“I Became My Dream” – Jymi Bolden
What instincts guide us when we first meet other people? Is it our reading of gestural clues, a tilt of the head or an expression? Or, is it something more basic that leads one to know that Jymi Bolden is a warm, intelligent man ready for a hug?
Bolden presides over Art Beyond Boundaries on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine, a four-year-old gallery that does not so much try to foster art by the disabled as to create a space that is a platform for art first, circumstances second. The gallery embraces a variety of media, from poetry to paintings to ceramics. The concept was born out of Bolden’s relationship with CILO (Center for Independent Living Options), a neighbor when he was working at CityBeat, and the realization that the disabled had “minimal access to mainstream galleries and the public little opportunity to see the work of artists with disabilities.” With that in mind, Bolden staged a temporary show for The Fine Arts Weekend Sampler that grew into seven monthly exhibits and eventually into what is now the gallery. “When you look at this art, you don’t see disability, you see ability,” he says with pride. His nurturing of these artists is a passion supported by Bolden’s natural ability to teach and his interest in art for its own sake. In talking about labels, Black art, Women’s art, etc., he cites a certain “pity factor” in the initial public reaction to such groups. “After a while the sympathy wears off, but an audience’s fascination with art that touches them is eternal—no matter who produces it. That’s how we try to operate here, and hopefully that will propel us into the future.”
He adds that nobody talks about Starry Night being done by someone who chased Gauguin with an open razor, cut off his own earlobe and checked into an asylum for treatment, or about Toulouse-Lautrec having short legs. “There are tons of artists like that.”
Among the many shows Bolden himself has been in, is Altered States, at The Weston Art Gallery in 2006, featuring photographs that explored altered states of reality (see photo from the Anamorphosis series below).
In October of 2008, Bolden put together a show called Houdini’s Box. “Bolden mounted this exhibition to showcase a diverse range of photographers working with film and digital techniques. He called the exhibit Houdini’s Box, he says, because photography is a magic act. It freezes a moment in time forever and even captures the soul right out of the body,” wrote Selena Reder in CityBeat.
Another remarkable show at The Cincinnati Art Museum was Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church. Women from local churches helped spread the word, and in excess of 60 local women were photographed in their favorite church hats by Jymi Bolden and Melvin Grier.
Bolden is an artist of high caliber, a photographer whose work has graced many shows and been integral to such publications as CityBeat (10 years as Photo Editor) and The SuperJobs Center/Southwest Ohio Region Work force Investment Board Annual Report, to name only two. Simultaneously he has run his own studio specializing in corporate events, fine art, portrait and boudoir photography. He also served on the board of City Art Education, Inc. In 2008, Bolden staged a fundraising event for his friend, nationally known artist Thom Shaw, who died in 2009 from complications of diabetes. Shaw and Bolden’s relationship dates back to their days at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. Working with photojournalist Melvin Grier and others, he gathered more that 37 visual artists to participate, ultimately raising more than $12,000 for the Thom Shaw benefit fund.
Bolden is hesitant to speak of his own work, because he says he ends up using superlatives when describing his relationship to his art. As a superb draftsman, he views the art of those he admires as a touchstone, people like the late Ruthe Pearlman, who for him epitomizes the requisite component that makes some art rise above the ordinary and often defies language. “She captures the brevity of line in her drawings—the one line that imparts a huge amount of information.” He concedes that emotion plays a big part in his abstractions of the human form, as depicted in the Anamorphosis series, begun in 1988 and an ongoing exploration. “It’s lyrical, improvisational,” much like a jazz musician’s extemporization.
When speaking of his documentary photography, Bolden says, “It’s the synchronicity when the subject, the camera, the lens provide a rarified moment. It’s extra-sensorial and transcends mere competency. Many people learn to work cameras and make pretty pictures without compelling attributes.” Something has to take the work beyond that threshold, and Bolden has an acute sensibility for what that something is.
