“Distinctly Human, portraits by Kwanza Humphrey,” The Gallery at HJ’s Community Center

Kwanza Humphrey, “Transit Thoughts”

There is something about the quieter moments of life that speak to the core of the human experience. Consider the stillness at home in the evening after a day spent funeralizing a loved one. The services have ended. Family and friends have returned home. The resulting quietness and the inner conversations that arise from it speak to us in ways that nothing else can. It is the place where we come to grips with who we are in this world and make peace with what we have done with our lives.

“Distinctly Human, portraits by Kwanza Humphrey” captures the strong voice of these quieter moments through tenderly powerful paintings and drawings. Currently on view at HJ’s Community Center, these engaging works showcase Humphrey’s compositional skills, masterful use of muted color palettes, delicate use of shading, and his honed ability to capture normally unseen nuances of facial expression.

Humphrey’s drawing and painting skills are reflective of his 20 years of creative experience and a lengthy professional background in design. A commercial arts graduate (with an emphasis on painting and expression) of Missouri Western State College (now University), he was one of the artists chosen to create work for the new KCI airport terminal.

Kwanza Humphrey, “Gathered to Reveal”

“When I paint, I try to capture an emotion and feeling that you wouldn’t normally see,” Humphrey says. “Painting is an emotional experience for me, so much so that it’s hard to put into words the way I work. Sometimes I have a conversation with myself and shape a feeling. Other times I just let go and let my subconscious take over where color and brush are the medium I use to communicate.”

“Associated Civility,” a 48 x 36” oil painting, captures a woman of color at what appears to be a picnic against a cloudy blue sky and the figures of other park goers relaxing on the grass. The woman’s rapt attention is focused on something we cannot see. She isn’t physically close to anyone, however, and that speaks to an idea of civility somewhat detached from intimacy. She is present while also being absent, an experience we can all relate to. It’s a state of mind not often captured in art — especially painting, where subjects are often portrayed as focused and intent — but which Humphrey manages to convey. 

“Transit Thoughts,” a 60 x 48” oil painting, captures a subject (modeled by the artist’s father) on a crowded city bus. The riders are looking down, up, and away . . . all with their thoughts. In this portrayal of individuals who are in close physical proximity but worlds apart internally, the artist captures the ironies of being distinctly human in the context of the urban experience. None of them speaks or converses with their neighbors. Each subject is living in his or her small sphere of reality. In the very back of the painting, a young lady leans against the wall and looks at the viewer with very tired eyes. We have no clue what these people are thinking, but we know that their thoughts are as important to them as our thoughts are to us.

Here, the artist reminds us that in a world of self-inflation and overused affirming adjectives, we all live in our own tiny multiverses swimming in a massive sea of multiverses. Humphrey’s use of expression and a muted palette forces us to confront the fact that we are parts of a whole and without the whole we are nothing, yet without us, the whole is incomplete. Yes, we are distinctly human.

Kwanza Humphrey, “Jessica”

The exhibit also includes the 12 x 9” studies that Humphrey created in preparation for his work at KCI, which, in addition to being masterful artworks of their own, give us a peek into his creative process. For the airport work, the artist chose individuals (including this writer), from a diverse range of experiences that he believed reflected the diversity and spirit of Kansas City. As in most of Humphrey’s work, the subjects are portrayed looking away and into an optimistic but uncertain future, embracing their individuality within the human experience.

Though small, and created from photographs taken by the artist, these studies display technical mastery and the ability to create visual impact on a small scale as well as a large scale. 

Rounding out this exhibition, and showcasing the artist’s traditional skills, is a selection of charcoal drawings. Created from live models, these small drawings successfully capture a sense of human vulnerability that is a necessary part of authenticity. The shading is delicate and precise, and Humphrey’s mark making is reflective of the skill with which he approaches his art practice. As in all his works, these drawings speak of a peacefulness that comes when one has embraced his or her distinct humanity.

Following this exhibition, Humphrey will be participating in the “The Berlin Files – Unapologetic” BAAR Art Journey exhibition, which will be shown at Charlotte Street, Habitat Contemporary, InterUrban ArtHouse, Studios Inc and the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art. He will also be exhibiting at the Bruce Watkins Cultural Center.

Based at InterUrban ArtHouse in Overland Park, Kwanza Humphrey is one of Kansas City’s most highly respected artists, and this exhibition shows us why. He’s also a very approachable and personable individual. This artist is “good people.”

“Distinctly Human, portraits by Kwanza Humphrey” continues at The Gallery at HJ’s, 6425 Wornall Rd. through June 30. Hours are 8 to 11 a.m. (with free coffee), or by appointment with Angie Jennings, art coordinator, angiejenningsphotography@gmail.com. For more information, 816.606.3239 or www.hjsbrookside.org

Harold Smith

Harold Smith is an educator and multimedia artist who lives and works in the Kansas City area. Most of his work is focused on his experience within the American black experience.

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