Growing up in the San Joaquin Valley in the 1980s, Louise Shields was one in a handful of African-American kids in her predominantly Latino high school.
“It was a very small rural community,” says Shields. “We had very few African Americans in my school—I think five.”
Other kids threw rocks and called Shields and her sister names. Shields remembers there were days she would run home crying to her mother about the abuses.
“‘Mom, they made fun of my shoes, or they made fun of my hair,’” says Shields. “And she would say ‘You embrace who you are; your curly hair, your big lips—you embrace that. And you also stand up for what you believe in.’”
“My parents taught me—‘You don’t allow anyone to treat you differently based on the color of your skin,’” recalls Shields.
Shaped by her personal experience, Shields has drawn strength from her own struggle as an African American. Today, Shields is an artist, a deputy public guardian for the conservator of Santa Clara County, and a youth advocate and board member with the Gilroy Arts Alliance.
Shields has even incorporated art into her social work.
“For the past two years, I led therapeutic art sessions at our social worker retreats with DFCS – Gilroy family resource center,” she says. “One year, I led therapeutic art classes with some of the women [clients] who were working on their sobriety.”
This week the Gilroy Center for the Arts will hold a kick-off reception for Black History Month. The exhibit, coordinated by Shields, will honor the contributions of artists of African descent.
Shields has been curating the Black History Month exhibit for the past three years, compiling samples of the best artists and collections in the area.
Shields says it’s important to share and educate the community about a different culture.
“For me, one of the most important things [about it] is I have wanted to produce an event to bring the community together,” says Shields. “One that educates, celebrates, acknowledges and shares with the community a cultural ritual. Through art I’ve done exhibits on famous African Americans or blacks who have made achievements even within our own community.”
Shields says there was a push years ago to raise awareness about the contributions of African Americans, but that it wasn’t supported by community.
“Octavia Butler owned a historical home [in Gilroy] and had a focus on a cultural center,” she says. “It didn’t get off the ground the way she had envisioned.”
“In the community, we weren’t ready for it,” Shields says. “The majority of people would come from outside. And there were different people in the community that would support Octavia, but there wasn’t enough momentum.”
Shields says she began to ask “What’s going on here? Why aren’t the local people interested? Why aren’t they supporting?”
“Of course we know that MLK and Rosa Parks are in our history books, but what about all of those individuals that are not in the history books?” Shields points out.
Shields began to ask what she could do to get the community on board. She leveraged her position as a board member with the Gilroy Arts Alliance and developed a program that would be open to the public.
This year’s month-long exhibit opens with a reception on Feb. 25, and Shield’s says it “pulls together Americans who have really made a different and strived in this country. It’s not just black but it’s also celebrating individuals in the African diaspora.”
The exhibit includes Shields’ own work, pieces of the local collector Steven Pattie’s collection of black folk art, as as well as art by young artists Shields has inspired through her work with the Gilroy Family Resource Center.
Shields invited Pattie, who emphasizes the significance of sharing culture in a time where people still have grave misconceptions about how “others” live, to contribute to the exhibit.
Pattie’s collection focuses on American folk art and comprises self-taught artists including Jimmie Sudduth, Sharon Johnson and Bernice Sims. Often the creators of this “outsider art” were people of little means—gathering and repurposing materials they found.
“Jimmie Sudduth—he paints in mud,” says Pattie. “He takes the materials that he finds around him. Mud, grease, grass stains. Things he creates from nature; hardened muds mixed with sugar or coca cola—nobody thought to do that.”
Pattie says he was drawn to this art because it’s created by people who didn’t go to art school. “It’s an art that’s completely non-derivative,” he says.
Pattie says that few locals have probably been to the Deep South, let alone spent any amount of time with a man simply telling his story of what it was like to be in the cotton fields or to come out of the old Jim Crow South.
“The benefit of a show like this is you have an opportunity to hear stories of people that are outside of our everyday experience of meeting,” says Pattie. “Almost all of the people that I’m bringing to the show are from the Deep South.”
Pattie says that a show like this allows people to engage in conversation with people they wouldn’t normally have a conversation with, and “because it reminds people of the diversity in our community and the different ways that people give expression to it.”
Shields’ own art, also featured in the show, is centralized around African-designed stamps given to her by her mother-in-law Earline Shields, who she credits as having been pivotal for starting her on her creative journey.
Shields creates different effects in her work, adding textures and fabrics to the pieces.
In her art she chooses strong women to promote self-confidence and inner strength.
“I take from the elders—strong black women—I pull from their strength and what they taught me, made and have given to me,” says Shields.
The artists reception and opening for the month-long exhibit will feature music and drumming by Jaliya, an African group from San Jose, youth poetry, the music of violinist Beverly Blount, and singing by St. John Ward.
Shield hopes to inspire people to continue to use their art as a voice.
The need to continue to have shows that reveal and celebrate or communal diversity and our basic humanity persists. The current political climate only emphasizes this urgency to bridge a growing divide.
“We can’t forget what’s going on,” says Shields. “We can’t close our eyes.”
“I want to incorporate that in a gentle way. But it’s not always pretty. Even through the arts. The challenges aren’t always pretty. We’ve got some really phenomenal things, but we’ve got some hurt as well,” she adds.
In engaging the community through art exhibits like this, Shields hopes to influence the youth of today to be part of their community.
“I think that change comes from action,” says Shields. “Whether you join a movement that is promoting positing things, or you’re getting involved at your peer level with like-minded people and not being afraid to stand up and keep your integrity—no matter what situation you’re in.”
‘Black History Month Exhibit and Celebration’ presented by Gilroy Center for the Arts at 7341 Monterey St., Gilroy. Exhibit runs Feb. 25 to March 26, 2017. Opening reception will be held on Saturday, Feb. 25 at Noon. Visit gilroyartsalliance.com for more information.