By Ameera Steward
Myrna Gates is a long-time Magic City Art Connection (MCAC) supporter: she’s attended for more than a decade, first as a visitor then a volunteer. This year was her first time as an artist at the event.
“I [used] to walk around and talk to these artists, and I would always want to be there, but [some years] I didn’t have enough money for the application fee. Something … [would always] keep me from doing it.”
A couple of years ago she wanted to present her artwork so badly at the MCAC that she chose to volunteer because she had missed the deadline [to enter the festival].
“I just wanted to be a part,” Gates said. “The whole time I was [volunteering], I was … trying to keep myself from crying because I knew I wasn’t supposed to be out there volunteering. I was supposed to be out there as an artist, not just a volunteer.”
Gates, 53, from Birmingham’s Wenonah community, was at the MCAC last weekend, but not as a visitor or volunteer—she was among the 200-plus juried artists from Alabama and across the U.S. who gathered in Linn Park to display a broad range of art mediums and styles.
Gates said the festival was “awesome from the very first day …I sold several paintings, I got so many commissions, so many people who wanted me to do paintings for their offices, or their living rooms… It was 100 times more than what I expected and that’s all the way around…from the people to the artists that you meet…that was beautiful…meeting other artists from different states and they tell you how they travel, how they just go from show to show.”
On Friday, she won an Award of Distinction. “I knew they’d give awards away but I never thought I would win, it wasn’t even in my mind the whole time…so when that gentleman called my name, I literally took off running…I was yelling and screaming and that reaction also made people like me, they just thought that was so cool…people were just coming up to me the next day and…saying ‘you were so happy.’”
Because it was her first year as a participant, she looked forward to presenting her “Blue Bayou” collection.
“My first set of ‘Blue Bayou’ paintings, a collection of all-blue, more of an ocean scene with waves, [was inspired by a fear] I always had about painting with the color blue. I don’t know why I was always scared of it, so I named the collection ‘Blue Bayou,’ meaning sad, but they turn out so beautiful. It’s my favorite go-to color,” Gates said of the blue-themed paintings she began working on in March.
“I stretch my own canvas, so I buy wood and all the materials and begin the process of what size and how many,” she said.
Gates paints in layers, so she can work on a painting for a week to a couple of months: “[It] all depends on when I feel like it is finished. … [Something just] lets me know when it’s finished.”
Gates said it’s important that people “see my art and go, ‘Wow!’ I want to spark a conversation. I want people to talk about it. I want [my paintings] to be so touching that [people] want to buy [them].”
“If they look at [the painting] every day, I want it to bring happiness. That’s why I paint. … Maybe it’s my own little way of spreading happiness.”
Gates has always enjoyed painting, but she got serious about it about 15 years ago, when she helped her son, Eric, with an art project during his time as a student at Birmingham’s George W. Carver High School. Her son also had the opportunity to meet Kerry James Marshall, a Birmingham native who is renowned for “his paintings, installations, and public projects … often drawn from African-American popular culture and … rooted in the geography of his upbringing,” according to art21.org.
“I took my son to the meeting [with Marshall], but I didn’t know I was going to get inspired,” Gates said.
Marshall spoke to young people and their parents at the Birmingham Museum of Art. He explained that when he was young and went to art museums, all the paintings seemed to be for whites, so he chose to incorporate black characters into his artwork. Gates was intrigued by Marshall’s lecture.
“It struck something in me because that’s what I saw when I went to to art museums, too,” she said. “[I] went to art museums all the time, but I never saw black figures.”
She often creates her best pieces when she is angry about an issue, Gates said.
“I do some of my best work when I’m upset and what I paint is about racism or inequality or [things] not being fair,” she said, adding that those sentiments inspired her new series, titled “Not Our Kind.”
“I have been in positions [in which I felt that] ‘I’m not their kind,’ … so I stopped trying to be part of the group,” Gates said. “I became my own self and then I found abstract.”
Her objective is to make people look: “I want you to see something. … I want you to find something,” she said.
“Loud and Proud”
Gates, who is self-taught, said she also wants children to see more black artists.
“When you go to [some] festivals, we’re not there. We’re not represented,” she said. “That was one of the reasons I [said to myself], ‘You have to fight [to be part of the festivals]. You have to do whatever you have to do. I don’t care. You have to be [at the MCAC] this year. … Your voice means something. Say something. If you want to change [the fact that we’re not represented], change it. If you want to do it, do it. You be the one to step up and do it.’
“So, I said, ‘I’m going to be there. I’m going to be loud and proud and just say, Hey I am here. I’m representing Birmingham. I’m representing my black community.’”
Gates didn’t start selling her paintings until her children started encouraging her.
“They were like, ‘Ma, your stuff looks just as good as these other people’s stuff. You need to sell it,’” she said.
Gates did her first art show at Avondale Park in 2015 with 10 paintings—and she sold out: “I’ve been selling ever since,” she said, adding that she is inspired by the people who came before her and she wants to inspire others.
Gates appreciates a broad range of art styles, but graffiti is one of her passions.
“A lot of people don’t want words in their paintings, but they accept the words if it’s graffiti,” she said. “I want to do graffiti like … Jean-Michel Basquiat, [a renowned New York City artist who died at age 27]. I love his graffiti and just listening to his story. [I’m] also very inspired when I listen to others, people who are artists and have a story to tell about how they struggled before they made it big. … Even if I never make it big, big I’m happy.”
This article originally appeared in The Birmingham Times.