Debra Priestly has a one-person exhibit, memory walking, at 11 Jane Street Art Center in Saugerties through December 13. Priestly’s art is held in prestigious collections including Pennsylvania Academy for the Fine Arts, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The Sandor Family Collection and Petrucci Family Foundation. This exhibit shows the breadth of Priestly’s artmaking, including installation, painting, and drawing that examines memory and generational links through the backdrop of history.
Many of the objects featured in Priestly’s work are ordinary domestic objects found in every home. Priestly commented, “For many years, I have been interested in the way common rituals, such as the preparation and consumption of food, and the everyday objects used in these rituals can spark a dialogue.” And this is part of Priestly’s oeuvre – to honor the mythology that grows from the ordinary rituals that we practice in our daily life.
Immediately on entering the gallery visitors can view “looking glass 8,” a collection of mismatched teacups fashioned into a large wreath. Decorative imagery on the cups mingle with hand-painted portraits and photo transfers from the artists’ family photos. Priestly commented; “The conversations about the cups, sometimes over tea, always lead to a conversation about ancestry.”
The ubiquitous canning jar is seen frequently in her work where we can understand the symbolism of preserving history. While most of the artworks spring from personal stories, in “strange fruit 2” Priestly has collected historic drawings featured in newspapers, advertising flyers for slave auctions and anti-slave meetings, and imagery of the 1800’s Black heroes, such as Sojourner Truth and Nat Turner. The 40 images encapsulated in canning jars and presented together in one piece create a strong statement about the history of America and the memories that all American Black families have in their lives.
Priestly has several delicate drawings and paintings on exhibit: in one, she has traced points on a map and painted zodiac constellations that recall migrations to new lands. In another, a simple line drawing in the shape of a canning jar holds imagery within – sometimes a portrait of an ancestor painted from a photograph, or a rendering of the rack that fits inside of the pot when making preserves. These common objects are painted with reverence, acknowledging the place they hold in life’s order.
Proceeding ahead to Gallery North, see the installation, “somewhere listening,” where Priestly pulls together all the themes seen in her work weaving together family stories and memories that trace their histories. The portraits of Annie Laura Denny Priestly and William Henry Priestly at the far end of the gallery depict the artist’s ancestors beautifully rendered in vine charcoal. Three soup tureens are placed strategically on the path to the portraits where visitors will hear murmurings of recordings emanating from Priestly’s relatives recounting migration stories, songs and prayers. Altogether the sound and artworks create a shrine to family – the memories, stories, and the implication that every day we create our own history that will be remembered in the future.
Debra Priestly, memory walking is at 11 Jane Street Art Center through December 13, 2020, located at 11 Jane Street, Saugerties, NY.
Hours: Friday-Saturday: noon-6:00 p.m. and Sunday: noon-5:00 p.m., and by appointment: (508) 241-0273 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
This was originally published in the Poughkeepsie Journal Lifestyle, November 15, 2020.