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Memory and adornment: Art by Lance Smith at Winchester Center

In Lance Smith’s solo exhibit, For Always, there is a painting of a mother leaning over to tend to her child. She’s beautiful and smiling as she looks back toward the viewer. Her son, dressed in baby shoes and a one-piece outfit, fixates his gaze in the same direction. But the image of the pair set against a white background fades in and out like the recollection of a dream. 

When he is 10, she will have passed away, and the photograph from which the painting originated blends with the artist’s own hazy memory and sense of enduring love. Like other works in Smith’s exhibit at Winchester Cultural Center, it’s deeply personal but carries universal themes by reverberating boldly the strength of women, the continual resurfacing (and reconstructing) of memory.

Begun as a way to sort out his own internal conversations and to honor her, Smith looked for connecting threads, and it was through her adornments and ancillary items — a hot comb, a bottle of perfume, a copy of Jet magazine and a cassette tape labeled “Babyface” — that he found a way to build a body of work.

In six oil-on-canvas paintings, each one intentionally fuzzy, a gold earring is the anchor. But the attention immediately has the viewer focusing on her neck, her ear and the way her hair falls, the very place where a child's head would rest. Presented from different vantage points, with different outfits and hair styles — a short afro, a straightened bob or long curls — they bring the viewer into the canvas so intimately that you can feel her presence, though you only see a glimpse of her face.

A triptych, “No One in the World,” features black-and-white charcoal drawings of what seems to be a woman's face repeated — but only one of them is his mother. The other is him and another is a melding of them both, the artist  reflecting himself  through his mother. A suite of works titled “Innervisions” highlight her personal objects, and her old jewelry box sits partially open on a plinth, requiring the viewer to peer in much like a child would.

“All those powerful signifiers, physical memories, gave me the ability to remember her,” Smith says. “After all these years, those are the things I hold onto. In photos of her I kept seeing that similar earring. I wanted it to glow, to radiate this tenderness. Adornment was a lot for me.”

The adornment brings an inherent queerness to the show and plays into gender identity, he says. The earrings, the head wrap, his beautiful mother and him when he turns into a stunning woman, all comes together in a perfectly constructed intimate exhibit.

“It’s a way for me to affirm myself … to acknowledge the feminine energy, where we all come from, a connecting thread through memories that created you,” he says.

Of the memory, he says, “Sometimes it comes in really clear, sometimes things amplify and fade out almost like a breath. It’s kind of like breathing.”

For a moment in For Always, we breathe with him.

For Always can be seen through March 24, Winchester Cultural Center, 3130 S. McLeod Drive, 702-455-7340.

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