WILMINGTON — “I’m at the apex of my career,” 70-year-old Pinkie Strothers told a crowd of 30 at Cameron Art Museum (CAM) in October.
She was leading an art talk about her dioramas, now on display through Jan. 22, 2022 at the museum. “Pinkie’s Memories” features eight dioramas and almost a dozen paintings and illustrations as the storyboard of her youth. Strothers grew up in Allen’s Creek in Broomes Island in rural southern Maryland through the 1950s and 1960s.
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She moved to Fuquay Varina, North Carolina, in 2006, and throughout her life has displayed her art work far and wide — at the North Carolina Museum of History, the International Art OMI Residency, Cary’s Page-Walker Arts and History Center, the Calvert Library Prince Frederick, among others.
“I’ve shown in Hawaii, done international shows, but I’m usually sharing one piece,” she said.
This exhibit is different, more gratifying, she alluded: “This is a gallery, an art museum full of my work.”
Community, family and civil rights are at the heart of Strothers’ dioramas, constructed on a 1-inch scale. Figurines make up friends, neighbors, even Strothers, each placed in handbuilt structures — measuring anywhere between 28-inches-by-34-by-16 inches to 69 ½-by-61 ½-by-21-inches. The renderings show the foundations and heart of an African American community from 60 years ago: church, school, barbershop, general store.
The exhibit also tackles ideas of systemic racism and inequality, including a diorama of protesters watching Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, and a courtroom and jail cell with Black men locked up for menial charges.
Strothers began making dioramas decades ago as a way to show her kids what life for her was like during segregation, as she experienced first-hand the transition of integration and the rise of the civil rights movement in Calvert County. After the Civil War, the county’s population consisted of 62% Black people, which remained the majority through the mid-20th century. Today, it has a 13% Black population, according to the U.S. Census.
While Strothers’ art is embedded with history, heritage and paradigm shifts of society, her 3D structures take on the same symbolism as family photo albums, depicting the passage of time.
“So I started on this journey creating works of art that my kids could see and have some kind of relationship with,” she said.
It starts with home: a black-and-white illustration depicting a two-story house, surrounded by trees and white boulders aligning the driveway.
“The artworks were, for the most part, chosen as companion pieces but also an introduction to her first works on canvas before she ventured into her diorama series,” CAM curator Bob Unchester explained.
A few feet away from the drawing of her home is its small-scale replication. Each room illustrates daily life: Strothers’ mom — who also went by “Pinkie,” a name that dates back to the 1800s in the family — mops up spilled milk as the kids play upstairs in one of the bedrooms and her husband watches their younger sibling in a crib. Strothers said the home burned to the ground, and her family had to relocate into her grandfather’s house — another diorama in the exhibit.
Unchester and executive director Ann Brennan narrowed down, out of Strothers’ 17 dioramas, eight that would go on display.
“I was most intrigued by how detailed and accurate her work is — often remembering the exact spot she sat in her church, where her sister was, where her mother sang. The accuracy was fascinating to me,” Unchester said.
Spirituality is a thread that runs deep throughout “Pinkies’ Memories.” The Methodist church was the “social order of the community” — life revolved around the covenant and laws of the church, she said.
“I’m not saying we didn’t have a good time,” Strothers remarked during her talk, but weekly worship was mandatory. A sibling of nine, anyone who chose not to attend Sunday service had to clean and cook lunch for the rest of the family, she explained.
In Strothers’ hometown, two Methodist churches were built across from each other, no more than 100 feet apart: one for the Black community and the other for the white community.
“The graveyard with the Black gravestones faced the Black church, the white church gravestones faced the white church — separate but equal,” she said.
She motioned to her diorama of Brooks Church. Despite its inanimacy, her sculptures give it palpable life: One figure raises a hand in praise, the pastor’s arms are outstretched, as Bibles and hymnals are opened in the laps of worshippers.
Strothers carefully molds each feature by hand. Aluminum foil is used as the armature — the figurine’s framework — and then the artist works with a powder clay to sculpt each piece’s characteristics.
While creating the church, Strothers said waves of memories would come through so clearly, it was as if she were transported back to time and place. Piece by piece, she would remember someone ringing a bell or looking out the stained-glass windows. It was different from merely painting or drawing the house of worship.
“For instance, I wasn’t sure what the steeple looked like,” Strothers recalled. “I didn’t know until I built it … it’s interesting when you look at things three dimensionally versus two, and see the difference — when everything just comes to you.”
A dozen or so pews engraved with family names appear in her rendering. Strothers even sculpted herself, seated in the spot she inhabited for every sermon.
“Everybody would sit in the same place every Sunday,” she recalled. “If a person was absent from church, we knew it … and they couldn’t deny it.”
A painting, “The Spirit,” of one of the parishioners hangs near the diorama at CAM. It features a man Strothers described as “tattered” but energetic: He would dance and stomp to the choir every Sunday.
“Sometimes we’d poke fun of him,” she admitted. “As kids, we didn’t know what he was going through. We didn’t know what his life was like. We didn’t know why he was praising God, but I know now — now that I’m older and mature.”
Though her childhood existed during a period of inequality, Strothers said her community was tight, “full of love.” They looked out for one another.
“As a child growing up in this small community, my parents shielded me from a lot of the bad stuff, and I was happy,” she said.
But she wasn’t unaware.
Strothers attended Island Creek School, the last representative African American elementary school constructed in Calvert County. In the late ‘50s, it was built to consolidate several one- and two-room school houses in the area — which her father attended (historical records indicate the school has since become a community center). Strothers addresses its historic significance on the chalkboard of the diorama.
