When Seattle-based artist Bonnie Hopper’s son-in-law happened upon Gallery Onyx in 2016, he was immediately excited to find a gallery that showcases and promotes artists of African descent. Although Hopper, who has been painting since she was a child, has formal training in both fine arts and advertising, she was working on her craft out of her garage and giving the artwork to friends and family.
During his visit, Hopper’s son-in-law spoke with Earnest Thomas, president of Onyx Fine Arts Collective, and Ashby Reed, Onyx vice president, and told them about her artwork. Thomas and Reed said they’d love to take a look at Hopper’s art and several weeks later she came to the gallery with several examples of her paintings.
“I opened up her portfolio with four or five samples of work and I was floored,” Reed says. “I asked her, ‘Where have you been and would you consider showing with us?’ ” Hopper’s answer was yes and she has been featured in every Onyx show for the past five years.
Reed describes Hopper as a “multifaceted” artist who excels at portraits, primarily of women, using a wide range of mediums and techniques. Thomas emphasizes that she continues to experiment with new styles. “I don’t have the slightest idea what to expect from her next, but I’ve come to realize that everything [Hopper] does is going to be beautiful whether it’s abstract, figurative, or representational,” he says. A recent standout piece that has gotten a great deal of positive feedback from gallery visitors is a mosaic portrait of Amanda Gorman, who made history by becoming America’s youngest inaugural poet when she read her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration.
When Hopper began showing with Onyx, she joined a community of what now numbers more than 400 artists of African descent from the Pacific Northwest, many of whom show their work, and some of whom simply share their support. It’s a community that began 16 years ago when seven friends came together to create a space for these underrepresented, undiscovered artists to showcase their work.
One of these artists, Vincent Keele, has gone on to achieve international recognition, with his work being showcased and sold in the United Kingdom and Japan. Keele continues to show his art at Onyx and is also a board member. Thomas says that when Keele first brought his portfolio to Onyx, it primarily consisted of stunning landscapes and animals.
Since then, Keele has begun integrating his interest in languages and writing into his artwork. “It’s like he was trying to find out where did writing come from and what’s the commonality of all the writing,” Thomas explains. Keele studied Greek, Japanese, Chinese and Egyptian hieroglyphs and these words and symbols are part of many of the pieces he produces today.
“Every time I see [Keele’s] work he’s got a new technique; he’s got a new medium he’s experimenting with,” says Reed.
Portraits are also part of Keele’s repertoire and he’s currently working on a series called “Unsung Heroes.” A powerful piece from this series that was shown in a recent gallery exhibit depicts a fellow Onyx artist who is in recovery from addiction disorder. “[Keele’s] thought is that there’s not enough attention being paid to these unsung heroes, and this recovering addict now spends all his time helping others to recover,” says Thomas. The portrait was shown in the recent 2021 Onyx Fine Arts Collective Annual juried exhibit and Keele’s piece was awarded first place.
Another artist Thomas and Reed are excited to showcase is Latoya Ralliford. Born in Florida and currently living in Seattle, Ralliford is a first-generation American and integrates her Caribbean heritage into her artwork. In addition to being a trained artist, Ralliford has an educational background in literature and music which Reed says also influences her work.
Her style is “impressionistic” and Reed notes that a lot of her work has a historical background to it, often tied to African and Caribbean history. As one of the younger artists at Onyx, Reed says Ralliford’s strength is the rawness of her art. “It’s not precise; it doesn’t duplicate anything,” he says. “She doesn’t copy anything. She reinterprets things she sees and she does a wonderful job of it.”
Although every artist at Onyx has their own unique style, it’s very much a community where the artists communicate with one another and receive inspiration and support from their fellow artists. It’s an opportunity for artists, many of whom are nervous about publicly showing their work for the first time, to see and interact with other artists and gain confidence.
Both Reed and Thomas acknowledge that Gallery Onyx is deliberately set up to welcome and encourage this sense of community. “The artists come in and enjoy the interaction, learn from one another, and share with each other. In the end, we are achieving the desired growth of uninhibited artistic creativity.”
Onyx Fine Arts Collective is a Seattle-based, all-volunteer nonprofit organization whose mission, in part, is to inspire, cultivate and showcase the artwork of artists of African descent from the Pacific Northwest.