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Whittle Works

The Library of Virginia offers a fascinating portrait of an African-American artist working against the odds in segregated Richmond.

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In an exhibition that is certain to change that, the Library of Virginia hosts 31 of Bolling's busts and small figure carvings created circa the 1930s. The formal interest in the woodcarvings aside, the portrait of an African-American artist slyly defying conventions at the height of segregated Richmond is the most fascinating aspect of the exhibition.

In many ways, Bolling's work is exactly what you'd expect from an untaught artist employed as a porter in the Depression-era South. His tools of choice were pocket knives, which he would use to methodically whittle away blocks of poplar.

A 1933 piece called "Worker's Hand" — a craggy depiction of a palm-down appendage — demonstrates the degree of gestural fluidity that Bolling was able to achieve when rendering one of his favorite subjects: the common African-American laborer. The folksy nature of his figures were anything but naive, however, and were informed by modernism as equally as they were by the streets of Jackson Ward. Amid the dignified carvings of janitors, cobblers and maids, Bolling created works such as "Beautiful Womanhood." As the exhibition points out, the 1933 depiction of a voluptuous woman in an exaggerated classical contrapposto stance indicates that Bolling was quite familiar with the work of modernist French sculptor Gaston Lachaise.

Though largely ignored, or viewed with disdain by Richmond's white community, Bolling was able to win over a few allies. One of them was Hunter S. Stagg, co-founder of the groundbreaking literary magazine "The Reviewer," who brought Bolling's work to the attention of New York writer and collector Carl Van Vechten. The exhibition makes note of a comical correspondence between Van Vechten and Bolling, in which Bolling admitted finding difficulty in setting prices for his work (his work typically fetched between $25 and $50). Despite his lack of financial success, Bolling achieved the distinction of being the first African-American to have a one-man show in Virginia. About 2,500 people attended the 1935 exhibition at the Richmond Academy, including the highly impressed American muralist Thomas Hart Benton.

For the most part, the exhibition does well in emphasizing Bolling's ability to take on a range of differing subject matter with equal zeal. Statuettes of wash women contain the same dignified air as models of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. (This equalizing treatment was perhaps Bolling's way of dealing with segregation.) In the 1930s the Harmon foundation, an organization supportive of African-American artists, filmed Bolling at work at his "rooms" on North Fifth Street. The black-and-white, soundless reel is part of the exhibition, along with some rare footage of Broad Street and Jackson Ward that Richmond history buffs are sure to find captivating.

Amid this backdrop of segregation, Bolling's work demonstrates that he was able to exist in two worlds that were seemingly at odds with each other. If the best artists reflect the promise and contradictions of their times, Leslie Garland Bolling was no doubt a genius. S



"Freeing Art from Wood: The Sculpture of Leslie Garland Bolling" is showing at the Library of Virginia, 800 E. Broad St., through Oct. 21. Visit www.lva.lib.va.us for more info.



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