By Elizabeth Harry and Branch Richter
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Did you know that GreenHill shows the work of over 100 North Carolinian artists all year round? Each month we shine the spotlight on one of the artists on view at GreenHill to help you find the artwork that inspires you. This month, we’d like to introduce you to painter Sunny Gravely.

Sunny will be joining us from April 25 - May 5 as a Pop-Up artist in residence. Her residency will highlight the connections between all parts of GreenHill - exemplifying our mission. Gravely will be on-site in the studios to engage with visitors who come to watch her create an original installation. While in residence, she will teach an adult workshop on April 25 where participants can learn how to unleash their inner artistic voice. You may sign up for Sunny's workshop by clicking here. For those who want to see the final product of Gravely’s labors, the shop will be exhibiting a selection of small works for purchase. On First Friday, May 4th, her finished installation will be on public display.  

Gravely's artistic world is one of rich color, striking pattern, and powerful imagery. Working in acrylics, watercolor, and mixed media collage, Gravely’s art is a reflection of personal moments both challenging and joyful. Vacillating between abstraction and representation, Gravely’s work references the rich history of African American art she studied at Howard University - such as luminary Aaron Douglas - as well as European influences like Gustav Klimt.  

Gravely describes her work as primarily therapeutic; a practice that gives her a space to contemplate life, the loss of loved ones, and the challenges of change and justice. With her art, she hopes to inspire conversation amongst viewers and raise awareness about important social issues. 

GH: Tell us about how you got your start as a visual artist.

SG: I think I have always been a creative person. When I was in high school I was more into the theatre. When I went to college, I decided to major in art management. I wanted to own an art gallery. As part of my major I had to take art classes. At that time, I didn’t think of myself as an artist. I just wanted to learn the business of it and how to run a gallery! I felt intimidated. I took classes with all these art students, and I was making little flowers and cutesy things. One of my instructors told me that I wasn't looking hard enough. So, I started looking harder, and it became one of those ah-ha moments. That’s what it’ all about; looking at things with a critical eye and being able to see all those colors and shapes and lines. That's how things come together.


GH: What’s some good advice you’ve been given?

SG: The best advice that I have gotten since becoming a professional artist was: you need to answer the question, “what kind of artist do you want to be?” I was talking with my art manager who asked me this question. I responded, “I want to be a professional artist.” He said, “But what type of artist? There are many ways you can be a professional artist. There are commercial artists, illustrators, etc.” We kept talking about it, and he helped me realize that I only want to sell original, one of a kind pieces. I like the idea of people having an original piece from me, and nobody else having that piece. So, now, I don’t make a lot of prints and duplicates except for a Black Lives Matter poster, which I sold quite a few of.

GH: That’s really good advice, to focus on making original artwork first before you just do reproductions. So, since you’ve mentioned the Black Lives Matter poster, I wonder if you can talk a little bit about how your artwork fits into in a larger social justice climate.

SG: A lot of my work now does focus on what's going on socially. I really want people to be able to identify with one another, and not have everything be so separate and segregated. Right now we can see the division, but a lot of times we don't see the hypocrisy. It can be very difficult to go outside of ourselves and try to understand a different perspective. In my work I try to reflect how I feel. I’m a person who feels very frustrated and scared and hurt by everything that’s going on. I feel as though people don't want to talk about it. They just want to talk about pretty things. Whenever a conversation gets uncomfortable, people are quick to change the subject before it gets real. So, at some point I stopped painting pretty pictures. I wanted to focus on things that would make people talk and think; and, sometimes those things are uncomfortable. Sometimes people don't want to look at them. But, sometimes people do look, and the images can start a dialogue.


GH: What is your professional goal as an artist? Does it include that change-making component?

SG: It does! I’d like to lead more discussions about how we can change our communities. That's why I work with the Artist Bloc. Organizations like the Artist Bloc are making positive changes in our community and I want to be part of the action. I would like to be a one of those artists who are at the forefront of social and artistic change.


GH: Give us a glance into your art making process. Describe your perfect day in the studio.

SG: I like to get up early in the morning, get some hot tea, and put on some jazz music or something funky. Then I’ll start off doing some sketches. Sometimes I like to work on two pieces at the same time. I'll start on one piece, sketch it out then suddenly be inspired about something that would work for another piece, so I'll start working on that at the same time. This process of working on several pieces at once sometimes gives me these companion pieces, where the two of them play off of one another. When I’m working, I like to be relaxed and Zen so that I can create. No telephone calls, no visitors, none of that! It's crazy when I find that flow and lose track of time… suddenly the moon is up and its 1 o'clock in the morning!

GH: One more question: tell us about a time when you felt really moved by an artwork.

I love Gustav Klimt. I was in Germany and I went to see an exhibition of his work. It was so phenomenal to see it in person! Especially The Kiss! I have always thought The Kiss was phenomenal – the patterns, the emotion, the proportions, the way it was drawn and painted, and on a life-size scale. That piece really stood out to me. Also, when I went to Howard in DC, our professors always showed us a lot of African American artists, like Aaron Douglas. Those artists really made a difference for me.

And actually, one of the things that I’m trying to do right now is mix my love of travel with art. I’ve been hosting art tours with my sister (she’s my manager). For the past two years, we’ve been traveling with my artwork to display in people’s homes. We do a lot of shows in art collectors’ homes, private shows. We sell a lot of work that way and it’s great for art collectors to be able to talk with me about my work in a comfortable setting. We always have a great conversation and we always have a great time with these things.


Thank you for your time, Sunny! Remember that you can see Sunny’s work in the shop at GreenHill, and be sure to meet her during her Pop-Up residency which begins April 25. If you’re interested in hosting an art party with Sunny, you may contact her at sungravely@gmail.com or visit her website www.sgravelyoriginals.com for more information.