Lady Can Paint 

Faith Ringgold exhibit at Boise Art Museum

Through March 23, the Boise Art Museum is hosting the traveling exhibit of Faith Ringgold's work, "Mama Can Sing, Papa Can Blow."

The exhibit showcases Ringgold's eclectic mix of media and bold color. Paintings, story quilts and masks hang alongside illustrations from a children's book and soft sculpture. Primary reds, purples, blues and golds comprise much of the dense and vibrant palette.

The colors are loud, and so is the artist.

Ringgold, born in Harlem in 1930, has lived through some of the most defining moments in the fight for racial and gender equality. Those political and cultural moments are reflected in much of her work, lending weight to what initially appears to be a cheerful exhibit.

An artist from a young age, Ringgold initially struggled to find her voice. By studying and imitating the art of Western Europe, she found herself at a level of competency, but without inspiration. It wasn't until she developed a style of painting that came out of her own black experience—as opposed to imitating the white males of the past— that she found her style and voice. Soon after, she started chronicling the turmoil of the civil-rights movement and burgeoning feminist issues. She has carried these themes throughout her work for decades.

By drawing on her own experience and heritage, Ringgold has introduced new forms to the art mainstream. When she struggled one day to carry a painting down 14 flights of stairs, she decided that women had enough obstacles in the art world, and she didn't need to grapple with the artwork itself, too. She would instead start doing her paintings on pieces of cloth that could be rolled up, like Tibetan tankas she'd seen.

She then produced a quilt with her mother, and after her mother's death, decided to continue the storytelling tradition of her family by using the quilt form in much of her art.

She also continued this tradition with her successful children's books, including the Caldecott Honor book, Tar Beach.

Ringgold has brought multiple mediums previously accorded the status of "women's work" or crafts into the realm of serious art. She has stretched the art experience far beyond European white males.

And in "Mama Can Sing, Papa Can Blow," the viewer has a chance to see all of this. The exhibit has pieces of Ringgold's work from each decade, allowing the viewer to almost walk beside Ringgold as she experienced the world and created work that reflected it.

The exhibit includes some traditional stretched-canvas paintings, cloth paintings with sewn fabric frames, drawings, story quilts (including one for Tar Beach), masks and a soft sculpture of Wilt Chamberlain.

Her mediums vary, but the style and theme are consistent. The colors are bright, even when the content is dark. Part of her strength is that even while depicting the gloom of a subject such as rape or oppression, there is still a hope, vibrancy and life to the work. And she certainly doesn't only chronicle the somber.

Her "Jazz" series (from which the exhibit takes its name) has all the excitement and piquancy of that music itself.

Then there are the pages and story quilt from Tar Beach, which take the story of a poor childhood and spin it into flight and dreams.

Ringgold juxtaposes the ills of the world with its beauty and possibilities. It's thought-provoking, to say the least.

"All of her work deals with social and racial issues, from the perspective of an African-American girl and woman growing up in urban Manhattan. It gives an interesting perspective that's different than what many Idahoans are used to," says Amy Pence-Brown, associate curator of art at the Boise Art Museum. "She's the most important female African-American artist working today."

Ringgold connects with a wide range of viewers, so bring the kids. Terra Feast, associate curator of education, noticed that the kids coming to the exhibit "really are enjoying the idea that she pieces these things together and they have to do with memories of times earlier in her life. And they're very familiar with the book Tar Beach."

This exhibit offers a kaleidoscope of images, striking no matter what your taste. Ringgold is a compelling voice in progressive art, with pieces in the permanent collections of New York museums the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. She has received more than 75 awards, fellowships, citations and honors.

Now her work is here for all of Boise to experience.

"Mama Can Sing, Papa Can Blow" runs through March 23, Boise Art Museum, 670 Julia Davis Dr., 208-345-8330,

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