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Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts
Dail Chambers is in the reading room at GYA gallery, looking for a rolled-up scroll of butcher paper. It’s a blueprint for a project by the group of 7- to 14-year-old girls who come here on Sunday afternoons for the gallery’s GirlsCreate arts classes.
“The girls came up with one thing they wanted to do to change the world around them. And what they came up with was having a ‘face garden,’” Chambers says, then breaks into laughter at the lovely strangeness of the idea. “We’re still looking for a place, but I’ve already asked [Alderman] Antonio French for his ward, because I’m a new resident there. The way the girls described it is really great—basically, they would have chairs for ears, long grass for eyelashes, flowers for the mouth, tiles for the teeth, dinner plates for eyes—we went through every part of the face.”
GirlsCreate is just one of the regular happenings that have been occurring over the past 11 months in GYA’s open, bright, flexible space, where creativity infuses every corner—even the bathroom, where the ceiling’s tiled with bright linoleum-print plates made by St. Louis ArtWorks executive director Priscilla Block. (It used to be her studio. “We kind of decorate around them,” Chambers says appreciatively.)
Located on Locust Street in Midtown Alley, GYA’s been programming ambitiously, for an organization that’s a month shy of a year old. The gallery has an in-house shop that sells art, jewelry, fiber crafts, beauty goods, clothes, and music; it’s hosted exhibits, fashion shows, bazaars, and a film series, Sixpence Cinema. It was also the first venue to bring in Siphne Sylve, a female beatboxer and visual artist from New Orleans (who’s since been booked by more than one local poetry series). In October, the gallery threw a Fela Kuti Party for Nigeria’s independence day, where visiting Nigerian artist Ibiyinka Alao showed his work and gave a short lecture. (It was only 10 minutes—there was an Afrobeat DJ, and everyone wanted to keep dancing.)
GYA is also the home to Yeyo Arts Collective, a group of women artists “dedicated to women’s art and topics surrounding women’s issues, including family, youth, and community.” Yeyo means “mother” in Maa, the language of the Maasai, and there are definitely mothers among Yeyo’s core members, which include Chambers, the founding artistic organizer; fiber artist Jean Brantley, who runs GYA’s fine craft shop; multimedia artist Fannta Drummer, who is the group’s designer; photographer Chinyere Oteh, who handles programming and events; and painter Andrea Hughes, who functions as the group’s cooperative coordinator. Aside from providing a safe, creative space for women artists, Yeyo places a strong emphasis on intergenerational collaboration.
“My daughter’s 2,” Oteh says, “and just to be exposed to this—from this age, she thinks this is normal. She comes in and she’s asking for Jean and Dail and Andrea, and she gives everyone a hug. She thinks this is her second home, so when we have an event, she wonders why there’s 50 people here.”
“But a lot of the time, she knows the people,” Chambers adds.
“She sat in Andrea’s mother’s lap the whole time for the fashion show!” Oteh nods, smiling.
GYA and Yeyo make a generous space for mature artists as well. Milton Holmes, a pen-and-ink artist hanging in GYA’s reading room, is in his sixties; so is Jean Brantley, who recently moved back to St. Louis after making an art career in New York, Boston, and California. “I’m still trying to find out what’s going on here, for the most part,” she laughs. “And they’ve been helpful,” she says of Yeyo’s younger artists. In turn, Brantley has enriched Yeyo’s programming with her deep knowledge of textile arts (for instance, last year, she taught a class on silk-painting with French dyes). She herself makes what she terms “wall hangings”—constructed from silk, denim, burlap, and even branches and stones—that are far beyond the decorative objects that usually go by that name.
“I use burlap, I use silk, I use all kinds of fabrics. I roll them, I fold them, I cut circles, all kinds of things. A lot of it I sew—it’s half and half, some by hand, some by machine. My mother was a seamstress,” she explains. “I never really formally took sewing lessons, but vicariously I picked up a lot from her. Over the years, I’ve just been collecting fabric. I love the feel of it, the silks and the textures of it.”
GYA is very grounded in St. Louis (“I love being so close to the Scott Joplin House,” Chambers says. “Also Nu-Art. I had my first solo exhibition in St. Louis there in 2009. The Black Pages are right behind us, and then The Fountain on Locust…”). But the women of Yeyo want to continue to make wider circles, Chambers says, collaborating with more regional—and even international—artists.
“It feels like things are just built on relationships, where we already know people or we meet people, and then all of sudden, we’re collaborating and working together and the circle just keeps expanding,” Oteh says. “It’s actually a really nice, natural process.”
GYA Community Gallery & Fine Craft Shop is located at 2700 Locust. Winter hours are noon–6:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 11 a.m.–4 p.m. Saturday, and by appointment. This month, GYA launches a book club and hosts a month-long series of forums on contemporary black artists Thursdays at 6 p.m. In March, to celebrate its first birthday, an outdoor event will be held, weather permitting. For more info, or go to yeyoarts.blogspot.com or call 314-961-3575.
February 3: "Hooker Party" for knitting and crochet. Note: Bring yarn to trade. Free. Time: 7–9 p.m.
February 4: Thelonious Kryptonite poetry. $5 entry fee. Time: 7 p.m.
February 5: Artistik Approach listening session. $7 entry fee. Time: 6 p.m.
February 12: 49 Kwansabas for Fannie Lou Hamer by Treasure Williams. Light refreshments included. $10 entry fee. Time: 7 p.m.
February 13: Yeyo Arts Collective first annual fundraiser and Ethiopian dinner. This event is catered by Sine Berhanu of Ah!zeefah lentil dip, a local independent product that is served at places such as Old North Grocery Co-Op, Local Harvest, and Schlafly. All proceeds from the dinner will go towards the sustainability of Yeyo Arts Collectives Girls Create program and Sixpence Cinema. Tickets $25. Time: 3–6 p.m.
February 13: Sixpence Cinema. $3 entry fee. Time: 6–8 p.m.
February 18: Joy Wade exhibition opens.