When work by Cynthia Bickley-Green was selected for 2020’s “Front Burner” exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art, the artist couldn’t possibly have known how the year’s events would shift her focus.
The exhibition was designed to highlight contemporary North Carolina paintings from 25 artists selected from across the state. But shortly after its opening in March, the coronavirus pandemic put the exhibit — and the arts in general — on the back burner.
Bickley-Green, a professor of art education at East Carolina University, did not welcome the interruption to a teaching career that has spanned more than 50 years. But despite the fact that she missed being in the classroom, she found motivation for creativity.
“This has been an interesting experience because I’ve been able to focus in on my painting,” she said Thursday, the first time she saw her finished work on a wall.
“Lamentations,” which Bickley-Green painted in the early months of the pandemic, was reproduced on vinyl late last year to display at the N.C. Museum of Art park. The original, a three-panel, 5-foot by 12-foot acrylic painting, is part of an exhibit that will open Tuesday at Greenville’s City Art Gallery.
“This is the first time this painting has been hung,” gallery owner Torrey Stroud said. “It’s just wonderful for people in Greenville to get to see the original piece.”
Stroud attended the opening reception in Raleigh last year for “Front Burner,” which also features the work of artist Benjamin Knight of Deep Run. But within 10 days of the exhibit opening, the museum and others across the globe closed their doors to help prevent the spread of COVID 19. It would be nearly six months before it would reopen.
Classes at ECU, where Bickley-Green has taught since 1993, moved to a virtual format, leaving her with much more time alone in the studio.
“We’re sort of isolated, so that’s a pro for creativity because there’s nothing else to do, so you go to the studio and create things,” she said. “But on the other hand, you get really depressed because you’re not talking to anyone.
“It’s sort of hard to be creative in this kind of situation. I would rather have painted it without the problems we have right now.”
In addition to the isolation, Bickley-Green felt the weight of world events in a year in which not only the pandemic but racial tensions made headlines.
“I just felt like we were on a roller coaster of events,” she said. “There was the Black Lives Matter problem. There was the COVID problem, and then something that concerns me is ecology and global warming.
“I never in my life experienced so many critical events, and so that sort of seeped into my aesthetic,” Bickley-Green said. “This composition, in part, is built on the feeling of upheaval that I experienced.”
The artist typically places symbols on the sides of her paintings to reflect political and other world events that coincide with the creation of her work. This time, the symbols made their way to the face of the canvas. “Lamentations” includes a COVID-19 icon, a representation of the globe and a black square that symbolizes the death of George Floyd while in police custody.
It was not only the subject matter of the painting but the sheer size of it that presented challenges for Bickley-Green, who has undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Maryland and a doctorate from the University of Georgia. In recent years, the artist has worked primarily with square images. For “Lamentations,” she moved tables together in the studio at ECU to create a flat surface on which to work.
“It’s been quite an odyssey to paint something that large,” she said. “This is the size of the billboard. I didn’t trust how it would be enlarged because a lot of details are small in my paintings, so I needed to paint it in the exact size.”
“Lamentations” features abstract brushstrokes and a contrast of both warm and cool colors to reflect the polarization of the political and social climate. The painting, which takes its title from the Old Testament book by the same name, it is intended to reflect the sadness and anxieties of the times.
“I think there are a couple of passages in the Book of Lamentations that are fitting,” Bickley-Green said. She favors the hopeful tone of these verses from the third chapter: “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness.”
Although she misses seeing her students in person, she will continue to teach virtually during the spring semester because she is considered at high risk for contracting COVID-19.
“I’m feeling very lonely; I love to teach,” said Bickley-Green, who has been an educator since age 22 and has been named Higher Education Art Educator of the Year three times by the North Carolina Art Education Association. Still, she finds satisfaction in creating and in seeing her compositions evolve from small studies to larger paintings and finally a major work.
“We have to enjoy ourselves. We have to feel happiness and pleasure,” she said. “In the studio I’m listening to NPR (National Public Radio) and I’m thinking, ‘This is really sad, this is bad; this is evil.’ But then I have to enjoy what I’m doing. You have to find a balance, I think, between despair and happiness.”
City Art Gallery, 511 Red Banks Road, will exhibit “Lamentations,” along with several studies by Cynthia Bickley-Green, from Jan. 12-30. A meet-the-artist event is scheduled from 5:30-7:30 p.m. on Jan. 14. Call 353-7000 or visit cityartgreenville.com.
Bickley-Green’s work also is included in “Front Burner: Highlights in Contemporary North Carolina Painting,” through Jan. 23 at the North Carolina Museum of Art, 2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh. A reproduction of “Lamentations” may be viewed at the museum park, on the lower blue/green trail near the greenway bridge.