Exhibit preview: "Universal" presents monumental works from dedicated collectors

Jesse Tigges, Columbus Alive

"Universal," the current exhibit at the Cultural Arts Center, is defined by artists presenting with a global perspective. But for curators Bettye J. Stull and Barbara R. Nicholson, who opened their museum-quality private collections of mid-20th Century and African-American art for "Universal" - collections so expansive not all of the work planned for the exhibit could fit in the 2,400-square-foot gallery - it's about the relationships they each built with these artists.

"They became friends, and because we've lost so many of these artists, it becomes even more special. You know there's no more coming from them. So you treat these pieces as treasures, and these pieces represent more than paint, or print, or canvas, or paper. They represent the spirit of those artists," Nicholson said with tears welling up in her eyes as she gazed at the exhibited works during an early July interview. "When they left us, we understood they had to go, but there was an emptiness that the art we had of theirs helped fill, and soften that pain. We knew we still had some piece of them with us - that spirit. So it's a very personal collection for both Bettye and I."

For decades, Nicholson and Stull have dedicated their lives to supporting, collecting and adoring the artists who've affected them. Viewers to the exhibit will be blown away by works from Aminah Robinson, Roderick Vines, Jon Onye Lockard and Margaret Taylor-Burroughs (founder of the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago), but for Nicholson and Stull it goes much deeper than just the superb art.

Both women seemed homesick during our interview in the gallery, aching for the artwork that makes them feel at home.

"It's been painful, because you realize you take this work for granted after you've been with it for so long. Then all of a sudden, it's gone. Now our houses are just residences. It's what we have hanging on our walls that truly makes our houses homes for us. In all honesty, I joke about it, but that first day or two I felt like I was going through withdrawals. I said, I'm bringing a cot down here and camping right there," Nicholson said pointing to two of her favorite pieces in the exhibit.

While there's a yearning for this work to return home to Nicholson and Stull - and it will once the exhibit closes July 24 - they're acutely aware of the importance in taking it to the public. And it even makes the displacement of their art less "painful."

"It's an incredible experience for us, and it will be an incredible experience for [visitors] of Columbus to learn more about our national treasures," said Stull standing next to a nodding Nicholson. "So it means a lot to show this work to the public, because I'm sure many people in Columbus haven't seen work by these artists. Many of our pieces have been documented and are in catalogs and have been written about. So we brought those because we wanted people to see the depth of these artists' practice."

"Universal" contains over 100 pieces - from paintings and sculptures to lithographs and ceramics - from mainly African-American and African artists, but there are also works from other cultures. Both Nicholson and Stull have always collected with the goal of building a collection that represents the diversity of their community.

"Almost every, if not every artist, traveled to many countries and researched, built relationships. So they're visual vocabulary isn't limited to Africa-American communities. You can see imagery that reflects that international, universal sense and humanity because they were exposed to it," Nicholson said.

"Universal" offers visitors the opportunity to view notable and spectacular works - highlighted by some overwhelming pieces from the late Robinson and two soulful, life-size sculptures from Woodrow Nash - and the insights and stories Nicholson and Stull possess will only magnify the importance of these artists, about whom the public can learn more during the Cultural Arts Center's Conversations and Coffee art talk from 12-1 p.m. Thursday, July 16.

Cultural Arts Center

Through July 24

131 W. Main St., Downtown

culturalartscenteronline.org