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Art, history meet
SoVaNow.com / February 19, 2014The daughter of a poor tobacco farmer from Virgilina, Dr. Regenia Perry always believed she would achieve success in her life — but she never imagined it would be as an art historian and foremost expert in African-American folk art.
Yet at 73, Perry has compiled a long record of accomplishment as an art curator and professor of Art History at Virginia Commonwealth University. After earning her PhD in the field at age 25 from Case Western Reserve University. Perry has gone on to teach at VCU for 25 years. She is the organizer of groundbreaking exhibits in African-American folk art, one for the Dallas Museum of Art and the other for the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and the curator of “Selections of Afro-American Art”, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that was part of the observance of the nation’s bicentennial celebration.
Plus, she has compiled a personal, 2,000-piece collection of African-American folk art.
If you had to sum up Perry in a word, it would be tenacious — a fitting description for both her drive to achieve prominence in her chosen field, and her passion for collecting. It is a trait Perry says she first demonstrated as a child, when she rebelled against family members who she thought were taking advantage of her parents.
“I remember being very young, maybe pre-school, and my mother making the best blackberry preserves. My Philadelphia relatives” — a reference to aunts, uncles and cousins on her mother’s side of the family — “would come down every year. Even though they had more than we did, they would always leave with all our food, leaving us with nothing.
“This one year, I was determined the family would not leave with those blackberry preserves and I took them and hid them in the attic. I wouldn’t have minded if they just one would have sent her some hard candies or even thanked her, but never a word.”
Despite receiving a “whipping” from her father, Perry said she never told the Philadelphia relatives where she hid the preserves. Two weeks later, Perry remembers, she retrieved the preserves from the hiding place for her and her family to enjoy.
Determination helped Perry through one of her darkest hours: watching her father weep as a KKK cross burned on the front lawn of the house that Perry had built for her parents. “It was the first thing I did with my money after earning my PhD,” she said. “The day they moved in, the cross appeared. I was so angry I demanded to know what the [Granville County, N.C.] sheriff’s office was going to do about it. The deputy’s response was that he wished he could afford such a nice house.” Perry countered by filing a complaint with the FBI.
A similar tenacious spirit came out when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York attempted to cancel the “Afro American Art” exhibit she curated in 1976 as part of the nation’s bicentennial celebration. “After I had begged and borrowed pieces of art, picked them up in my car, brought them to the museum, hand addressed over 700 invitations to the opening, a member of the Board decided he didn’t want the exhibit — saw no reason for it,” recalled Perry. “They invited me to go home, but I said no. When it opened, the exhibit was favorably reviewed by the New York Times, New York Daily News, Washington Post, and Village Voice.”
When she began collecting African-American folk art in the 1970s, the genre drew disdain in some quarters, but Perry said attitudes changed in the mid-1980s when suddenly the market price for the works quadrupled. By then, she had amassed a 2,000-piece collection, and was looking for the next “great find.”
A visit to a flea market sparked her interest in African-American dolls. “Growing up, I never had a doll that was black. You just couldn’t find them.” Her first doll was an African-American Christmas Barbie. Today, her collection of several hundred dolls includes baby dolls from the 1930s, mermaids, brides, vintage Pierrot dolls (small clown dolls), and a few Madame Alexander dolls.
Perry purchases most of her dolls at flea markets. They’re often dirty and marked with signs of use. She brings the dolls home and bathes and dresses each one with a loving hand, before allowing the doll to enter her collection: “It is a chance for me to play, to be a child.”
On Sunday, Perry announced that she was gifting a portion of her collection to the Clarksville Regional Museum. She hopes the dolls will bring as much joy to the community as they have to her.
The Regenia A. Perry African American Doll Exhibit is on display at the Clarksville Regional Museum, 801 West Street through February. To find out when the museum is open, call 434-374-4434. Admission is free.
- By Christy Aden on 02 / 26 / 14
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