On an afternoon visit to the African American Museum in Hempstead, Charlesetta Wicks, whose works are on display, can’t resist a gentle jab at being labeled a “folk artist” — a term usually reserved for those with little or no artistic training.
“So, I’m Grandma Moses?” Wicks asks, sounding skeptical as she walks around the brightly lit gallery where the first public exhibition of her vintage dresses and butterfly paintings runs through January.
It’s not that Wicks, a highly trained artist who studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and earned two fine arts degrees, isn’t pleased with her “overnight” recognition at age 86. “I always knew they were art,” says Wicks, of Hempstead. However, she adds, “I never thought I’d be standing in a museum like this.”
An elementary school teacher, Wicks retired from the Hempstead School District in 1999. Starting from childhood poverty in the segregated South, she pursued success in a professional career after migrating North to New York City and later to Long Island.
With help from her granddaughter and fellow artist, Fatimah White, 29, who also lives in Hempstead, Wicks is enjoying the spotlight for the art she created almost 50 years ago. Back then, her work had a practical purpose; it was everyday clothing. But after years in storage, the delicate stitches and details she embedded in her dresses have been re-evaluated and are now appreciated for drawing on both African-American traditions and the fashion of the 1960s.
Wicks need not worry about comparisons with Grandma Moses, who was a different kind of folk artist, says Minna Dunn, director of art and curator at the museum. Wicks’ work is an example of visionary folk art in which the artist “expresses their inner feelings,” says Dunn, an art dealer from Massapequa who owned the Ebony gallery in Green Acres Mall in Valley Stream. Wicks “uses mostly pastel colors in her beautifully detailed dresses, and these colors are also displayed on canvas as colored squares that transform into butterflies,” Dunn says.
Rooted in tradition
Wicks’ dressmaking — for herself and for family members — is rooted in African-American traditions, says Marsha J. Tyson Darling, professor of history and interdisciplinary studies and director of the Center for African, Black and Caribbean Studies at Adelphi University. Darling, who has seen the exhibition, says Wicks “has a skill that’s very traditional for Southern black women, not now, but certainly historically ... and many are incredibly proficient at it, making all of the family’s clothing.”
Wicks never doubted she was creating something special when she was sewing dresses from patterns she designed in the 1960s and ’70s. While earning an associate degree in patternmaking from the Fashion Institute of Technology, she had learned a secret or two during an internship with Wesley Tann, the first African-American fashion designer to open a salon on Manhattan’s Seventh Avenue.
Some of the homemade dresses on exhibit at the Hempstead museum feature unusual details. For instance, the apron sewn to the front of a dress designed for her niece’s 1960s Westbury High School prom pays tribute to Wicks’ mother and grandmother, who were domestic workers in the Jim Crow South. Family members appreciated her unique efforts with needle and thread, she says.
“The kids really enjoyed having their dresses made by Auntie Charly,” Wicks says.
In marking the transition from girlhood to womanhood, the apron prom dress also represents a transformation, a common thread in Wicks’ butterfly paintings, eight of which are also part of the exhibit. Created for her master’s thesis, one butterfly image was made with shattered turquoise-colored glass found in the street after an auto accident; another, with flowers.
Wicks explains her fascination with butterflies this way: “I feel that butterflies’ lives are pretty much like our lives. We may start with humble beginnings, but if we have desires to do better or to do something different, and we stick to it and persevere, we can do it, but in the meantime we’re in the chrysalis, we’re in the cocoon, but one day we come out as a free spirit.”
She had sewn her first dress for a doll she made from string and a Coke bottle. At the time she was 9, growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, with a father who worked in a jewelry store, a mother who also sewed, and seven siblings. Once, her mother had left her alone with strict orders not to touch the pedal-operated Singer, lest she jam her finger with the needle.
“I couldn’t wait for her to close the door,” Wicks recalls. “I eased up the shade, put my foot on it to test that out and get control of the pedal, and I watched the needle go up and down.” When Wicks’ mother returned, she was so impressed with the straightness and precision of her daughter’s seams, she taught her enough sewing to make school dresses for herself and even for paying customers.
However, the South was a harsh environment for the gifted student who graduated at age 16 from Memphis’ segregated Manassas High School. “I did sit in the back of the bus. I also drank from segregated water fountains — for whites on one side, for ‘coloreds’ on the other side,” she recalls. While she was walking to school, “The white kids would come along and say, ‘Get off the sidewalk,” and add in a racial epithet. Strapped for cash for a second year of college, she accepted a relative’s invitation to move to Manhattan, where tuition was free at the City University of New York.
Wicks moved to Hempstead in 1962, earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in painting at Hofstra University and a master’s degree in fine arts education from Adelphi University in Garden City. She taught in Hempstead from 1972 until she retired. Wicks and her husband, James, have three children and 10 grandchildren.
White, the artist’s granddaughter, works at the African American Museum. She had often marveled at the evening gowns and cocktail dresses in her grandmother’s closets and thought they should be put on display. “What I noticed about the dresses is that they are really set in the time period, they exude the ’60s,” White says. She eventually prevailed on her grandmother to let her curate an exhibition, which includes seven “everyday” dresses created by Wicks, three evening gowns and eight butterfly paintings.
Wicks remembers minute details of the dresses she made, where and when she wore them, or for whom they were made. However, no longer able to sew because of cataracts, she is content to see her handiwork — which she had once dismissed as “just some dresses I did” — rediscovered as art.
Folk art or fine art, the dresses won’t be consigned to the dustbin once the exhibition ends, Wicks says. “I made them and wore them,” says Wicks, who is still a size 10, “and I can still wear them.”
Cocoon Metamorphosis Butterfly: Exhibition of works by Charlesetta Wicks
WHEN | WHERE On display through Jan. 23, African American Museum, 110 N. Franklin St., Hempstead; Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; $5
INFO 516-572-0730, theaamuseum.org