Memphis on the Upswing: The 2019 ArtsAccelerator Grant Winners

(From top left to bottom right) 2019 ArtsAccelerator grant recipients Sharon Havelka, Lacy Mitcham, Juan Rojo, Aisha Raison, Chuck Johnson and Jed Jackson. Photos courtesy of ArtsMemphis.

by Clay Palmer


(From top left to bottom right) 2019 ArtsAccelerator grant recipients Sharon Havelka, Lacy Mitcham, Juan Rojo, Aisha Raison, Chuck Johnson and Jed Jackson. Photos courtesy of ArtsMemphis.


Since 2013, ArtsMemphis has awarded grants to working visual artists in Shelby County to support them at a critical juncture in their practice. By doing so, ArtsMemphis encourages growth and artistic development for Memphis as a region and focuses on creating an environment focused on progress and enrichment of the visual culture of the city. For the first time since the grant’s inception, the number of winners that receive the $5,000 award was increased from five to six for 2019. I was given the privilege of interviewing this year’s grant winners regarding their artistic practices, as well as their thoughts on the current state of the Memphis scene.


For emerging artist Sharon Havelka, whose practice involves the intricate and historically-rich practice of quilt-making, this grant provides an upgrade in studio equipment, including new cabinetry and a quilt wall, as well as offsetting the hefty costs that often plague budding artists: a camera for photographing finished works, website management, and exhibition expenses. She notes, “As an emerging artist I appreciate the local recognition and support. To have funds dedicated solely towards the production and application of art is a luxury in this pragmatic world of responsibility. It will afford me to have something I otherwise would have put off until later, always later.”


Havelka’s work has been included in several recent exhibitions in Memphis, including December 2018’s Homeward Bound at Crosstown Arts.


Grants like this one are necessary for sustaining an artistic practice that is not focused on artwork that can be utilized as a commodity according to grant-winner and emerging artist Lacy Mitcham. Mitcham states, “In the research I have done, the kind of work I find impactful, that is both historically and contemporarily important in a way that I relate to, is not art that is easily marketable. Installations, ephemeral objects, video and performance are not objects that can often be acquired and enjoyed in the same way that more object- and image-based work has the capacity for. The financial support that this grant offers allows me to get a better foothold into my practice.”


Mitcham completed her MFA from the University of Memphis in 2018 and was recently featured in the 2019 Young Collector’s Contemporary exhibition at Crosstown Arts. She is also an emerging designer with the Memphis Fashion Design Network. Her current work is focused around the human body from the female perspective and its representation through various materials in an abstract manner.


For mid-career artists like Juan Rojo, the availability of grants to promote artistic growth through studio practices as well as self-promotion are necessary for artists that are trying to break, as he remarks, “into the next level, to actively look for new venues to show my work and to be able to buy and try new and better materials with the peace of mind that the money is not an issue.”


 This is especially true for Rojo, whose paintings are represented both locally at Jay Etkin Gallery in Memphis and internationally at the Rodrigo Juarranz Gallery in Spain.  Rojo’s new work that will be supported by this grant will address family relations, empathy, and migrants through depictions of the figure. He will also have six paintings on view during the Affordable Art Fair that will take place in London, England on May 9-12, 2019.


Photographer, filmmaker and poet Aisha Raison also knows the struggle for mid-career and established artists that are trying to push their artistic practices in new directions. “One of the biggest problems that I have had over the years has been space, equipment, and time,” says Raison. “This [grant] gives me a chance for better lights, camera, studio time, and study of film through master classes.


Raison expresses the value of spaces that support artists, including Crosstown Arts’ Shared Workspace program, of which she is a member. This summer her first exhibition, entitled Re-Verse’d, will be a study of photography, film and audio through the eyes of African-American women from Memphis in the last century, a dream that she has pursued since she was 19 years old.


Painter Chuck Johnson is a well-established artistic presence in the Memphis scene. Johnson’s work often involves painting on paper and panel, and his desire to work on larger surfaces can incur large expenses. Johnson also appreciates the recognition that these grants offer towards lesser-known artists in a career field that is not always about “how talented you are but how much noise you make.” He hopes that in broadening out, the Memphis scene will move past the tokenism that is sometimes displayed by more established institutions towards African-American artists and instead draw from numerous sources in the African-American artistic community. Johnson is currently represented by L Ross Gallery in Memphis, Costello/Childs Contemporary in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Sarah Howell in Jonesboro, Arkansas. He was also included in the recent exhibition Inheritance at THE CMPLX in 2019.


Another well-established painter on the Memphis scene is Jed Jackson. Jackson is a full-time professor of painting at the University of Memphis, which makes travel for focused research a difficult endeavor. With the goal of traveling to New York to spend the summer of 2019 immersed in research, Jackson states, “For a mature artist, the chance to return to study as a student might is a chance to refresh and extend painting work, with a concentrated intensity that is difficult to achieve in the typical full-time teaching schedule.”


 As an educator, Jackson has high hopes for the future of Memphis, “I think Memphis is on the upswing though. It could become a much better incubator for the arts if more sharp young folks stay in Memphis and start new artistic enterprises. The young artists and cultural leaders who stay in Memphis should begin new initiatives and establish new institutions, and not slavishly seek the approbation of the conservative institutional interests that dominate the local, national and international market.”  Jackson is represented by Duane Reed Gallery in St. Louis, Missouri, and Greg Thompson Fine Art in Little Rock, Arkansas.


The increase in the number of these grants that are awarded, as well as the diversity of the artists that they support, is one of many steps in the right direction for the Memphis artistic scene. However, Memphis needs to view this step as a call to arms. The support of the practices of visual artists from all career stages that ArtsMemphis takes part in will be in vain if its fellow institutions do not contribute to the conversation of enrichment for Memphis’ contemporary artists. Local museums need to engage and encourage more conversations between local and national contemporary artists. Artist-run and alternative spaces for the exhibiting of contemporary work in the Memphis area need both formation and support. A larger emphasis on collecting and fiscal support of artists in the region, like the efforts of groups such as Young Arts Patrons, increases the vitality of the Memphis scene. Only through these efforts, combined with awards such as the ArtsAccelerator grants, can the full potential of Memphis’ contemporary art scene be realized.


Clay Palmer is an MFA candidate in Painting at the University of Memphis. He received his BFA from the University of Tennessee at Martin in 2017.