On the third floor of the University of Kentucky’s School of Art and Visual Studies, there’s an art studio. It’s not terribly big but it’s stuffed with 10-foot tall canvases, a pile of shoes dipped in glue and covered in black glitter, big jugs of pink, blue and green glitter, some bottled water, and a few snacks piled on a corner table. Taking up most of the room is a huge styrofoam board scattered with bits of glued cloth.
There’s not much to tell you that the board will soon morph into a tapestry worth tens of thousands of dollars, or that the room is the creative incubator of one of the most sought-after young artists in the world.
Ebony G. Patterson has been a painting professor at UK since 2007, but these days, she has to maneuver her schedule around a busy lineup of shows and exhibitions. On Thursday, she was in Ann Arbor, speaking at her solo show at the University of Michigan. This month and next, her work will be featured at the Illinois State University in Chicago, and later this year, she will have her biggest museum show at the Perez Art Museum Miami. Her sumptuous, bejeweled tapestries and tableaux have appeared at Art Basel in Miami, shows in Atlanta, Cuba, Canada, her native Jamaica and even the 21c Museum Hotel in Lexington. The New York Times hailed her “smashing solo show,” at the city’s Museum of Arts and Design, Vogue Magazine profiled her, and the TV show “Empire,” hung some of her art in a character’s penthouse. And then, just two weeks ago, she was named a recipient of the United States Artists Fellowship Award in the visual arts, which comes with a prize of $50,000.
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Patterson, in other words, is an art world superstar who happens to live and work in Lexington.
She, however, doesn’t really like that description.
“There’s something about the word superstar that seems like that person is unapproachable or unengaging,” she said in a recent interview. “I just work and I just love what I do and I’m willing to trust in whatever it is I’m doing and seeing wherever it takes me. A star today can be not so interesting tomorrow.”
Patterson, 36, concedes she’s had good timing — her work asks questions about race, gender, violence and identity at a moment when our culture is eager to examine and discuss those issues. Critics have been enthralled with her work inspired by Jamaican dancehall culture, where she explored that world’s hyper-masculinity and violence amid gender-bending sartorial fare.
Her work is audacious and unforgettable.
Stuart Horodner, UK Art Museum director
“Her work is about a legacy of representing people of color, and she combines that interest with a deep, opulent visual sense, an appreciation of materials and the associations they bring,” said Stuart Horodner, director of the UK Art Museum. “Her work is speaking to a particular moment in the art world at a time when issues of race and identity are being focused on, and artists of color are getting more recognition. Her work is audacious and unforgettable, and curators, galleries and collectors have noticed.”
One of her newest shows, which opened Thursday at the University of Michigan, is titled “Of 72,” referencing the 72 men and a woman who disappeared during an armed conflict between drug cartels and police in Kingston, Jamaica in 2010. The faces are set into bandanas appliqued with flowers and jewels, then half-covered with more cloth. On the floor beneath them sits another tableau of glittery images and ghostly glass shoes.
Shoes have always been a preoccupation, and Patterson picks them up wherever she can for materials.
“I kind of find shoes incredibly haunting, something about a pair of shoes in a random place, something that’s supposed to be activated by the presence of someone, and there’s this absence of that body so it becomes ghostly,” she said. “So much of my work has to do with these ideas of violence and these ideas around visibility, particularly as it relates to bodies that exist in working-class spaces, bodies that are seen as disenfranchised in post-colonial spaces.”
Patterson grew up in the post-colonial space of Kingston, Jamaica, the sun-soaked Caribbean island and former British colony, known for music more than visual arts. But she knew from an early age that she would be an artist, and attended the Edna Manley College of Visual and Performing Arts before coming to the United States for graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis. She taught for a year at the University of Virginia, then sent out about 80 applications to different schools around the country before coming to UK.
I don’t think my 21-year-old self could have imagined the life I’m living right now.
Academia provides a stable perch for practicing artists, and Patterson credits UK for allowing her work to flourish. She’s not out and about in Lexington much; for one thing, she travels nearly every weekend to her various shows and commitments, and for another, she spends every spring break, Christmas vacation and summer with her mother back in Kingston.
“Everything that I am, all of my sense of self is in that place,” she said. “My mother is there, I’m her only child and my mother is my home, so yes, I go home quite frequently. Because the pace of Kingston is so different from the pace of Lexington, I find that when I come back, I’m often quite energized, and ready to go.” She also has a studio in Kingston. “That’s also incredibly important, I feel very guilty when I’m not working.”
That work includes teaching the young artists at UK. “It’s incredibly fulfilling, it is a very humbling position,” she said. “I learn a lot from my students — they teach me patience, also too, when I do have students who are incredibly exceptional they challenge me, they give me more to go back to studio with.”
And Patterson brings a lot of luster to UK’s College of Fine Arts, said Horodner.
“If you say this person is getting all of this attention and at the same time chooses to be a committed faculty member here, well, it’s a tremendous draw for students to work with someone who is achieving what they hope to achieve some day,” he said.
It’s also a boon to fellow faculty, said Robert Jensen, director of the School of Art and Visual Studies.
“I think one of the major ways that she contributes to the school is she sets this incredible standard for creativity and productivity,” he said. “It raises the bar for students, but it also affects the faculty. She demonstrates you can actually be at the University of Kentucky and end up with a global reputation and for some of our younger faculty, that’s encouraging to know.”
Jensen, who thinks Patterson might be the most famous living visual artist in Kentucky, said he recently interviewed a job candidate. When asked about influences, the woman said: “I really, really, really like Ebony Patterson,” without any idea that she taught at UK. “A lot of young artists are looking up to her.”
Mayor Jim Gray, who collects contemporary art, bought one of Patterson’s tapestries about 10 years ago at a show at Transylvania University.
“I thought, wow, this is great work, so inventive,” he said. “As soon as you see her work, you see how remarkable it is.”
Last year, he took a trip with UK President Eli Capilouto to the Birmingham Art Museum, where the first piece they saw was by Patterson.
“We both commented on how remarkable it is to have an artist in our midst whose work has become so quickly acclaimed both nationally and internationally,” Gray said. “It’s a big deal to have someone in residence in your city who is achieving this level of critical acclaim.”
Patterson may not be at UK forever, either lured away by the possibility of another school or that of working full time, but she is able to appreciate this moment.
“The fact I’m experiencing what I am experiencing doesn’t happen to everyone,” she said. “I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunities that I have been presented with. ... I don’t think my 21-year-old self could have imagined the life I’m living right now.”