The 20-year history of Ron Chaney’s EthnicArt Gallery has come full circle. In an opening celebration on December 15th, Chaney inaugurated his new gallery space, located in the heart of the 18th and Vine District with its first show, “The Art of Jonathan Knight.”
Chaney’s vision and commitment to bring the work of African American and other artists of color to Kansas City began in 1997, when he opened his first gallery at a nearby space in the 18th and Vine area.
“I first thought of opening a gallery in 1989,” said Chaney. “At that time, I wanted to put artwork created by an artist of color in my daughter’s room and it was difficult to find galleries that carried work by African American artists. Once we opened in 1997, we showed artists of color from around the country. Some have become very successful in the art world.”
Though Chaney closed this first gallery the weekend before 9/11, his dreams for the future of EthnicArt Gallery, as well as his goals for a more inclusive art experience in Kansas City, remained strong. In 2012, he reopened in a new location on Troost Avenue and operated from there until an opportunity to return to 18th and Vine presented itself in 2016.
“The transition has come full circle and we have a more visible position in the area now,” said Chaney. “Art is a conduit for bringing people together from different cultures and experiences. 18th Street lends itself to these different cultures and experiences.”
For its inaugural exhibit featuring Jonathan Knight, the gallery is showcasing the award-winning watercolorist’s depth and breadth. Chaney first showed Knight’s work in his former gallery space during the late 1990s.
“Jonathan’s work is subtle yet powerful. Sometimes, when we talk about African-American art, we talk about its power, but it can be subtle, too, like jazz. Sometimes those sounds can be loud and boisterous; sometimes they are softer. Knight can be subtle, but the power is there.”
“I’ve always loved Jonathan’s work. He is well-collected and you can’t deny he has mastered watercolors.”
A National Watercolor Society Signature Member, Knight has paintings in numerous museums, as well as in public and private collections around the world. Though known as a watercolorist, Knight deftly moves from watercolor to oil, and graphite to pastel in his work.
A visual storyteller, Knight impresses with extraordinary ability and mastery, regardless of the medium he chooses. In his creative exploration, Knight simultaneously weaves figurative elements with the expressive and abstract through compositions that range from minimal to complex.
He shares a vision that encompasses his own language of allegory and symbolism, which figures prominently throughout his work. From paintings to drawings, Knight’s virtuoso visual storytelling connects us to his subjects and to the stories he wants to share.
“My subjects are on a journey. The journey says, “I’m here, I’m alive, and I’m going to continue on my journey,”” said Knight.
In his thought-provoking graphite and charcoal portraits such as “Dancer,” hope, yearning, resilience, and triumph are mined and uncovered by Knight. Through the graceful yet powerful details of a simple gaze or gesture, he evokes awareness and understanding of the duality, and even plurality, of human existence. In his drawings, lines move from figurative to abstract, inviting us to finish the story.
Knight skillfully invokes his subjects’ yearning for life’s direction. We see and feel the world through their spirits, revealed not only in the nuances of each pencil, pastel, or brush stroke, but in the artist’s composition and color choices, all infused with meaning. For example, Knight consistently uses red to represent life’s reward, or victory through struggle.
In the figurative watercolor, “The Caged Bird Sings,” a woman shares a confined existence with a caged, featherless bird. She holds his plucked scarlet feathers in a bouquet of freedom, as she contemplates her escape—and future—through the solitary window in her small room.
Regardless of medium, Knight’s work is also immersed in the four elements, drawing on the power and beauty of nature to lay the foundation for his visual allegory.
In the large-scale oil triptych, “Ascension,” Knight lays an unyielding cosmos in fields of seemingly impassable blue-black impasto. Yet, through the darkness, cerulean blue stars emerge to shine light on the birth of a red fire exploding to consume the darkness.
“The flames represent mankind,” said Knight. “They are the triumph which exudes through the dark; the reward for positivity through strife.”
As with the Knight exhibit, Chaney plans to continue his multi-faceted commitment to bringing inclusive art experiences to Kansas City, its arts community—and its children.
“When I worked for the school district in urban schools, I would see African American kids drawing. However, art has not typically been a career venue that they have chosen, or that they are typically exposed to.”
“Recently, MoMA (The Museum of Modern Art in New York) did a retrospective of Kerry James Marshall’s work. To see those images as large as a wall was powerful. I can only imagine how powerful it would be for a child who has never seen anything like that—especially for those kids who draw a lot. They don’t see art every day like Marshall’s or Knight’s.”
“African American art is our focus at the gallery right now but we are going to bring in other work. Currently, we also have our eyes on showing Cuban art,” said Chaney.
“The Art of Jonathan Knight” continues at EthnicArt Gallery, 1516 E. 18th St., Kansas City, through January 31. Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Closed Sunday-Monday. For more information, (816) 875-6278, firstname.lastname@example.org, or ethnicartgallerykc.com