Three otherwise unrelated shows at the PCA draw on storytelling for their power | Pittsburgh City Paper

Three otherwise unrelated shows at the PCA draw on storytelling for their power

These are the works that inspire, provoke and resonate

"The Village," by Yvonne Palkowitsh, from Storytellers: Truth Be Told!
"The Village," by Yvonne Palkowitsh, from Storytellers: Truth Be Told!

Three unrelated organizations currently have exhibitions on view at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. Though housed under the same roof and occupying the same span on the calendar, they are otherwise unconnected. At least, that is, by intent: Each show was curated independently, without a nod or thought to its neighbors. But while there is no synchronicity by design, the relevance and importance of a single show's theme is demonstrated by the other two as well.

The 41 works in Women of Visions, Inc.'s Storytellers: Truth Be Told! can be divided into a few groupings: figurative works representing storytellers; abstract works inspired by storytellers; and works that in and of themselves tell stories. There's a great deal of beauty in the first two, but it's those in the ultimate category that command our attention strongest and longest. Whether by spinning an easily followed tale from beginning to end or showing us a single moment frozen in time, these are the works that inspire, provoke and resonate. They range from photographs and found-object sculpture to fiber arts, painting, ceramics and mixed-media pieces.

"Mourning Mothers, Wounded Souls," by Charlotte Ka, is remarkably stirring in its honest simplicity — a sculptural representation of the unofficial memorials erected by family and friends to those taken by violence, marking the location of the loss. Two photographs by Yvonne Palkowitsh, including one of a child being lifted from a field by multiple entwined hands, spur the imagination. Sandra German's posthumously displayed quilts speak volumes. Pieces like Christine McCray Bethea's succinctly titled "For the Love of Black Cowboys," Tina Williams Brewer's "Sing For Me, Oh Gauley Bridge" and Laverne Kemp's "Black Moss/Hainted Trees" are as spellbinding are they are evocative, transmitting the scope of history through the pinpoint of the personal.

Works with less-evident trajectories are rich as well, like Mary Martin's bust "Where I Come From" and several pieces by Joanne Bates. What they have to say is softer-spoken, but just as well communicated.

The storytellers upon whom Women of Visions focus are the contemporary embodiment of ancient ritual passed down through oral tradition, particularly of the African diaspora. What this exhibition brings to bear is not only this specific incarnation of storytelling, but the realization that storytelling — the progression of a narrative — is at the root of everything. "Storytelling" seems like an old-timey word, an antiquated practice dimly illuminated by candlelight and relevant only when there were no other options. It's sometimes called a "lost art." But nothing could be further from the truth. As television, film, theater, radio, visual art, music and conversation all attest, story is what everything comes from, and it's where everything is going.

But Women of Visions' contribution is not limited to the space that the group's artists fill. Intentionally or not, it's the keystone for the PCA's other two current exhibitions.

For the most part, the abstract narratives contained within the 57 works in Construct, presented by the Fiberarts Guild of Pittsburgh, are the most enticing. Julia Betts' "Detritus" might appear to be a sketchy heap of shredded (not uniformly) paper on a platform, but the combination of the title and the media used to create it ("ground self-images") expresses volumes. "In-Visible," by Dafna Rehavia, is heartbreakingly eloquent in combining text on women from the Bible and from the so-called "women's chapter" of Koran.

Meanwhile, in the Craftsmen Guild of Pittsburgh's exhibition Illusions, the unintentional celebration of the narrative continues in 46 works in cut paper, blown glass and ink. Michael Mangiafico traps a beaded structure replicating cellular material, preserved, perhaps literally, under glass, in "Reliquary for a Black and Tan Cancer." David Montgomery traps miniature worlds in shoebox-sized enclosures, the most enchanting being a tiny corner of a garden where an antique bird bath has drawn a feathered crowd. And Rochel Schiffrin's cut-paper hangings invent dimensions within their own.

Taken together, these three shows at the PCA include multitudes of works, in all shapes and sizes, formed from the most expected materials to the most, somewhat grotesquely, unimagined. (Cat hair, since you're wondering.) There are artists in every media at various stages in their development with diverse philosophies on their lives and their work. But they all share the need to tell the story. This show reminds us that storytelling is not a lost art, but all art.