“The intent for ‘Together’ is really twofold,” Theresa Bembnister says, “to welcome the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts’ community back after years of closure due to the new building’s construction, and to celebrate being together after the pandemic necessitated being apart.”
Within the Harriet and Warren Stephens Family Gallery, guests can explore contemporary works by more than 30 artists assembled in one show designed by AMFA’s three curators: Bembnister, Brian Lang and Dr. Catherine Walworth.
Titled “Together,” the exhibit was created explicitly for the AMFA’s grand opening and will close forever on Sept. 10, a rarity in a culture known for touring shows and displays. The exhibit uses video, painting, weaving, photography, ceramics, sculpture, textiles and woodworking to give visitors unexpected, playful and fresh combinations of family, friends, community and nature.
"HANK AND SAMM"
Jess T. Dugan uses their camera to capture “Hank and Samm,” a piece featured in “Together” that is also part of a bigger project called “To Survive on This Shore: Photographs and Interviews with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Adults.” The series was created in collaboration with Dugan’s partner Vanessa Fabre, a social worker and researcher focused on the intersection of LGBTQ+ communities and aging.
“I had worked within trans communities as a photographer. She had worked within trans communities as a social worker, and we realized we could join forces and create a project that attempted to fill a gap in representations around older transgender and gender expansive people,” says Dugan, who published the complete series of pictures and interviews in a book under the same name.
The picture of Hank and Samm is a personal peek into the lives of the couple who have been together for more than 50 years. Taken outside, both are wearing outfits they chose specifically for the shoot.
“I actually knew Hank and Samm when I was a kid because Samm taught a lesbian Bible study group out of her home in North Little Rock that my mom attended,” Dugan says.
Born in Biloxi, Mississippi, Dugan moved to Sherwood when they were three months old. At 13, Dugan and their mom moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. They attended graduate school in Chicago, but have called St. Louis home for the past nine years.
“That particular piece was made right outside of their home in North Little Rock,” Dugan says. “My work is so much about presenting people as they are. As they want to be seen.”
Painter and printmaker LaToya Hobbs was born and raised in Little Rock, graduating from North Little Rock High School. She started at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and later transferred to UA Little Rock to finish her undergraduate degree in studio art where professor Aj Smith sparked her interest in wood carving and printmaking. In graduate school at Purdue University, she further honed the skills that are on display in “Together.”
Hobbs’ “Morning,” which is just part of a larger 60-foot work titled “Carving Out Time” described as a visual journey throughout her day as an artist and mother, takes up an entire wall at the AMFA, giving visitors an opportunity to see the intricacies of her craft up close and to observe the movement she captures.
“Each of the subsequent scenes [in ‘Carving out Time’] takes you through various scenes of my day,” Hobbs says of the full work, which begins with “Morning.” The second scene, “Homeschooling Housework,” sees Hobbs in her office doing lessons with her boys. The third is her family preparing for dinner, the fourth scene is she and her husband putting the boys to bed and the final scene shows Hobbs in her studio getting ready to work.
This piece exists in two forms. As a painter and a printmaker, she combines the two worlds to create what she calls hybrid or mixed media pieces. What is left is a set of wood panels that are cut, carved and used as the woodblock to print the works on paper.
“I am leaning into more of the carving aspect of my work and presenting the carvings as works of art themselves,” Hobbs says.
Hobbs and her husband Ariston Jacks, also an accomplished artist and native Arkansan, now live in Baltimore.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
“It’s my hope that people see this exhibition as a celebration, as lighthearted and fun,” Bembnister says. “My co-curators and I were serious about representing a diverse group of voices in the exhibition. I hope that comes across to visitors as well.”
Since its debut, Hobbs and Dugan have had a chance to see the renovated AMFA in person and both agree there is a lot for Arkansans to be proud of within those new walls.
“It’s kind of hard for me to still visualize the old space just because the new space is just so breathtaking and dynamic,” Hobbs says. “I think it’s going to do a lot in terms of making it feel like a more inclusive place where all different types of people are welcome, not only people who know a lot about art.”
As a child, Dugan was involved in children’s theater at the Arkansas Arts Center and spent a couple of summers in the academy program.
“It was especially meaningful to me to have this piece up on view at one of the first arts institutions where I spent time and a place that had been part of my childhood,” Dugan says.
“Hank and Samm are local, and one aspect of my work that’s really important is a commitment to representation, and particularly to representations of queer people and lives and experiences, and so I’m really touched that that piece is in the collection in Little Rock.”
“To me, Dugan’s photograph is one of the most essential works in the exhibition,” she says. “To include a portrait of people who live here made by an internationally-known artist who grew up here really emphasizes that the intent behind ‘Together’ is to welcome the surrounding community.”
Don't Miss It: "Together" closes Sept. 10. Learn more at arkmfa.org/art.