A painting from Terron Cooper Sorrell’s "The Railroad"
A painting from Terron Cooper Sorrell’s "The Railroad"

Portsmouth-born Terron Cooper Sorrells may be unfamiliar to collectors and lovers of African-American art whose legacy of iconic figures include Romare Bearden, Henry Ossawa Tanner and Jacob Lawrence, but if his current exhibition, “The Railroad,” serves as any indication of his talent and potential, it won’t be long before he becomes an internationally-acclaimed and recognized household name.

But don’t take my word for it. Simply take a short jaunt over to the Mansion at Strathmore, now through Feb. 17, where Sorrells’ collection of paintings and prints “speak volumes” as the artist, just 24 years of age, explores the stories of enslaved African Americans, and the roads they braved in their pursuit for freedom, typically omitted in the nation’s history books.

As for his perspective, Sorrells presents imagery which differs from the works of those who have more often focused on the horrors and atrocities of slavery. Instead, and perhaps more admirably, his work illustrates the resilience, perseverance and cunning of people desperately determined to be free – also providing entre to sorely-needed discourse on race as it continues to manifest itself in the U.S.

“’The Railroad’ reminds us that we face now in the form of institutional slavery isn’t anything new and can be overcome with prowess and unity,” he writes in describing his work. “At the same time, it acts as a collection of images that aim to further African-American culture and history.”

During this writer’s tour of the exhibition, provided by Strathmore Visual Arts Coordinator Gabrielle Tillenburg, I was impressed with the degree of detail that the artist includes in his paintings. In addition, Sorrells clearly seeks to share images of Blacks or white sympathizers who, historically, were rarely depicted in a positive light, like Aunt Jemima or Nat Turner.

“All of the images come from Terron’s objective — narratives on canvas of a history that the oppressors chose to withhold or ignore,” Tillenburg said. “His work offers a different ‘truth,’ maybe even ‘the truth.’ And it’s so compelling because since people connect more easily through stories, in his paintings and lithographs, he explores stories that bear a more honest and inclusive interpretation of American history.”

Sorrells, who now lives and works out of Chicago, talked about his formative years, his compelling exhibition and his plans for the future during a conversation with The Washington Informer.

Interesting enough, both he and his brother, Trey, 25, an accomplished saxophonist, serve as participants in Strathmore’s artist in residence program, 2018-2019.

Washington Informer: When did you first know you wanted to be an artist/painter?

Sorrells: My earliest memories of wanting to be an artist stems from my time in the third grade. I was 9 and very interested in Japanese art styles, specifically manga and anime. I remember being able to imitate those characters with ease especially if I had a reference. I noticed that drawing skills was not common in my elementary school when other kids began to recognize me and talk to me. Honestly, art is how I’ve made a great deal of friends from my early childhood, so I wanted to hold on to it.

WI: What role did your parents and/or teachers (K-12) play in your development and pursuit of your career?

Sorrells: I had an amazing support group growing up from both my parents and my teachers; I was lucky to have it. My parents, both military heads, didn’t know much about art but they were constantly encouraging without being overbearing, even when the art I was producing at the time was bad. This was important for my development because practicing art never felt like a chore or something I had to do. It was just simply fun. My teachers were the same way except they could actually nurture my gift.

Since the fifth grade, I was accepted into afterschool art programs and pushed to enter art competitions because my teachers believed in me. They had the most impact on me and we still talk to this day, including my magnet art teachers from high school, Mrs. Stith and Ms. Cosumano. They’re responsible for my shift from wanting to be an animator to becoming a fine artist. And they did this systematically through art history lessons, direct observational drawing sessions and introducing new mediums into my arsenal. That, along with competitive success, led me straight for a life as an artist.

WI: Would you care to add anything else about your goals for and motivation behind “The Railroad”?

Sorrells: I feel like my history is under represented in American Art Museums. What I mean by that is I do not see many works of art, if any at all, by slaves hanging next to the works by white men, [even] women, of the same time period. I understand the reasoning for this: slaves were not allowed to express themselves and it is a lot easier to hide literary talent than visual. That being said, I look to fill that void for future generations of African Americans so that they can feel a sense of inclusion in the art space and know where our people started. Now is the time to do it, while art institutions are opening up to other perspectives and listening.

WI: What’s next for you and what do you say to those who are so surprised by the level of maturity and skill you possess despite your young age?

Sorrells: I’m jumping straight into another series of work. Instead of focusing on exiting slave life, this group of paintings will force the viewer to be a part of plantation life which will be uncomfortable, I must admit. All the while, I’m looking to do residencies in the Caribbean and some South American countries to see the effects of slavery in other nations outside the U.S. Then, I think I’ll finally be ready for graduate school.

I try to lure observers in with my youth and my detail but keep them with my interest in history and culture which I know they can tell comes from a genuine place. Fortunately, I’ve never been told I shouldn’t be making the work that I am because of my lack of experience or youth. If anything, people tend to get excited when they meet me and begin to try to teach me more about the history.

I listen intently because there is always more to learn. I know that I am young, but my eyes are wide open and I offer a different perspective they might not have seen otherwise.

For additional information visit www.strathmore.org or call (301) 581-5100.

Dominic Kevin McNeir is an award-winning journalist with more than 25 years of service for the Black Press (NNPA). Prior to moving East to assist his aging parents in their struggles with Alzheimer’s,...

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