Bolden explains his long love affair with the camera: “I was working in a youth service employment program. A woman handed me a camera.” He smiles, “It just hit me in the butt! I saw things; I have no vocabulary to explain what I saw. I did one year of teaching myself in a vacuum and determined I needed further instruction,” so he went to the Art Academy of Cincinnati at 35 years old and obtained his B.A. in Fine Arts in 1991. “All I wanted to do was photography; passion drove me. I went on to study, so I could articulate what I felt.” He explains that Daniel Brown (Editor of ÆQAI) had a profound influence on his career. Bolden and Brown were both in junior high at Walnut Hills at the same time and then reconnected in the early 90’s. Brown was then an independent advisor on Main Street and, as co-founder, Arts Editor and essayist at CityBeat, opened the opportunity for Bolden to work there.
As Bolden moved around town with his camera, he says he was often mistaken for his friend Melvin Grier, well-known veteran Cincinnati Post photojournalist and award-winning photographer. “People started calling me Melvin.” He chuckles, “I knew I had arrived when someone called Melvin, Jymi.”
“Danny really kick-started and helped shape my career,” says Bolden. “We had long and profound conversations, and he helped me find direction, refine the rawness. He is one of the great unsung heroes of Cincinnati!” Bolden began having shows, his phone started ringing, “and I became my own dream,” he says. “My artistic direction was inspired by fine art photography, initially André Kertész. My present photography is composed of a host of things, exercises in formalism and discovery, lyrical and rhythmic.”
Bolden’s family has lived in this area for a number of generations, but he explains that tracing the history of African American families is “a romantic notion.”
“It’s hard to trace the lineage of African Americans, because of slavery. You can go back so far, and then records stop. My great grandmother was from Georgia, and when she died, there seemed to be a three-year discrepancy in her age. When they came around to take the census, she was already three years old, but they counted her as just born.
“In slavery, the system of breeding,” he continues, “was just like the cultivation of thoroughbred animals. Slaves were chattel. When you had an owner who had what in the horse world would be a stallion, he was bred to prolific mares. For those kinds of reasons, it was an industry.” Bolden views slavery as the American neurosis, something that people just don’t want to discuss, and because the issue doesn’t get raised, there’s no honesty around it. “If you have a problem with substances, or relationships, any kind of problem, you identify, recognize and rectify. If you don’t do that, it generates all kinds of perceptions and misconceptions.” One has only to reflect on one’s own life to know how ‘the things we don’t talk about’ can warp our views. The fascination in literature and drama with ‘skeletons in the closet’ highlights the corrupting power of silence on any subject. Slavery is part of the DNA of those whom white people bought and harnessed, as is the aftermath of harassment and incomplete assimilation into the mainstream of American life in ways markedly different from the experience of immigrants. Whether guilty or angry, Bolden makes the point that neither culture can come to terms with our joint humanity until there is honest conversation.
Acknowledging the lines drawn, it is not surprising that talented African American artists formed groups to further their art in a city where it was a tough road to recognition. Early on, Bolden was part of a movement called Umoja (Swahili for ‘unity’), which mentored African-American freshman at the Art Academy as well as supporting area African-American artists. And that unity of purpose, which fostered artistic fertility, was recently ripped open over a short year’s span with the deaths of Tarrence Corbin, Thom Shaw, and Brian Joiner. Bolden’s normally upbeat conversation ebbs away when the subject is raised. His head bows at the massive loss.
Without digressing into race relationships and implying that this is the larger part of Bolden’s focus (which it is not), it is difficult to ignore context in art. Social issues and technology are by default reflected in civilization’s creative output. By extension, art emanating from a social context that remains a mainstream taboo is bound to suffer obscurity, even when the artistic merits are unmistakable. Thus, Bolden’s empathetic effort with Art Beyond Boundaries to bring art by people with disabilities into the mainstream seems a natural extension of his interests.
Looking at the massive output by this artist/gallery director/curator/community leader, as he enables others to rise to public consciousness, one wishes also to see a great deal more of his own magnificent work celebrated in the city for which he has done so much. One has only to visit Art Beyond Boundaries to get a sense of the breadth of the man behind its concept.
– Cynthia Osborne Hoskin
Art Beyond Boundaries, 1410 Main St. , Cincinnati, OH 45202. Phone: 513-421-8726.