One of Natalie Orr's favorite paintings in her new collection is called "Aura."
The piece features a Black woman with her hair wrapped in a traditional African hairstyle called Bantu knots. She has her eyes closed and is looking up, possibly at the sun, as her skin looks golden brown.
"I just love the details of it, from the hair to the hands to the pose and the emotions she's conveying," Orr said. "That's definitely one of my favorites."
"Aura" is a play on the title of Orr's latest exhibition, "Aurora," which opened Thursday at the King Arts Complex in Columbus' King-Lincoln-Bronzeville neighborhood. The Downtown artist said she wanted to fill her pieces with colors like yellow, red and orange to remind people of the sun.
"When people walk in, I just want them to be so taken by the work that they feel like the sun is kind of staring directly at them," she said. "I want them to walk in and to just feel warm and comforted."
Members of the city's Black arts community may get that warm feeling for other reasons, too. Orr's exhibition represents the first art show the King Arts Complex has hosted since March 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic — and it's just in time for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
"We're thrilled to be open again," executive director Demetries Neely said. "People need engagement with each other; we're just built that way.
"We want to do what we can to bring some normalcy. We want to be able to navigate the new normal that still allows people to gather as safely as possible, try to avoid any unintended consequences, but still allowing people to enjoy the arts."
Neely said the arts organization reopened in June after Gov. Mike DeWine lifted capacity restrictions for indoor and outdoor events. Since then, some events have been held elsewhere due to renovations.
The organization is partnering with the Ohio History Center to hold a Martin Luther King Day celebration at the center from noon to 2 p.m. The featured speaker will be state Sen. Hearcel Craig at 12:15 p.m. and 1 p.m.
Ongoing renovations at the King complex are part of an $800,000 project that includes the lobby and auditorium. Neely said the project is "99% done," but is waiting on fencing for the expanded patio, which is expected to be completed in March.
Marshalll Shorts, a King-Lincoln-Bronzeville artist and designer, a former tenant at the King Arts Complex, and vice chair of the Maroon Arts Group board, a Black-led nonprofit based in the neighborhood, said the return of arts exhibitions at the complex gives Black artists another important space to showcase their work.
"The King Arts Complex has a beautiful facility and gallery that has for a long time been underutilized due to various reasons," Shorts said. "As a former tenant and artist, I am keenly aware of the lack of spaces for Black artists in the city. My hope is that this exhibition signifies a step in a new direction for the complex."
Columbus comic artist, painter and educator Bryan Moss said the two-year hiatus on art shows was sad given the King Arts Complex's role as an anchor in the Black arts community. He said the venue is a safe space for him to show his work.
"When they closed and had no art shows, it limits what artists who are on the creative side have access to, and it affects us financially, spiritually...," Moss said. "It's one of those things where you miss the community. It's like losing a finger or something."
King Arts Complex: Nurturing a new generation of artists
For mixed-media artist Richard Duarte Brown, the reopening of the complex means a new generation of artists will be able to benefit from the space. He said he appeared in his first group show at the King Arts Complex in 1990 called "Brothers." While there, he connected with current curator Lyn Logan-Grimes and the curator at the time, Bettye Stull.
Over the years, the Columbus artist has appeared in several group exhibits at the arts venue.
"It's important to have spaces where we can go in and be ourselves and unapologetically be who we are," Brown said. "It's important to have spaces where we house our history or house creatives and address the needs of communities. So, it's very vital to have space that's ours."
Orr was at the King Arts Complex on a recent Monday afternoon setting up for her exhibit with her mother, Kimberly Orr. The 20-piece collection added pops of color to the white walls of the Elijah Pierce Gallery, which will be open from 6-8 p.m. through March 12 for the free exhibition.
The 26-year-old artist began working in December 2019 on the collection, which mostly consists of paintings of Black women. Orr said she wanted to see herself represented in her work, but she also was inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests that occurred in the summer of 2020.
For the models featured in the paintings, Orr found them on one of the safest places to interact with people during the pandemic — the internet. She said she connected with her models on Instagram; one of them lives as far away as Italy.
"Mainly, I'll just be searching through the 'explore' page and then I'll just see someone where I have to paint them, and then I'll reach out and ask and then we just go from there," Orr said.
Orr had her first solo art exhibition at the King Arts Complex in 2015. She said it's a full-circle moment coming back to have her latest show at the venue.
She said she was first introduced to the complex as a senior at Reynoldsburg High School when her class took a field trip there. Their tour guide was Logan-Grimes, who asked if anyone in the group was an artist.
"I wasn't gonna say anything because I had just started and I wasn't really confident in my work and I didn't want to be shot down or anything," Orr said. "One of my friends was like, 'Nat paints' and I was like, 'I'm going to have to show her my stuff.'
"But sure enough, I showed her a couple of pieces, we exchanged our contact info, and this was the first actual gallery setting that I was able to exhibit in because she let me participate in a couple of group shows here," Orr said.
"I feel like I'm right back home."
The free art exhibition by Natalie Orr will be on view in the Elijah Pierce Gallery of the King Arts Complex, 835 Mt. Vernon Ave., on Thursdays from 6 to 8 p.m. through March 12.
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Black artists exhibits return to King Arts Center with Natalie Orr