Gordon Bynum was a civic-minded environmentalist, so he opted, whenever possible, to ride MARTA rather than drive his car.
In 1999, he got off a train and began walking in a neighborhood near the Buckhead Diner when he was shot in an apparent mugging.
“It was very big in the news, and the headlines all referred to him as a ‘Buckhead businessman,’” recalls his older sister, Elyse Defoor, noting that the case remains unsolved even though the Buckhead Coalition offered a $60,000 reward for information. Today, the pedestrian bridge from Lenox Square over GA 400, where he last walked, is dedicated to him.
When Bynum was killed, Defoor channeled her grief into art, with a visually arresting series called Talking Back. Across large canvasses, she streaked bold, dramatic lines and angry orange slashes to convey her feelings. It proved cathartic.
Now, as she marks the 20th anniversary of that tragedy, she has invited other artists to share their hands-on responses to tragedy. The resulting exhibition, titled Loss. Redemption. Grace., features juried work from 50 American artists at EBD4, Defoor’s Chamblee gallery. The show culminates July 20 with artist talks and a party.
“The point of this exhibition,” says Defoor, “is to show how suffering and pain can be transformed into a pathway that leads to redemption and grace.”
Don’t expect any cheery, candy-colored “sofa paintings” at this show. In fact, it comes with a trigger warning: “Please note that some materials may be disturbing and/or offensive to others.”
“You won’t see pretty flowers here,” Defoor says. “We’re in the same realm here as Picasso’s Guernica and van Gogh’s [A Pair of Shoes]. This show is hard, but my purpose was to heal myself and to help others heal.”
When Defoor put out a nationwide call for artists, she received 140 entries. She curated the show with the help of Teresa Bramlette Reeves, director of curatorial affairs at Kennesaw State University’s Zuckerman Museum of Art, and critic/curator Jerry Cullum (an ARTS ATL contributor).
“We judged the pieces first on the basic quality of the art,” Defoor says. “Then we took into consideration the context of the artist statement. If the statements were too formal and standardized, I asked the artists to make them more personal. This is all about the personal.”
The gallery’s foyer features Defoor’s handiwork, including Loss. Redemption. Grace., the piece from which the show gets its name. A large, wooden bread-making bowl, which looks like a cradle and a coffin, symbolizes the money taken from Bynum during the robbery. It holds hundreds of bullet-shell casings and used metal buttons, which can be sifted with a scoop. “I went to the scene at 4 that morning,” Defoor says, “and found a button that was still wet with his blood.”
Other artists’ works here feature a wide variety of media and tear-stained messages. The shameful treatment of immigrants, a father’s murder, mass extinction, an all-consuming house fire, even the 2016 presidential election get their due.
Silk-screened song lyrics tie together a background of newspaper obituaries, and one drawing reveals the knuckles of two hands tattooed with the words “FUCK FATE.”
An assemblage of digital photographs of plants looks innocuous enough for a garden club but reveals a poignant backstory. It’s called Without Maya and represents the path that North Carolina photographer Cheryl Zibisky used to walk with her dog. Now that Maya is deceased, Zibisky’s left with only the plant samples to ponder.
“One wall is especially in-your-face,“ Defoor says. “I call it the ‘crying wall.’”
It holds an encaustic assemblage by Illinois artist Jenny Keyser. It takes close inspection to discern the random-seeming materials: a pair of underwear, a hospital gown, a rape kit. “My art is a diary of my life,” the artist’s statement says, without further elaboration.
Florida artist Ashley Duffy’s “Still Life: Finley Anna & Ashley Anna” is similarly gut-wrenching. The close-up photograph shows a mother lovingly cradling a newborn. This infant, though, was stillborn. “She filled my arms perfectly,” the artist writes, “resting just above my empty, deflating, stapled abdomen that had only hours before been full of life and potential.”
Jurors gave Atlanta artist Kathy Yancey an honorable mention citation for her red-spattered collage tableau, Hemophobia, which, she writes, “depicts a time in my life when a catastrophic hemorrhage at Piedmont Hospital almost cost me my life. This was during the height of HIV fear, and the night staff was horrified at the prospect of cleaning up all of my blood.”
Jurors gave South Carolina artist Bethany Pipkin’s Grapple: The Long Goodbye first place for its delicately filigreed graphite rendering of neurons in a miscarriage and in a mother’s dementia. “Each dissection is an attempt to understand the faulty biology that led to each loss,” Pipkin writes, “the defective genes that caused a molar pregnancy and the attack of neurons causing my mother’s brain to deteriorate slowly each day.”
Defoor, a demure impresario, surveys her main room and says, “There are so many kinds of loss. Personal loss, public loss, lost loves, deaths. I want people to feel comfortable lingering here and reflecting on not just their losses but ways they can heal through the creative process.”
Taken piece by piece, this show should elicit many sharp intakes of breath, one after another. Taken all together, it’s almost overwhelming.
“I believe my brother would have been proud and supportive of this,” Defoor says. “He understood the way art worked.”