Lenz' 'Blues Chapel' calls for reflection

Susan Lenz holds a special admiration for the sacrifices and hardships endured by some of the nation's most celebrated - and not so celebrated - female blues singers.

"They were true to their art. They took their hardships and they made music out of it," Lenz said.

But many died without the fanfare their artistic careers deserved, she said. "Many of these ladies deserve better."

It's with a passion for honoring those lives and encouraging others to reflect on their own that the Columbia fiber artist has opened "Blues Chapel" and "Last Words," at the Gallery 80808/Vista Studios.

The free exhibit, which opened Thursday, runs through Feb. 16.

"Blue Chapel," features 24 images of female blues artists that are positioned throughout a space that depicts a chapel and is filled with the sounds of blues music.

The accompanying "Last Words" is an abstract cemetery, featuring various gravestone rubbings that share the stories of the dead through the words and images carved in their gravestones.

The exhibit combines art quilts, mixed media photos, and fibers.

"Everything here is about creating memories," Lenz said.

Lenz first got the inspiration for "Blues Chapel" in 2005 while viewing an exhibit in the National Women in the Arts Museum in Washington, D.C., where staff members had created a room dedicated to blue singers.

"When I started this, I knew nothing about the blues," she said.

But while viewing the exhibit she was struck by the women's perseverance and their stories.

"Immediately, I got it. I got the sacrifices. I knew what the blues were about," she said. "When I was reading these bios, I could really identify with making art, even if people weren't paying attention."

So she wrote down the names, and has selected 24 of the 25 woman from that same list which includes Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, and Alberta Hunter.

Renz admits she settled on 24 singers rather than the original 25 because that number provided a better fit for her display. But she hopes viewers will be as moved by the women's stories as many have been by their music.

"Early female blues singers lived in a male-dominated society, in a segregated country and worked in an industry that took advantage of their lack of education and opportunity," Lenz said. "They struggled, made sacrifices, and sang of their woes. They helped change the world for today's young, black, female vocalists."

In the accompanying "Last Words," Lenz combines quilts of grave rubbing, photographic images of angels in mourning and a series of chiffon-stitched epitaphs to create a space about remembering.

She collected many of the stories found in the epitaphs while visiting various cemeteries around the United State and in England.

Her hope is that visitors to the display will reflect on their own lives, and she said what memories each person holds closest is up to them.

"I'm hoping they'll walk away with an ongoing dialogue in their mind about memory and remembrance," she said.


Blues Chapel and Last Words

WHERE: Gallery 80808/Vista Studios, 808 Lady St., Columbia.

WHEN: Continues through Feb. 16.

GALLERY HOURS: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday; 11 a.m. to midnight Thursday, Friday and Saturday; noon to 6 p.m. Sunday.