The figures are spread out, displayed on four pedestals set up at the Legacy Museum of African American History, their dimpled legs resembling those of Cabbage Patch dolls.
One, with a gray beard and black top hat, holds a small wooden spoon, a box of medical supplies by his feet and a smaller doll in his lap. Nearby, two male dolls play checkers with Budweiser and Heineken bottle caps, and another sits with a wooden fishing pole in his hands.
The dolls are a traditional form of soft sculpture — made with panty hose, fabric scraps and other found items — that has roots in the African-American community.
The ones on display at the Legacy Museum were made by Amherst resident Ruby Rittmeyer, one of nearly two dozen artists featured in the museum’s new exhibit, “Visual Voices: A Celebration of African American Artists from Lynchburg and the Surrounding Areas.”
“During slavery, African-Americans made dolls, or soft sculptures as they are now described in more refined terms, from bits and pieces of cloth and other scraps left over from their production of clothing, quilts and other household items for the owners,” Rittmeyer said in her artist statement. “From these evolved Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy dolls for poor children whose parents could not afford store-bought porcelain or plastic playthings.”
Rittmeyer learned the craft firsthand from her grandmother, who raised her on a tobacco, cotton and peanut farm in Florida.
“She would collect things,” Rittmeyer said in a phone interview last week. “… Buttons, old shirts … burlap bags. Old shoes. She would cut out the leather. She was just fantastic about what she did and was able to do, and it would take her months.”
After retiring in 2004, Rittmeyer began making them herself, each doll inspired by moments and people from her childhood.
“It’s the memories, between doing my family history and what I remember as a child growing up, like the checker players,” she said. “I remember the old men sitting under the tree on stumps, and they would give us [money] to go and find bottle tops. All the same kind of bottle tops, so that they could have enough to play with, and they would give us a nickel for every [one] we found. Back then, a nickel, that was like gold.”
Rittmeyer said she and her husband have traveled extensively over the years, always making a point to seek out the work of black artists in the places they visit — something that has encouraged her to keep her grandmother’s craft alive all these years later.
“[There are] different skill sets that the regions have offered and that have, I think, been lost over the years,” she said. “I just didn’t want this one to be a forgotten and lost art.”
For curator Brooke Marcy, stories like Rittmeyer’s are what the Legacy exhibit is all about.
“That’s how I see [it], as many inspiring stories, interesting stories, life stories by truly creative and amazing artists,” she said. “This … has been such a gift to me, and it’s because of the stories, and being allowed into these artists’ lives has been phenomenal. The people I have met I will never forget. …I’m excited for Lynchburg to see these works. I think it’s inspired, and inspiring.”
The show opens Saturday and, like most Legacy exhibits, remains up for the next two years.
Joyce Dixon, president of the museum’s board, said they felt the topic would be a good follow-up to their last exhibit, “The Rhythms of Yesterday and Today: A History of African American Music in Lynchburg, Virginia and Surrounding Areas.”
“When you go back to one of the first brochures that was printed [for the museum] and the fundraising envelope, there were topics listed there, going back to the beginning of the museum,” Dixon said. “There were topics listed that the museum would possibly cover over the years, and the arts was one of them. We had finally gotten around to it. The music exhibit seemed to be the appropriate time to lead into visual arts, things [where] people show their creativity by either painting something or drawing something or making something.”
The 21 featured artists either live in Lynchburg currently or have at some point in their life. Some, like Rittmeyer, retired here, while others spent their childhoods in the area.
“A lot of people grew up here, went away and came back,” Marcy said. “We have two artists [who] are out of state and that’s Martha [Jackson Jarvis], who is in D.C., and then we have James Phillips, who is a professor at Howard University. He even has a piece in the Smithsonian [National Museum of African American History & Culture].
“Honestly, you know, you just don’t hear about these extraordinary artists once they kind of go off and start their careers, but this is where they have roots.”
The show features a variety of mediums, everything from Rittmeyer’s dolls to traditional paintings, from comic book panels created by graphic designer Stan Webb to photographs taken from space by astronaut-turned-activist Leland Melvin.
Webb is actually going to switch out the panels every six months, Marcy said, so that throughout the show’s two-year duration, “he’ll tell a whole story.”
She’s also given the other artists the option to do the same and promised the show would “shift and change and morph.”
Marcy chose to exhibit two pieces from each artist — more in the case of the sculptors, simply because she had more room to display them — “to give … a broader perspective of what they do and what interests them,” she said. “I wanted this show to be about not just the art but the artist.”
Artists like Jimmy Taylor, who carves canes out of found wood, or Tarsha Joyner, owner of Mrs. Joy’s Absolutely Fabulous Treats in downtown Lynchburg.
Joyner is probably best known for culinary talents, but she’s also an avid photographer; two of her images, shot on vintage, 1950s-era film, are included in the show.
“She has this wonderful archive of film she uses,” Marcy said. “It’s a current photo but the film is old. … She’s old-school, and I love it.”
“When you go to her shop,” Marcy added, “don’t just look at the donuts. Look at the walls.”
The James River figures prominently in both of Bruce Mabry’s en plein air pieces, one offering a view from the bridge where his father used to fish. Geral Butler contributed a painting of the Old City Cemetery chapel, while Robert Pennix submitted pencil drawings of Booker T. Washington and M.W. Thornhill, Lynchburg’s first black mayor.
“These pieces really run the gamut as to when during these artists’ careers they were created,” Marcy said. “I tried to stick with local themes, but sometimes that’s not the artist’s interest. Especially Leland Melvin — his is outer space.”
One of Veronica DeLuze’s featured paintings — a close-up of a women’s large hat — took its inspiration from halfway across the world, during a trip she took to Ghana.
“There was a woman on the trip, and she had this huge hat,” DeLuze said last week. “Everywhere we went, this hat seemed to be front and center. … It was a fairly simple design, but it was really attractive. It just kind of fit this person’s personality. She was kind of Afro-centric, and she made most of her clothes. She even made something on the trip; she bought some fabric and made herself a dress to wear the next day. This hat was sort of a reminder of this trip. It was the first time I had been to Ghana.”
It’s part of a series DeLuze painted featuring “icons from black society of hat and hair.”
“I’m 75, so in my day, women wore hats more, and there’s an importance, especially with church women, for hats,” she said. “And black women are particularly interested in their hair. … It’s one of those things that’s very important in the black community, and I wanted to do something.”
DeLuze said she loves the idea of the Legacy exhibit shining a spotlight on black artists, some of whom aren’t as well known in the community. She was pleased, for instance, to see the sculptures of Ernest Hawkins, whose work she’d previously seen at Africa House.
“He’d never exhibited before,” she said. “He just did these things because it was from his heart, and he had them at home and someone, I guess, met him or knew him and told [Africa House owner] Ann van de Graaf about it. I’ve never seen him exhibited again, but his work is so beautiful.
“[It’s] things like that that make me excited they’re going to do this show.”
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