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Speaking Through Art

Lexus Gore, 2018 Appell Arts Fellow

Gore’s four charcoal drawings created a single, 3’ x 4’ portrait of a silent film actress. “It was probably the largest thing submitted that year,” he recalls. “I was impressed.”

So was the fine arts guest judge, Deana Haggag, curator, President, and CEO of United States Artists. “It was the most selective juried show we’ve ever had,” Clay-Robison continues. “Typically, 60 to 70 percent [of submissions] are accepted, but that year the jurors were particularly tough and only 31 pieces out of approximately 250 submissions were chosen.”

Gore got into the show. And on Clay-Robison’s radar.

She continued to submit and be accepted to each subsequent Annual Student Juried Exhibition, a rare accomplishment. But when the winners’ names were announced for each annual show, hers didn’t make the list.

On April 27, 2018, Gore won “Best in Show” at the 2018 senior show exhibition. When Clay-Robison announced her name, she was shocked. “I never expected to win first place,” she admits. “Everyone’s work was amazing. I was aiming for third place.” Surrounded by fellow artists, beloved faculty mentors, her mother, grandmother, and aunts, Gore calls the moment affirmation that “she finally made it.”

She followed up that win with another: being named the 7th York College Appell Arts Fellow. The 11-month fellowship includes housing, studio space, and a stipend, resources necessary to tackle an ambitious goal: to develop your artistic voice and a body of work immediately out of the undergraduate gate, without financial worries. Gore lives, paints, and works at York College’s Marketview Arts, a cultural hub in Downtown York, and is putting her unique stamp on the Appell Arts Fellowship program. She is also trying to encourage more young adults and youth to be a part of the York Craft Guild.

Beyond Gore’s considerable talent for drawing, painting and thinking big – her senior show was thought-provoking portraits of men sleeping with stuffed animals to push definitions of masculinity – it was her ability to make herself indispensable that most impressed Clay-Robison.

As a freshman, she was always peeking into the College’s Cora Miller and Brossman Galleries. “I usually only work with seniors for their senior exhibition, but Lexus would just show up and help in the gallery,” recalls Clay-Robison. “She’s industrious, quick, and seemed to have a sense of when I needed the help.”

Painting walls, hanging pieces, setting up for gallery openings. The task didn’t matter to Gore, who volunteered at the on-campus galleries and at Marketview Arts throughout her York College career while making Dean’s List each semester. She thrived in the gallery atmosphere. “Talking to the artists one-on-one was exhilarating,” she recalls of meeting the many visiting artists exhibiting at the York College Galleries. Her nascent networking included dinners with artists and an impromptu, personal critique from Guggenheim Fellow Hank Willis Thomas.

One of her goals as an Appell Arts Fellow is to build connections between York’s diverse communities and the offerings at Marketview. She works 20-30 hours each week in the gallery, helping with exhibitions and promoting the venue’s many cultural events. She plans to create an after-school art program, much like the one she attended as a girl at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, an experience that sparked her love of art.

This fall, she’s helping Ophelia Chambliss, a York artist and commissioner with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, conduct oral histories of York’s black communities. The project is inspiring Gore’s penchant for using her art to express big ideas. “Everyone has a different way of expressing themselves,” Gore explains. “Art can be a harsh truth, a subtle voice, a little glimmer of joy in a time of sadness, a way of breaking down communication walls. Art gives me a way of speaking without saying anything at all.”

Her Appell Arts Fellow show on June 5-July 5, 2019, at the Cora Miller Gallery will give Gore the chance to say quite a bit. (Spoiler alert: her show is ambitious.) Some of the canvases are her largest yet, and her subject matter – women with weapons – is equally audacious. “Women should feel empowered no matter what…without social norms of what a woman should be,” explains Gore of her oil paintings of female subjects posing with a knife, water pistol, or just her body as a weapon. “[The portraits] will try to answer questions about strength, femininity, and empowerment, and how they go hand-in-hand.” She also plans to include other subjects in the show, including sculptures.