Island Creek was a hub of trust for African Americans, in education and healthcare, Strothers indicated. She turned her attention to a small figurine in one of the classrooms — the school nurse, Ms. Petters.
“So when you entered sixth grade, she would vaccinate you,” Strothers told the crowd. “You didn’t have to go to the health department. You didn’t have to go to the doctor. You didn’t have to worry about how you’re going to get a shot. She did it.”
The teachers, nurses and education faculty were entrenched in the community, according to Strothers. Students who rose to the top of the class were chosen to be ambassadors and teach other pupils some of the lesson plans in “kids language.”
“The teachers knew the Black community and how to teach Black students, how to relate to us,” she said.
Once Strothers reached high school, integration began, which she said wasn’t an easy process.
“Blacks were invited into the white schools in Calvert County, so that the white teacher could get to know the ways of Black students, and Black students could know the ways of the white teacher,” she explained.
Strothers’ brother, who was class president, decided against integrating. He was encouraged to attend the local white school, she said, but “he didn’t want to lose his popularity, his responsibilities for his school, and the people he was associated with.”
Those first days and weeks were tough, Strothers admitted: Fights broke out daily, specifically on school buses. The drivers always dropped off white students first and allowed them to sit wherever they chose, while Black students often were relegated to the back, still.
“But we didn’t care,” Strothers said. “We were gonna have a good time if we sat in the front and have a good time if we sat in the back. But, after a month or so, we became the very best of friends. All of those blinders fell, and we realized that we were all people.”
Thinking back, Strothers pointed to a teacher from elementary school, Ms. Wilson, who inspired her to follow a career path in education. “She was so smart, so wise, and I give her credit today,” Strothers said.
The artist’s mother also encouraged her. As children, Strothers said she and her siblings often would play in nearby forests, which fueled their imaginations. They would gather at a spring on an embankment filled with white clay to make their own figurines and structures to play with.
“My mother always said, ‘Diane is going to be an artist and a teacher,’” Strothers said.
Her family regarded teaching a morally superior career choice, just as important as being a minister or doctor. “It earned respect,” she said.
Strothers eventually attended Maryland Institute College of Art to study for her MFA after graduating from Bowie University with a bachelors in education. She has taught K-12 and college students, developed a homeschool arts program and summer camp series, plus continues instruction on a private basis.
One of the dioramas on display at CAM features a structure from her undergrad university’s campus. The Don S. S. Goodloe House served as Maryland’s first postsecondary school for African Americans.
“This particular building was established at the very end of slavery, which was 1865,” Strothers said. “It started in a Baltimore basement. … They outgrew the building and so the people handed its responsibility over to the state.”
The school moved to Prince George County so that African Americans could pursue two-year college studies before going on to other learning institutions. While the building was saved and grew into Bowie University, other structures from Strothers’ youth haven’t survived or been saved. The original church she attended was razed in 1969 and has been rebuilt a few times since.
“The whole neighborhood from my youth has changed,” Strothers said.
She features a diorama of the general store, then run by a liberal Jewish man and his wife, who Strothers said were pillars in the community. The rendering shows a child playing with a hula hoop in the aisle as a man nearby checks out with the grocer — sundries filling the shelves and displays. The wife is depicted sorting mail in the post office.
Strothers said the couple who owned the store rented out space below the post office to Black people in the neighborhood who operated the town’s barbershop.
“This is where you would find out everything,” Strothers said during her talk. “And men don’t like to admit it, but all the news and gossip happened there in the barbershop.”
Strothers has created every house in the neighborhood, though not all are on display in CAM (they are featured in her book “Childhood Memories,” which is sold in the museum’s shop).
“Today, none of the houses exist,” she said. “They’ve all been replaced with something else, with another house in that family. So that community has not been gentrified totally yet.”
It’s an understated theme throughout the entire exhibition: how whole African American neighborhoods and communities, once built to stand in unison and look out for one another, have started to vanish.
“You know, when I did some of these projects, gentrification was nowhere on the docket,” Strothers said. “But that didn’t just come into being. … I would say that, unless something else happens, the Black community is in a world of trouble, by being torn apart. First, they were torn apart with incarceration. Then drugs. Now, we’re talking about moving whole buildings — whole neighborhoods.”
One diorama represents an unfair justice system that Black and brown people have contended with throughout centuries of systemic racism. Inspired by her walk through the history museum in Fuquay Varina, Strothers said she noticed a picture on the wall, taken in the ‘50s or ‘60s, featuring Black people overflowing inside a courtroom.
“I asked the director what kinds of things would cause this many people to be in court,” Strothers said.
Loitering was her response.
“‘You mean sitting outside, talking to your neighbor?’” Strothers followed up. “She said, pretty much back then, if you didn’t have gainful employment, you were not allowed to sit on a stoop and talk to one another. If you did, they would lock you up, put you in jail and hire you out to someone who needed help, but you didn’t get paid — the county got paid for your labor.”
While Strothers’ work digs deep into her roots, Black history pours out from a lived-in lens. Combining art and history wasn’t necessarily something Strothers sought to do. In fact, she said history was her least favorite subject in school.
“So many dates,” she said. “But I’ve learned it’s really about the stories. And now that I’m grown, I see differently. I’m continuing to create pieces that have a different story. I’m very interested in Black history, and you can’t find a lot of that in the history books.”
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