‘I’m not really an artist; I’m a storyteller’

By: Sara Kandel | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published February 14, 2012

 Artist Virginia Bryant-Hernandez says her work is more about storytelling than art. In “Parson,” she tells the story of slave weddings in the South.

Artist Virginia Bryant-Hernandez says her work is more about storytelling than art. In “Parson,” she tells the story of slave weddings in the South.

Photo by Sara Kandel


ROSEVILLE — The brightly woven canvases on display at the Roseville Public Library this month are much more than just colorful pieces of art — they’re stories.

They’re forgotten stories of how slaves rose up against adversity to create an identity when society was determined to keep them from having one.

They’re the stories Roseville resident Virginia Bryant-Hernandez grew up listening to her father tell and the stories of her people that were passed down from generation to generation.

“My dad was the greatest storyteller ever,” she says. “He would tell us stories about growing up in Alabama, and one day I thought about how a lot of cultures put their history and stories in textile works, but African-Americans don’t — so I thought I would embroider our stories.”

Bryant-Hernandez, 53, has been embroidering since she was 4 years old. In her art, she uses a material called “negro cloth,” or osnaburg, the material from which slave clothing was made.

Her work has other barely noticeable details in it.

“We’re a fragmented people, just pieces of a person,” she says. “Even if we can trace our families back to Africa, they took us from so many places, different tribes and just grouped us together. But even to go that far back, it’s hard because to trace your black ancestors, you have to first trace the white people who owned them. We don’t have our own language or land.”

To portray this sentiment, Bryant-Hernandez disconnects parts of the bodies in her art. Heads float above the shoulders, feet do not touch the ground.

While her work is rich in such symbolism, she emphasizes that the focus is on the stories.

“I’m not really an artist; I’m really a storyteller,” she says. “I want to tell the happy stories. We were an enslaved people. But they were so clever they found ways to work around that, to rejoice, to praise, to get married and to have children. It’s a better day. Let’s not get bogged down by the bad past; let’s celebrate how smart our ancestors were. That’s what I try to do with my art.”

In “Ring Shout” and “Gwine ta Meeting” Bryant-Hernandez tells the story of how slaves worshiped.

“Blacks weren’t allowed to worship in church, so they would go to a clearing in the fields or woods and they would pray this way. The men would keep the beat, and the woman would dance and pray.”

In “Parson,” she tells two stories: the tale of how slaves married and the history of strength in black women.

“Long before we ‘jumped the broom,’ we had a parson cloth or parson blanket, and the man would bring it to the woman that he wanted to marry,” she says. “When people talk about black women being strong, well, it was always that way; it was the woman’s decision if she wanted to accept the blanket.”

These three pieces from her collection are on display at the library now.

“We are so happy to have Virginia’s work on display,” says Jackie Harvey, the library’s assistant director. “She’s been coming here for a long time and has always brought her kids here, so when we found out about her work and she asked us to display it, we were really excited.”

Bryant-Hernandez regularly brought her eight children to the Roseville library when they were younger. Now that they’re grown, she carries on the tradition with her six grandchildren.

She likes that her work is on display at the library, because to her, the pieces she creates are just as much, if not more, about the story as they are the art.

“I don’t think my art fits in at a lot of places,” she says. “My art tells a story; you don’t look at it and ask questions. It just tells stories, great American stories.”

Bryant-Hernandez’s work will be on display at the library through Feb. 29 and at the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit throughout March. For more information on her work, call (616) 516-9750.

The Roseville Public Library is located at 29777 Gratiot Ave. and is open Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Friday from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. To contact the library, call (586) 445-5407 or visit www.rosevillelibrary.org.