A pair of art majors from Northern Illinois University are featured in the 2017 Black Creativity Juried Art Exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago. The show is the nation’s longest running, and one of the most prestigious art exhibitions devoted to African-American art, and accepts only about 100 pieces each year.
While the two students, Jamiah Calvin and Kianna Davis, share in common great talent and a passion for art, they have traveled very different paths to the NIU School of Art and Design. At age 35, Calvin has been actively studying and producing serious art for only two years, while Davis, 22, has known since her freshman year in high school that she wanted to pursue a career as an artist.
Calvin found his calling when he enrolled in business classes at Kishw- aukee College. He enrolled in an art class to fulfill an elective requirement because he had always enjoyed drawing. The teacher immediately saw promise in his work and he quickly shifted his focus. “From Day 1 of class there has been no looking back,” he says.
After just a few months at NIU, he had work displayed at the Art Box in DeKalb, followed by a pair of Chicago galleries, and now the Museum of Science and Industry. “It’s been kind of a fast track, I’m still trying to process it all,” Calvin says.
The oil painting featured in the show, “Crossing the Rubicon,” combines aspects of both realism and surrealism. The 48” by 60” piece is part of a three-painting series he calls “The Stakes are High.” The series, he says, depicts the injustices prevalent in the African-American community, particularly in Chicago, where he was raised.
“There are a lot of issues affecting today’s youth – gang violence, poverty …I don’t have a solution, but I want to paint things that make people stop and think,” he says.
According to LaTonya Foster of the Museum of Science and Industry, guests are drawn to the piece. “It provides an example of art with many layers in its messages. You can see some of his personal perspective, as well as political elements, giving you a sense of his view and how it strongly reflects the current landscape in the country.”
Davis, a senior at NIU, who grew up in South Holland, Ill., heard about the Museum of Science and industry show from Calvin and submitted two works of her own, one of which was chosen for the exhibition. Like Calvin, her work has previously been featured in a Chicago gallery, but this is her most prestigious show to date.
The piece featured at the museum is titled “Only the Good II.” The name refers to the fact that Davis has a twin sister. It started out as a portrait of her sister, Brianna (who attends Columbia College in Chicago), but somewhere along the way morphed into a piece that is both a self-portrait and an homage to her sister. “She has a lifestyle that is very spiritual and natural and I really admire that, so I kind of put myself in there,” she explains.
Davis said that the acrylic painting, which measures 48”x48”, and took two months to complete, is the largest piece she has created to date. It is also one of her favorites.
The painting has proven popular at the show, says Foster. “People tend to invoke their personal interpretation of this one. Some think it has a spiritual quality, while others note its overall innocence.”
While the two artists have very different backgrounds, both say that they found support and inspiration at NIU. “I’ve had an amazing experience. It’s an excellent program and with great faculty,” says Davis, who graduates in May and hopes to attend graduate school either at Yale or UCLA.
Calvin, a junior honors student with a 3.8 grade point average agrees, saying his time at NIU has enriched his work. “It’s been a great choice for me.” In particular, he credits the faculty with helping him develop a deeper appreciation for classical art through art history classes.
Both Calvin and Davis aspire to become internationally known artists whose works hang in museums around the world. “Artists come and go, but I want my paintings to last a lifetime,” says Calvin.