By Eddie Bell
The joyous expression that flashed across Nellie Ashford’s serene brown face as she recounted the tale of her first art exhibit at the Actor’s Theater in Louisville brightened her rented Little Rock Road studio. She’d left the theater with a sealed envelope and no mention of her achievement, which she learned of only after the 12-hour drive back to Charlotte. She opened the envelope then, and much…and opening the envelope. Much to her amazement, she’d won first place in the art competition. In the envelope was a check for $2,500. “I was speechless,” she says.
That exhibit was Ashford’s first serious public recognition, but her true beginnings as an artist began in 1998 when she was in her mid-50s. She was on her living room floor “doodling” together with her grandson with pencils and crayons. She was using art to inspire him. She describes her grandson as a slow learner experiencing difficulties keeping up in school. She also says that she drew while in kindergarten and gave her mother the pictures for her birthday and Mothers’ Day.
Ashford, 75, was born somewhere in rural North Carolina (she is adopted and doesn’t know the location), and was raised in the old Oakdale area of Charlotte. She has never received any formal art training, and learned her technique by drawing stick figures and then expanding them with the application of paint and fabric. She has also read widely about the work of successful Black artists such as Benny Andrews, John and James Biggers, Augusta Savage, Sam Gilliam and T.J. Reddy, and attended their exhibitions. She acknowledges all of them for their inspirational impact, but says her success is a “gift given to me that I didn’t know I had.”
She once worked in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system as a teacher’s assistant, and used to give her drawings to teachers and staff members and “anybody that wanted them.” Her journey has been nontraditional, but she no longer gives away her work. At an 18-piece exhibit of her work in the former Museum of the New South (now the Levine Museum of the New South), Ashford refused to sell any of the pieces. Her explanation: “By then, I started to feel like they were attached to me. I didn’t want to sell any of the pieces.”
It took Ashford a significant amount of time to realize that she was truly talented, and her career hasn’t been straightforward. During a retrospective period, she turned inward, unsure of her next steps. She tells of learning to purchase art materials from T. J. Reddy, and learning how to conserve those materials. She also purchased supplies from Lowe’s, including Masonite and tile grout, which helped her save precious financial resources. Prior to those purchases, and still today, she uses scraps of cloth (“whatever I can find”) to make her art, and purposely uses fabrics from her mother’s old quilts.
Her talent, ingenuity and years of hard work have paid off in a big way. She was chosen from more than 100 hundred artists to have two of her pieces displayed in the new terminal at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. She is the only women and only African American among the four artists chosen to display their work. This is an especially wonderful achievement for Nellie, because she will be honoring the Blacks who owned the land upon which the original airport was built.
The two pieces chosen by the airport committee are “A Tribute to Teachers,” 60” x 36,” and “Walk Together Children,” 120” x 36.” Her already large originals will be displayed as even larger murals in the new terminal. The former is her way of also honoring teachers and their importance to society; and the latter is an acknowledgement of the integration of schoolchildren no longer separated by Jim Crow. The figures on both works are representative of all nationalities.
Ashford doesn’t know when the murals will be mounted for public display, but she assumes that it will be in the near future.
Her work is available at Foster’s Art & Frame Shop in Huntersville and at Red Piano Gallery 2, on St. Helena Island, near Charleston, SC. There are several planned exhibits of her work in the near future: North Carolina Central University for its 2019 homecoming, the Folk Art Festival in Hickory, fall 2019.