‘Lasting Legacies’ takes up temporary residence at Blockfort

The Downtown art gallery’s current group show, which will remain on display through April 3, centers on portraits of impactful, sometimes overlooked women from history

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
A painting by Melodie Thompson on display in "Lasting Legacies" at Blockfort

When artist Melodie Thompson started to consider who she wanted to paint for “Lasting Legacies,” a new group show on display at the Downtown art space Blockfort, she was initially overwhelmed. Going in, the only guidelines offered were that the piece had to focus on a historical female figure, ideally one lesser known to the greater public, which left Thompson with centuries of history and countless women to consider.

Eventually, the painter landed on Ohio-born poet Rita Dove, whose work she discovered years ago, drawn to what she described as the transportive effect of the poet's words. “Rita has gotten a lot of recognition for what she’s written, but I love her poetry because it [presents] what life is and what it could be,” Thompson said. “And that’s what I want to do as an artist: I want to take people to different places and show them something they might not imagine, like how life could be, or how we could look at things.”

Thompson’s selection of Dove was further rooted in the poet's Ohio roots (she was born in Akron), along with the artist's newly expressed desire to more actively pursue diversity in her work, owing to the history of portraiture being overwhelmingly white.

“I do portraits on a regular basis, and there are a lot of people of color who aren’t represented, and that has started to weigh on me,” said Thompson, who credited the reignited Black lives matter movement of the last year with awakening her to an issue she said she should have been more conscientious of earlier. “I have a friend who’s an artist, and he’s Black, and he said to me, ‘I have two nieces, and they’ll say to me that they’re not beautiful because of their hair and what they see portrayed as beautiful in society on a regular basis.’ I think every girl grows up with some of that … but I think it’s magnified if you grow up and aren’t seeing yourself represented on TV or ads or anywhere else on a regular basis.”

“Lasting Legacies," which opened on March 1, was curated by artist and illustrator Panagiota Kourniotis, whose piece for the show, titled “Anyte of Tegea,” centers on an ancient Greek poet whose surviving lines largely exist carved into monuments and graves. “I thought that was intriguing, and also morbid and beautiful at the same time,” said Kourniotis, who noted that many of the markers are the burial places of animals, which she inked full of life, surrounding the poet with a cat and an owl, among other critters. 

Kourniotis said she initially hit on the concept for the exhibit as a means of paying tribute to Women’s History Month, and that she knew going in she wanted to feature “impactful women in the art world,” some of whom have served as mentors and instructors as she continues to make her way through CCAD, while others are people whose work she’s admired from a distance since arriving in Columbus three years ago.

Among the featured artists are the likes of Lisa McLymont, who painted galactic swirls into the cosmos-echoing clothes worn by science-fiction writer Octavia Butler, and April Sunami, whose portrait of Civil War-era journalist and activist Ida B. Wells practically leaps off of the canvas, her flowing, multicolored hair embedded with trinkets and beads that offer texture and depth. Alone on the south wall of the gallery hangs a striking wooden cutout painted by Mandi Caskey in which a snake curls around the head and between the clenched teeth of pioneering performance artist Marina Abramovic.

In addition to drawing from a wide timespan, with still-living figures sitting next to ancient poets, the show also incorporates a variety of styles and approaches, from soft watercolor works to a hand-lettered piece that mirrors a classic theater advertisement. 

“That was something I wanted to incorporate, including a different range of styles, as well as having artists who are emerging next to ones who have been on the scene for a while,” Kourniotis said.

This includes portrait artist Melodie Thompson, who has logged around 20 years in the Columbus area over three different stints, and who first expressed an interest in art as a young child growing up on a farm in Indiana, recalling the time in kindergarten when one of her drawings ended up on display in the principal’s office. “From that point on, I’ve always thought of myself as an artist,” Thompson said.

From the beginning, Thompson said she was drawn toward capturing the human form, recalling early illustrations of people with really big eyes, which, over time, have become more realistic, the artist working to honor the spirit of whomever it is she’s attempting to paint.

“When I was small, I remember being interested in watching people. I was very empathetic, but also intuitive, where I could read what was going on behind their face," she said. "And that’s always intrigued me, people’s faces and their body language. And capturing that in the art has always been such a powerful thing.”