The recent opening of Gilda Snowden — Album: A Retrospective 1977-2010 at the Oakland University Art Gallery drew a large crowd of artists, educators, collectors and on-lookers to celebrate the work of an artist who in many ways, represents the heart and soul of Detroit’s artistic community. The gallery director, Dick Goody, explains the importance of selecting Gilda Snowden for a retrospective exhibition in the catalog’s introduction, “It is a reflection on Gilda Snowden’s extensive career and community presence as an artist, activist, teacher, peacemaker, and doyenne of the visual arts in Detroit.”
Familiar with Snowden’s work, over the years I experienced her evolution first hand. Her early graduate school artwork, as depicted in Chair and Self-Portrait, produced fluid oil paintings that exercise both facility and observation. These early ochre and earth tone paintings give the audience some insight into the artist’s early understanding of light and form. During her early time at WSU, representational artwork dominated the teaching pedagogy. Snowden did not receive exposure to non-representational teaching, coupled with real world experience, until meeting visiting artist, Guy Goodwin, and her association with Associate Professor, John Egner. In the catalog interview with Dick Goody she explains, “I took Composition with him [John Egner]. It originally was listed as a design class, but instead he took us to every collection, gallery, and exhibition space, so we met collectors, dealers, artists, and got a real sense of the world outside the painting studio.”
The 1980 exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA): Kick Out the Jams: Cass Corridor 1963-1977, best illustrates the real world context of Detroit then. Artists like Gordon Newton, Michael Luchs, Paul Schwartz, and James Chatleain, coined as Cass Corridor artists, produced a counter-culture, sometimes called the “Wagstaff Years” after DIA Curator of Contemporary Art, Samuel J. Wagstaff, Jr. (1968-1971). Young artists in a variety of artistic expressions revolted against the social conformity of the 1950s. Eva Hesse, Lucas Smaras, and Robert Rauschenberg seem to have influenced Snowden to some degree. While entrenched in the MFA program at WSU, potential influences, at the nearby Willis Gallery that championed the often new and unrefined aesthetic, surrounded her.
Over the years, Gilda Snowden’s work organized itself around themes, such as gardens, tornadoes, and chairs. During the 1980s, working in relief using wood construction, encaustic wax, photographs, and acrylic paint, Snowden’s work often reflected personal events in her life including marriage, the birth of a child, and the loss of her parents. She embedded family initials, dates and significant photographs into the work. These reliefs and objects on the wall symbolize and celebrate family, friends and experiences. Each intuitively personal work evokes a post-industrial type of energy that feels raw, rough and sensitive at the same time.
In recent years, and as illustrated in Imaginary Landscape, Gilda Snowden landed on a style commonly called non-representational abstraction where she worked on a new theme she describes as “Night Skies.” These abstract, expressionistic paintings rely on layers of shapes and acrylic color. In text displayed next to the painting the artist elaborates, “places that originally housed Tornadoes; they are now fertile gardens in an urban setting.” This strong sense of primary color and shape, with complex backgrounds matched up with an ambiguous foreground, reaches back to the influence of the Dutch-American painter Willem de Kooning.
Gilda Snowden grew up just blocks away from the heart of the 1967 Detroit Riots. Her work pulls on a life of energy from three distinct Detroit institutions She studied art at Cass Technical High School, completed her BFA and MFA degrees at Wayne State University and now teaches painting as a Full Professor at the Center for Creative Studies. Awarded a fellowship by the Kresge Foundation in 2009, her work will continue to influence artists of all ages throughout the Detroit metro area.
The exhibition runs through November 24, 2013.
Oakland University Art Gallery
2200 North Squirrel Road
Rochester, MI 48309
Ron Scott is a pseudonym for a writer based in the Detroit area. View more articles by Ron Scott.