When the Seattle-based artist’s son-in-law, Bonnie Hopper, stumbled across Onyx Gallery in 2016, he was immediately thrilled to find a gallery that showcases and promotes artists of African descent. Although Hopper, who has painted since childhood, had a formal training in fine art and advertising, she worked on her craft in her garage and offered the artwork to friends and family.
During his visit, Hopper’s son-in-law spoke with Earnest Thomas, President of Onyx Fine Arts Collective, and Ashby Reed, Vice President of Onyx, and told them about his works. Thomas and Reed said they would like to take a look at Hopper’s art and several weeks later she came to the gallery with several examples of her paintings.
“I opened his portfolio with four or five samples of work and was floored,” Reed says. “I asked him, ‘Where have you been and would you consider showing with us?’ Hopper’s answer was yes, and she’s been featured in every Onyx show for the past five years.
Reed describes Hopper as a “multifaceted” artist who excels in portraits, primarily of women, using a wide range of mediums and techniques. Thomas points out that she continues to experiment with new styles. “I don’t have a clue what to expect from her next, but I realized that everything [Hopper] fact is going to be beautiful, whether it’s abstract, figurative or figurative,” he says. A recent standout piece that has received much positive feedback from gallery visitors is a mosaic portrait of Amanda Gorman, who made history as America’s youngest inaugural poet when she read his poem “The Hill We Climb” during the inauguration of President Joe Biden.
When Hopper began showing with Onyx, she joined a community that now includes more than 400 Pacific Northwest artists of African descent, many of whom show their work and some of whom simply share their support. It’s a community that began 16 years ago when seven friends came together to create a space for these underrepresented and unknown artists to showcase their work.
One such artist, Vincent Keele, has gained international recognition, with his work exhibited and sold in the UK and Japan. Keele continues to show her art at Onyx and is also a member of the board. Thomas says that when Keele first brought his portfolio to Onyx, it consisted mostly of stunning landscapes and animals.
Since then, Keele began to incorporate her interest in languages and writing into her works. “It’s like he’s trying to figure out where the writing came from and what all the writing has in common,” says Thomas. Keele studied Greek, Japanese, Chinese and Egyptian hieroglyphs and these words and symbols are part of many pieces he produces today.
“Every time I see [Keele’s] work, he has a new technique; he’s got a new medium he’s experimenting with,” Reed says.
Portraits are also part of Keele’s repertoire and he is currently working on a series called “Unsung Heroes”. A powerful piece from this series that was featured in a recent gallery exhibition depicts fellow Onyx artist recovering from a substance abuse disorder. “[Keele’s] I think not enough attention is paid to these unsung heroes, and this recovering drug addict now spends all of his time helping others recover,” says Thomas. The portrait was featured in the recent Collective Onyx Fine Arts 2021 Annual Exhibition and Keele’s artwork won first place.
Another artist Thomas and Reed are thrilled to feature is Latoya Ralliford. Born in Florida and currently living in Seattle, Ralliford is a first-generation American and incorporates her Caribbean heritage into her artwork. As well as being a trained artist, Ralliford has a background in literature and music which Reed says also influences her work.
His style is “Impressionist” and Reed notes that much of his work has a historical background, often tied to African and Caribbean history. As one of Onyx’s youngest artists, Reed says Ralliford’s strength is the brutality of her art. “It’s not precise; it doesn’t duplicate anything,” he says. “She doesn’t copy anything. She reinterprets the things she sees and she does a wonderful job of it.
Although each artist in Onyx has their own style, it is truly a community where artists communicate with each other and receive inspiration and support from fellow artists. It’s an opportunity for artists, many of whom are nervous about showing their work publicly for the first time, to see and interact with other artists and gain confidence.
Both Reed and Thomas recognize that the Onyx Gallery is deliberately created to accommodate and encourage this sense of community. “Artists come and enjoy the interaction, learn from each other and share with each other. Ultimately, we achieve the desired growth of uninhibited artistic creativity.
Onyx Fine Arts Collective is an all-volunteer, non-profit organization based in Seattle whose mission is in part to inspire, cultivate, and showcase the work of artists of African descent from the Pacific Northwest.