Artists sometimes find inspiration in unlikely places.
Lifelong artist and Hollidaysburg resident Penelope Wilson, along with her 11-piece exhibit currently on display in the Bottle Works Ethnic Art Center in Johnstown, are great examples of this.
Wilson's exhibit, which features painted collages made with recycled materials, was inspired by an article she read in Pennsylvania Magazine about secret quilt codes used to communicate with slaves traveling the Underground Railroad.
This painting,“Let Freedom Ring” by Penelope Wilson, shows a collage quilt background inspired from?Norman Rockwell’s painting?“The?Problem We All Live With.” The figure in the painting represents all people.
"I learned from reading the article how symbols sewn into quilts may have been use to help escaped slaves move north to freedom," Wilson said. "This led me to research this mystery of secret symbols. I found quilts were used to hide symbols into the overall patterns."
The bit of history fascinated Wilson so much that she incorporated it into her art. A quilt, or a pattern that mimics those in the quilt codes, are found in each of the paintings. The collection beings with an homage to Harriet Powers, a famous African American quilt maker, sowing a quilt in a rocking chair in a piece called "Harriet at Her Quilt." It ends with "Let Freedom Ring," which has a collage quilt background, as well as the colors of the American flag and a figure that "represents all people," Wilson said.
The quilt, and the history of the quilt codes, are the main storyline in the exhibit, she said.
If you go
What: "A Painting is Worth a Thousand Words" exhibit, featuring the paintings of Penelope Wilson and the mixed media art of Gregory Rance Thompson.
When: Through Feb. 29
Where: Bottle Works Ethnic Arts Center, 411 Third Ave., Johnstown
Details: Exhibit is free and open to the public. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.
"I thought that was interesting, that something you see every day, a utilitarian object, was actually used to help, to warn, to tell [slaves] there was a safe place to stay," Wilson said. "It's interesting that what we take for granted every day had a history behind them."
Wilson uses recycled materials like paper, plastics and metals in her own style of repousse, or metalworking. She said taking a green approach to her art, including using recycled paper and wood harvested from well-managed forests, is important to her because otherwise many of these materials would end up in a landfill.
"With everyone going green, it's just silly for you not to also sort of embrace that," she said. "Just the little things people throw away, you can use and make something really beautiful."
An example of this can be seen in her piece "Nia Liberty," where the figure who was modeled after the Statue of Liberty boasts a flame made from the films of discarded overhead projectors. For her green efforts, Wilson's work "Let Freedom Ring" was selected by the National Collage Society as part of their national exhibit "Green and Global Exhibit," being shown online.
Rosemary Pawlowski, executive director for Bottle Works, said Wilson's green initiative is just one of the reasons that make her exhibit a "gorgeous body of work."
"Her work is really so strong," Pawlowski said. "It speaks for itself."
Bottle Works is happy to house the work of a local artist that also fits in with their mission to "preserve and celebrate the cultural diversity of the peoples of this region through their arts," according to the center's website.
Pawlowski said she hopes the work of an artist with Wilson's stature will help to draw more people to the center to appreciate not only the exhibit, but how it makes the viewer think.
"I think she challenges the viewer to see something other than what they first see," she said.
Pawlowski added she is glad that the exhibit could also coincide with both Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month.
"This particular body of work just speaks so clearly to African Americans and their struggle for recognition and for freedom," she said. "I think [Wilson] demonstrates her sensitivity to that in this body of work."
The exhibit, also featuring the mixed media of Johnstown resident Gregory Rance Thompson, will be on display at Bottle Works through the end of February. Wilson's work will also be on display at the Anderson House in Bedford for the month of June to celebrate Junteenth, or June 19th, the day of African American Emancipation from slavery.
Staff Writer Beth Ann Downey is at 946-7520.