December 8, 2003 Vol. VIII, No. 4

During a tour of the university's "Rising Above Jim Crow" exhibit, Arts Council for CSUN docent Carol Dondick of Northridge discusses with schoolchildren details of a Johnnie Lee Gray work. Gray's paintings depict African-American life under the shadow of segregation.

Young Minds, Hearts Experience ‘Rising Above Jim Crow'

New York Life Insurance Company Brings Hundreds of Schoolchildren to View Artist's Vision of Jim Crow Era

Cultural dividends from Cal State Northridge's exhibition of "Rising Above Jim Crow: The Paintings of Johnnie Lee Gray" were paid to crowds of "deeply interested" schoolchildren treated to tours during the last four days of the show's five-week exclusive West Coast run in the university's Art Galleries.

Sponsored by New York Life Insurance Company, the exhibition—which concluded on November 15— offered self-taught South Carolina artist Johnnie Lee Gray's personal vision of African-American life in the segregated South.

"Schoolchildren always respond well to seeing actual art," said Art Gallery Director Louise Lewis. "It is as revealing to adults and teachers as it is to the students, to hear their comments and the way they see the images."

Bus transportation for the student tours was underwritten by New York Life, and Art Galleries exhibitions coordinator Michelle Giacopuzzi worked directly with area schools on tour arrangements, scheduling each on a first-come, first-served basis.

Participating elementary schools included Germain, Coldwater, Chatsworth Park, Calabash, Knollwood, Castlebay Lane and the Multicultural Learning Center. Contingents from James Monroe High School also attended.

Arts Council for CSUN docents and Northridge art history graduate students helped the nearly 440 Los Angeles Unified School District students gain insight into the 35 Gray paintings on view, and answered their many enthusiastic questions.

"Why did the artist use so much blue?" asked several students. Tour leaders explained that Gray, a textile mill worker and carpenter who died in 2000, bought what art supplies he could afford; blue simply was the cheapest color available.

Docents said the students were especially drawn to the humor and perspective of paintings such as "Colored Night at the Fair" and "Matinee at the Ritz," and to the drama of "Cloud of Witnesses," the exhibition's panoramic view of African American life. These and other paintings from the "Rising Above Jim Crow" exhibit can be viewed online at, the New York Life-sponsored educational Web site for which Northridge history professor Ronald Davis was principal historical coordinator.

"A number of the teachers had pulled up the lesson plans from the Web site about Jim Crow," Giacopuzzi said. "As a result, many of the students came well prepared on the Jim Crow subject matter."

Some of the teachers attending the exhibition had lived in the South at the time that Jim Crow segregation laws were in effect. "The exhibit had a great deal of meaning for them," Giacopuzzi observed. "They wanted their students to learn about this period of American history."

For information about future gallery exhibitions or to book a docent-led tour, call Giacopuzzi at (818) 677-2156.

@csun | December 8, 2003 issue
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