Cleaster Cotton explains that her first name rhymes with “fiesta,” and her Winged Narratives paintings have an animated folk-art quality about them that clinches the connection. “The whimsy is intentional,” says Cotton, “because whimsy affords comfort. It is disarming. It helps cut through whatever someone might be going through in their lives: the heaviness, and the occasionally ugly reality of life.
“Whimsy,” she adds, “allows you to take a journey. When people see these paintings they smile — sometimes they laugh out loud. Too often, adults don’t allow themselves to feel like that, to be innocent children again. Whimsy gives them permission to do that.”
Cotton is also a photographer, writer, educator, and social commentator. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, and notes, “My mother’s family came to New York from South Carolina, so I’m a city girl raised by Southerners. They had within themselves a connection to nature that they transferred to me.”
She tells of the time her mother came home carrying a bird with a broken wing. “She put a Popsicle stick on its wing and taped it up,” says Cotton. “I don’t know how long it took, but eventually that bird was able to fly away. I’ve taken birds seriously ever since.”
Despite the seemingly lighthearted imagery of the pieces, she has subtitled Winged Narratives a “social study,” explaining, “I want people to see birds interacting with each other, in ways perhaps they’ve never looked at them before. We need to know birds are important to us humans. I want my artistic statement in this series to be the connection between us and the winged.”
But that statement is collective, as well. “[The viewer] decides what’s really taking place,” she says. “Maybe in this way people will bring their own interpretations to the paintings rather than the paintings bringing my story to them.”
Cotton prefers painting with acrylics, citing the versatility of the medium: that it can be easily mixed and changed but still stand on its own. She also uses glue to help give body to the lines in her figures, and frequently incorporates fabric into the pictures to enhance texture.
She works with the canvas on a table rather than on an easel. “I may brush the paint on, but then I like to move it around with my fingers. I like the surface flat so I can decide where the paint goes — and how far it’s going to go.”
Cleaster Cotton’s Winged Narratives: A Social Study opens in the Lounge Gallery at The Refinery Creator Space (207 Coxe Ave., Asheville Area Arts Council on the South Slope, ashevillearts.com) with a reception and artist’s talk on Friday, Dec. 7, 5-8pm. Winged Narratives will remain on view through Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. On the same night at The Refinery, Asheville Through Brown Eyes, a group show featuring Cotton’s work and that of seven other African-American artists from Buncombe County, opens in The Thom Robinson and Ray Griffin Exhibition Space (ashevillearts.com/exhibitions/asheville-through-brown-eyes) and runs through Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. To learn more about Cleaster Cotton and her work, visit cleastercotton.com.