstracts that capture movement visually. 

Suffolk Art Gallery’s spring exhibit, “Color, Form, and Soul,” celebrates themes of identity, race, culture and community featuring a dynamic group of Black artists with ties to Hampton Roads. The free exhibit, a joint effort between Suffolk Art League and the city’s Parks & Recreation Department, is on display through June 7.

 “There is a really strong group of African American male artists in this region,” said Linda Bunch, executive director of Suffolk Art League. “The quality of the work and the energy – it blows you away.”

 Suffolk native Giles discovered a new technique recently to enhance texture. It’s visible in “Silent Voyage,” a watercolor that illustrates a young woman aboard a ship, buried in her imagination envisioning what’s ahead. 

It’s tempting to touch the oversized golden earring brushing her left shoulder.  

“This was my first time playing with gold ore,” said Giles, who jokes that he paints, “whatever comes to mind depending on how much Scotch I drink.”

Contrast Giles’ realistic narratives with the abstracts of Wright, who creates a magical connection with the eye by blending grays, whites and darker colors with touches of graphite and hints of violet.

Relying on only a few colors and creative use of white space, an homage to his years as a graphic artist at The Virginian-Pilot, Wright touts patience as integral to his recognizable style. 

His process involves layering and waiting; portions of paint must dry or nearly dry before he continues. Flicking water onto the canvas with a wet brush at just the right moment produces a visual pop.

 “You’ve got to do things at the right time,” Wright said. “If you wait too long, it’s not going to work. If you do it too early, it’s not going to work.”

 Singleton’s mastery of blending vibrant color with authenticity in his subjects provokes discussion.

“What Is It About Me You Can’t Teach?” asks the teen in a ball cap wearing a white tank top revealing a sleeve of tattoos and jeans barely held up with a Gucci belt in one of Singleton’s acrylics.

Named Norfolk Public Schools’ Teacher of the Year in 2023, the Lake Taylor visual art instructor embraces students from lower income backgrounds, eager to nurture minds that, too often, he said, are dismissed.

“What’s going on with you that you can’t see this kid as a kid?” Singleton said. “You can’t see this Black boy as a student who wants to learn. You see this Black boy as a Black boy.”

While Singleton depicts resilience with realism, Johnson paints nameless, random figures distinguished by their vivid facial features that represent Black beauty and strength that come through struggle. 

The oil on canvas “Big Boy Pants'' shows a lean child standing proud wearing his father’s oversized trousers. It’s among several in the exhibit that highlight the positive relationship when a male figure engages with a young boy.

Dathan Kane contributed one piece to the exhibition, its pattern familiar to those who frequent downtown Hampton and Richmond, where his murals demand attention. 

Kane works purely in black and white shapes, preferring the absence of color in favor of duality to promote a sense of balance.

The Suffolk Art Gallery is at 118 Bosley Ave. and is open Tuesdays-Saturdays from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. and Sundays, 1-5 p.m.

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