Richmond artist and SPARC’s visual art director Abernathy Bland spreads her message of kindness and inclusion
For Richmond artist Abernathy Bland, art is a language, and she has a lot she wants to say.
“Our environment is begging for people to say things,” Bland says, “and I don’t want to be passive.”
One of Bland’s primary messages is that all human beings are important, regardless of their abilities. While Bland attended Godwin High School and the University of Mary Washington, her passion for people of different abilities ignited as she volunteered to do swim and horse therapy with a neuro-diverse community. Her desire to lift up the neuro-diverse now coincides beautifully with her passion for creating.
“I have pursued everything I love, and when you do that in individual ways, the passions end up colliding,” Bland says.
When starting out as an artist, Bland worked with the Visual Arts Center of Richmond but also regularly traveled to New York City to collaborate with her brother, who at that time was a playwright. They would make puppets and develop black box shows at the Old Kent Road Theater. Through that work, Bland discovered her passion for theater and storytelling.
Then, about seven years ago, Bland happened to be with Erin Thomas-Foley, SPARC’s senior director of education, as she was brainstorming Live Art, a performance by celebrities and students of all abilities that helps build performing skills and deepens students’ ability to connect. By the end of that encounter, Bland earned the title of director of visual art for Live Art, managing, as she describes, “set design and any visual or graphic you see.”
Her work with Live Art is a perfect combination of her interests.
“You should always be somewhere where your heart is beating fast,” Bland says. “I have felt that at Live Art.”
Bland says she feels that same excitement when mentoring at Milk River Arts, a local organization that guides artists with developmental disabilities.
As a working artist, Bland often fulfills commissions; she feels fortunate to be in a place where her patrons give her creative license to pursue art that excites her, work that is beautiful but also meaningful and raw.
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In addition to being a full-time artist and teacher, Bland works as a sign language interpreter; she finished her sign language degree just a year ago. Although she considers herself an artist first and foremost, working with the deaf community is another passion that links with her focus on communication and supporting all populations.
“This is a side hustle that really matters to me,” Bland says. “I have found meaningful ways to make a living and do what I care about.”
Another way Bland communicates with the world is through creating illustrations accompanied by a message. One, for instance, depicts a figure donning a hat with insect antennae and a tutu reaching out to another figure in a superhero cape. The words above read, “We aren’t the same. Love each other anyway. No. No. Love each other because of it.”
In the exterior mural Bland created for Foo Dog restaurant in the Fan District, she depicted Little Red Riding Hood perched atop a tall bike, grabbing at various items hanging from strings. In front of the bike are the words, “go for it. all.”
As Bland explains, these illustrations respond to our environment, and they provide a chance for her to express her thoughts in a meaningful and lasting way. Although there is an elegant simplicity and even whimsical feel to these works, they have a clear, authentic voice and encourage connection between artist and viewer. Bland strives to convey a message that viewers will respond to even if they have opposing thoughts.
“Art lets you go to that other level beyond the superficial,” Bland says. “If I make art that reaches into the nooks and crannies, I can make my community better.”
Though Bland acknowledges there is a sweetness to her illustrations, she finds it frustrating when people call them cute.
“To me that dismisses the seriousness of the message,” Bland says. “The illustrations may be sweet, but they are full of warrior heart.”
Just like the artist herself.