By Hannah Bridges
Salem Museum is surrounded by graves rolling over hills, but the inside walls crawl with color and life. Corks popped from wine bottles amidst the chatter at the Aug. 29th art show that kicked off the month-long “Against the Grains” exhibit.
“Against the Grains” is the product of eight self-proclaimed “rag tag Virginia artists” whose wildly different styles often fall outside of the region’s artistic norm. The collective was formed around a year and a half ago, and the Salem Museum exhibit is their third art show.
“We had to go against the grains to work together… we’re on the outside looking in,” said artist Jim Burtch, who works with primarily acrylic and ink. Among other things, his pieces are inspired by Latin American and Egyptian primitive art and his children, and are created “off the top of (his) head” with vibrant color and no books or guides.
The group started with Burtch who, after years of focusing on music, rekindled his love for visual art while his late mother, an acclaimed artist, had been recovering from illness. However, showing his work had not been the goal.
“I would have never presented it had I not met Frank Toler and Melissa Jannelle,” he said.
Around the time of the collective’s inception, Burtch walked into Toler’s house. He complimented some artwork, and Toler responded with, “Well, that’s mine.” When considering the pieces that childhood friend Jannelle put on Facebook but not in public, Burtch had an idea.
“I thought, if I could get the two of these people together, maybe, you know, myself as an untrained artist… If these two would be willing to do this, then something could happen,” he said.
Multimedia artist Michele Deemer explained that the collective was formed slowly, with one artist joining after the other. She emphasized the group’s mission to bring outsider art to the public. Her oil pastel and acrylic works thrum with her “color junkie” values, bringing tropical hues of her hometown Miami into the mountains of Virginia.
By contrast, Kent Moore created a display of black and white photographs, some of which feature industrial and metallic objects, including twists in a roller coaster and pulleys of an abandoned ski lift. His display is situated near that of Ana Maria Morales, whose pieces fluctuate between abstract and representational art. She is inspired by her ongoing struggle with type 1 diabetes, with many colorful pieces in the exhibit featuring various parts of the body.
“Many of the (Against the Grains) members are not traditionally trained artists and simply make art because of their love for it,” said Morales.
For her, the most enjoyable part of the project has been experiencing new people and their work.
Cory Greer’s skateboard art, colorful and bold with a cartoonish quality, looks out on several spherical, planet-like structures by Wayne Llywelyn, which are around the corner from Melissa Jannelle’s flowing, visual surrealist pieces. Finally, a small hallway extending from the open room is lined with the large paintings from multimedia artist Frank Toler, who uses “a lot of back standing and over painting to achieve a surprising color mix” in his paintings of things he sees.
In regards to the recognition the group has received, Burtch said, “It’s kind of a strength in numbers. If you can get enough people together and we’re doing something that I guess is along the same wavelength in different ways, then quite possibly luck like this will shine down on us. But, like I said, it’s luck.”
Burtch also elaborated on how this art show is out of the norm for Salem Museum.
“They [The Salem Museum] usually deal with Salem’s history or, if there’s artists, they’re strictly from Salem,” he said. “They were really taking a chance.”
Interestingly, many of the members strive to convey different messages through the show. Morales wants to encourage others to make art. Llywelyn, whose mixed media sculptures are created from recycled or repurposed materials, hopes to inspire viewers to care for the planet. Deemer’s message is simple: “Love. Love one another and have kindness and patience. I think that’s what the world really needs right now.”
“Against the Grains” is both a collective and a challenge. It has caused a museum to take a chance, artists to share their work for the first time and questioned the trends and meaning of Virginia art itself.