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Art 180 kids use their imagination and photographs to express themselves at Lewis Ginter.

Finding a Voice

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In the Robins Visitors Center gallery at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, where floral watercolors and prints are often on display, a different sort of bloom can be found this holiday season. Art 180, a group of young artists from Richmond's inner-city neighborhoods, is exhibiting mixed-media work made from photographs they have taken of their environment.

Some of the art is straightforward photography of family and friends posing in settings where nature is present to some degree, as in Jessica Henderson's lovely "Song of the Sun," where the sun is seen remotely through the window.

Other times, their art is montaged with other photographs, or made sculptural by being constructed and staged inside an open box in the tradition of artists like Joseph Cornell. Whatever form it takes, every work offers the appeal and courage of a young person finding his or her voice through art. Much of the art in this presentation is actually quite successful, being dynamic, inventive and expressive. And it gives everyone who makes and sees it an opportunity to consider how crucial natural beauty is to a living environment, whether it offers plenty from which to draw inspiration, or is essentially absent and must be imagined.

The Art 180 members in this show range in age from 11 to 16, and include Bruce Agee, Jasmine Baker, Damanda Cox, Breeze Murray, Curtis Murray, Jessica Henderson, Michelle Darden, Mark Paige, Jacolby Moore and Frannie Smith. Generally, each of the artists has provided two works to represent his or her viewpoint.

Michelle Darden exhibits two photographs of the same scene: A child dressed in a leopard Halloween costume stands grinning and striking a dangerous leopard-about-to-lunge pose for the camera. In the first presentation it is a cute black-and-white photo. But in the second shadowbox version, the bedroom background is transformed into a jungle of brightly painted trees which repeat in their branches the exaggerated "witchfingers" shape of the little girl's hands. Darden naturally understands how to turn the make-believe act of her subject into the life force of the whole picture. She paints in a green snake that slithers up from the bottom of the box to watch the little leopard girl, as if to learn a thing or two about being frightening. Like Maurice Sendak, wisest of all modern storytellers, Darden shows us how to get the best of our monsters by being their model.

Frannie Smith's double-exposure photograph of a worried little dog's face floating before a view of an apartment compound is poignant and stirring. The superimposed dog, which I think can also be seen in the full view behind a chain link fence, looks straight at the viewer with an unforgettable expression of dismay in its eyes. Behind the dog in the background of Smith's photograph is a harsh, sterile landscape of impersonal cube-shaped apartment buildings, barren ground and bulging supercans. In her next piece, Smith constructs a theoretical city in quarters, creating something of a pinwheel format in which she collages a sparkling city skyline at dusk diagonally across from a scene of modest but sunlit and flamboyantly painted row houses, each adorned with window boxes brimming with flowers. In this work the artist imagines reasonable conditions for her ideal landscape that include an extra bit of individualism, nature and nurture.

Curtis Murray creates a remarkable, slightly abstracted shadowbox scene, reminiscent of German Expressionist-style painting, that can be interpreted in at least two ways. Looked at one way it suggests a dark hillside with a tunnel entrance, but by shifting perspective it also becomes a reclining head with a glowing eye or ear. Whatever has been painted — hillside or head — slightly above it, as though in a dream or a mirage, a silhouetted figure, like a visitor from another world, stands basking in a Paradise of bright light and pure blue sky. Around the margins of the box, Murray has glued black-and-white photographs. Some are cropped views of people interspersed with a repeating image of an open kitchen drain. The work seems intentionally laden with departures and arrivals that present conflicting prospects.

Kris Iden, Marlene Paul, Anne Chamblin and Gordon Stettinius, the facilitators and instructors for this project, have done a terrific job helping these young artists put together their potent show. These artistst could grow and flourish and introduce more varieties to the Garden.



The ART 180 exhibit of photography and mixed media at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, 1800 Lakeside Ave., runs through Jan. 7. 262-9887

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