Durham native and visual artist Maya Freelon discovered her trademark medium in her grandmother’s basement while in graduate school in Boston in 2006. A long-forgotten rainbow pack of colored tissue paper had been transformed over time by a constant drip of water, likely from a leaky pipe. The center of the paper had been washed white, driving the color outward into a concentrated line. The striking result resonated with the artist.
Soon after, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast and she witnessed water literally moving people to the margins. “The discovery of this stack of ‘bleeding’ tissue paper provided a powerful allegory for what was happening to Black people in New Orleans,” the artist explains.
Recognizing the parallel of water moving color and people of color, as well as its destructive powers, Freelon embarked on a fifteen-year career using tissue as her primary medium and posing questions through her delicate and ephemeral art centered around inequality, the value of impermanent art, and the hierarchy of art materials. “What makes something precious?” she asks. “How much pressure is needed until something is ripped?” Her celebrated work has been displayed at the Smithsonian, the North Carolina Museum of Art, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and in overseas embassies, among other places.
Today, Freelon sees a similar story of marginalization play out on a larger scale as African Americans continue to experience the highest death rates from the COVID-19 pandemic. Her current solo exhibition, Greater Than or Equal To, at Raleigh’s Contemporary Art Museum, is the artist’s first solo museum exhibition in North Carolina and challenges the norm of art materials and the value system of Black lives and Black art through her delicate, vibrant watermarked tissue paper quilts, tissue-ink monoprints, and archival family photos. “The use of delicate tissue paper in my work continues to represent the resilience of people deemed insignificant and the power of our collective unity,” the artist says.
Growing up in Durham, Freelon was nurtured as a young artist while attending Durham public schools (E.K. Powe Elementary School, Durham School of the Arts, and the Governor's School of North Carolina). “I love how integrated the arts were in my schools,” she says. “I felt encouraged and supported throughout my early creative exploration.” As she grew older, like so many young adults, she wanted to get out and learn how to make “real art” in a “real city.” Freelon studied abroad in Paris, lived and worked in New York City and Boston, and was a professor in Baltimore at Morgan State University and Towson University. “After about fifteen years away from NC, I decided it was time to come home. I missed the sweet, quiet, kind, and quirky place I grew up, and I wanted to raise my kids in the same nurturing environment.”
Now settled back in the Triangle with her children and her partner, Jess Vanhook, Freelon continues to evolve as a person and an artist. Like so many small businesses, she has felt the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the events of 2020. Commissions have paused and sales have gone down, though she is fortunate enough to have grants, public commissions, corporations, and museums supporting her artwork. Amidst the setbacks, she’s found the opportunity to learn and relearn lessons of patience and perseverance, to “go with the flow” and, the adage her grandmother used to repeat to her, “a delay is not a denial.” She’s also been learning how to surf. “You need to work with the ocean to ride the wave rather than forging your own path through raging water,” Freelon says. “I am staying afloat and waiting patiently.”
Greater Than or Equal To can be seen at CAM Raleigh mthrough February 14.