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WATCH NOW: Karen Archia displays work from her residency at Center for Visual Artists
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WATCH NOW: Karen Archia displays work from her residency at Center for Visual Artists

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Karen Archia drives daily by a sign that reads, “Black Lives Inspire.”

The phrase has become the inspiration — and the name — for a major work in Archia’s exhibition at the Center for Visual Artists.

She calls the artwork “my meditation on seeing that phrase every day.”

That work of three paper scrolls, each measuring 42 inches tall and 36 feet long, runs across one wall in the CVA gallery at the downtown Greensboro Cultural Center.

Each scroll features a variety of expressive, gestural marks that Archia created in black Sumi ink with a brush, glass pipette and foam-tipped instrument.

Archia spent six months, through June 30, as Artist-in-Residence at the Center for Visual Artists in the downtown Greensboro Cultural Center.

Karen Archia served as artist-in-residence at Greensboro's Center for Visual Artists. Her exhibition runs through Aug. 15.

She invited those who stopped by to watch or to make art with her, as part of her Public Art Practice that began at Deep Roots Market.

Sections of others’ pieces have become parts of Archia’s collages.

Now through Aug. 15, she displays about 100 of her works in an exhibition titled “Seen Through.”

Most are on paper; some are on canvas or collages on wood. Many have black as their base color, with marks of other colors.

They range in size from 3-by-5 inches or 4-by-6 inches to the 36-foot scrolls.

Most are for sale.

Archia often uses Sumi ink, a traditionally Japanese and Chinese calligraphy ink — but India, acrylic and black walnut ink as well.

Black walnut ink has more of an earthy brown color. She combined it with black Sumi ink and acrylic ink in “Spirit of the Land 1 & 2” — created in part by splattering ink on a garbage bag and pressing paper onto it.

“I love black, and I love exploring the color black,” said Archia, a self-taught artist whose name is pronounced “ar-chee’-a.”

“It is universal, fundamental, warm, foundational,” she said. “When I employ black ink or paint, I can center an important aspect of my identity with just my choice of medium. I can dilute black ink with water and use it with undiluted black ink, and it will set itself off in this contrast.”

Her more colorful Fragile Heart Series expresses both her personal emotional journey and her reflections about the larger social issues of the pandemic that people of color have suffered with COVID-19 and police brutality.

Drips in her art reflect tears.

“Much of my art elevates and celebrates tearful release and urges us to demonstrate strength through tenderness,” Archia said.

Images of most of the Fragile Heart pieces will be included in a digital monograph, a digital book that focuses on a specific subject.

She titled one of her favorite pieces “Insight Comes from Quiet Times.”

“I see the integration of the Sumi ink work, my drip work, my printing work, the grounding with the red, the gold, the black,” Archia said. “Then you can see a sort of human face here that just developed on its own ...”

“I was drawn to this stamp, and I bought this stamp of the mask,” she said. “That’s the first time that I employed a stamp in my work.”

“When I look at this piece, I see my techniques, I see my process coming together, really thoughtfully and organically,” she said.

Some artwork is on loan for the exhibition: Her studies for a commissioned piece honoring April Parker, inaugural creative catalyst fellow at downtown Elsewhere museum.

CVA staff are impressed not only by Archia’s art, but by her efforts to engage others in creating.

“Karen is expanding the definition of public art — who is an artist and how, where and why we make art, as well as how this can be developed in community or with the support of community,” said Devon McKnight, CVA art + community coordinator.

That’s what Archia aims to do.

“Public art is often understood as maybe murals or some type of statue, or maybe a performance, something maybe that’s passively consumed,” she said.

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“A lot of people have a view maybe that art is precious or reserved for a few,” she said. “I think that everyone fundamentally has a creative spirit. So to me, everyone is an artist.”

A Milwaukee native whose age is somewhere north of 40, Archia worked in nonprofit communications for the North Carolina affiliate of the National Education Association.

She first exhibited her paintings in 2012 at Labourlove Gallery in Durham, run by a friend.

After the NEA experienced layoffs, Archia and Nancy Lenk in 2013 opened The People’s Perk at 551 S. Mendenhall St.

The business sold coffee, tea, doughnuts and snacks. Archia housed her studio there. The coffee shop displayed artwork that they and others created.

“It was a joyful and satisfying adventure, but overwhelming for me and just not sustainable,” Archia said.

The year 2019 became a pivotal one.

Archia and Lenk closed The People’s Perk.

“I and many people cried together at its closing, and the outpouring of love and support I received showed me that I was simply closing a physical space,” she said. “I felt a sense of fulfillment at having met so many great people and sense of success from people’s expressions of appreciation for my efforts. It was a transition, not an ending, and it’s the people that matter.”

Seeking rest and reflection, Archia went on retreat for 10 days to monasteries in Kentucky and Virginia, run by monks and nuns.

She spent two weeks at The Penland School of Craft in the western part of the state.

An artist there introduced her to Sumi ink. It consists of burned vegetable soot and water, Archia said. Adding a little shellac makes it water-resistant.

“I just fell in love with it,” Archia said.

In September 2019, Archia took what she calls Public Art Practice to Deep Roots Market, the downtown co-op and grocery store.

From September to March, she provided materials and hosted 60 free art-making sessions there with the public.

“Bringing art-making to an everyday space sends a message about the role of art, that it’s for everyday spaces and it’s for everyone, and that everyone has a creative spirit,” she said.

With their permission, she might cut up the art and include it in her collages, adding color and shapes to her work.

Jessica Jackson met Archia at The People’s Perk. Archia invited her to make art with the Public Art Practice at Deep Roots.

“I didn’t realize how much I missed art-making,” said Jackson, a scientist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. “It was so much peace, I didn’t want to leave.”

Archia created the Black Women’s Art Collective and invited Jackson to join. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the collective would gather via video calls to make art and chat.

“It was nice to get to know a new group of women well during the pandemic,” Jackson said.

Now Jackson’s Miró-style work hangs in a Black Women’s Art Collective Show at the Kernersville Public Library, with work by Dee Williams and Bevelyn Ukah.

“It was part of me I hadn’t explored and brought a lot of joy to my life,” Jackson said. “I enjoy my work, but this flexes a different muscle for me.”

Archia’s work had appeared in other shows at the CVA.

Late in 2020, McKnight invited Archia to become CVA’s artist in residence.

In mid-July, a few days before her exhibition opened, Archia put finishing touches on some pieces. In the background, CVA Director Corrie Lisk-Hurst and interns Ingrid Lanser and Sophia Dominici hung the works.

As she exhibits her work at CVA, Archia already has another job on her plate.

She works as the liaison between Creative Greensboro, the city’s office of arts and culture, and artists in the Neighborhood Arts: Residency Program.

They serve a six-month visual arts residency in the Dudley Heights, Glenwood and Kings Forest neighborhoods.

During the six months, the artists and arts groups will provide activities in the neighborhood — and ultimately create a mural on a city street or sidewalk.

“It’s right up my alley in terms of mixing community engagement and art making,” Archia said.

Contact Dawn DeCwikiel-Kane at 336-373-5204 and follow @dawndkaneNR on Twitter.

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