Using art to examine society’s challenges is far from a revolutionary idea for York College art students and alumni. “A strong focus of our gallery program is our emphasis on social justice,” notes Clay-Robison, who celebrates his 10th year on the York College faculty this year. “Our students see the work of artists who address these issues in a really powerful way. When they see this and meet these artists, it gives them permission to talk about these subjects.”

Gore used saturated color and bold strokes to capture her male subjects’ vulnerability in her senior-year series of men sleeping with stuffed animals. The arresting theme had unexpected roots: New Year’s Eve.

At a party, Gore’s friend challenged everyone to a drinking contest. While Gore and others watched him sleeping on the couch afterwards, she was struck by his innocence, how his posturing and machismo had been replaced with openness. Gore found stuffed animals and placed them around him. “I started taking photos, and what I was seeing was really lovely, so I ended up painting it,” she recalls. “The animals added an intimacy to him.”

A few weeks later, Clay-Robison and Gore were discussing her senior show. “I told her that whatever it was that drove you to do [the painting of the man sleeping], this is interesting,” he recalls. “It was the perfect combination of meaning and style. Once she had a consistent theme, her painting leapt forward in a way that people weren’t expecting.”

Gore’s fearlessness and deep compassion, he says, infuse her artistic gifts, qualities gleaned from her childhood in Northeast Philadelphia. A talented student, especially in the sciences, Gore also loved to draw anime as a young girl. Her extended family pushed her to follow a STEM path, but her mother supported Gore’s creative aspirations, taking her to museums and enrolling her in Philadelphia’s Delphi After School Art Club, funded by the Delphi Project Foundation for underserved children. “My mom was always on my side, which gave me a lot of confidence to pursue my interests in art,” she says of the program at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

A favorite project resulted in her first public art piece: a tile on a public mosaic mural, stamped with Gore’s wood-cut flower motif from a Persian rug exhibit. “Our teacher showed us the rugs and pointed out the intentional mistake on each, explaining that the artists believed that no one is perfect,” she recalls. “That made me feel great about myself. It didn’t make the rugs less beautiful or the colors less intense; it made the rugs all the more beautiful to me.”

Hers, though, was a childhood far from perfect. When the house where her mother and five siblings were living in was slated for demolition, the family was placed in a shelter for six months. Her mother, who struggled with drug addiction, disappeared for a few days, an absence that triggered Gore and her siblings’ expulsion from the shelter. “We went to live with my aunt, and from there, my mom signed us over to foster care,” Gore explains. The four youngest siblings – Gore is the second youngest – were sent to live with a family in rural Pennsylvania. They stayed in foster care for two years and were reunited as a family when her mother completed her recovery. (Gore’s father died of cancer when she was 12). The family remains close.

She’s quick to point out the happy highlights of foster care (her first Barbie doll) and loving foster parents with whom she still keeps in touch. It also gave her an indelible experience with racism. One evening, a relative of their foster parents was babysitting Gore, 7, and her brother and sister while her foster parents went to the movies. They were happily playing with the family’s children, when another relative, drunk and carrying a loaded shotgun, yelled racial slurs at them and chased them into the yard.

“These are the moments that made me really interested in why people think certain things,” reflects Gore. “I don’t understand how you can hate someone without knowing them. Little me understood that it was something sad rather than something to be hated.”

As an artist and a person, she strives to see others’ perspectives and to understand biases. While she loves the process of creating art and will spend hours painting a single feature, her muse is finding answers to bigger questions of identity. “Lexus is resilient and has a joy that comes from not burying your head in the sand,” Clay-Robison reflects. “She has experienced much, but there is so much forgiveness there.”

Next August, she plans to return to Philadelphia to teach or work in a gallery. For now, she’s embracing every canvas, encounter, and experience of her Appell Arts Fellowship, ready for wherever her ambitious ideas take her.