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This Peekskill Artist Promotes Social Justice in Her Work

Artist V.L. Cox draws inspiration from history and her upbringing to create powerful pieces featured in her current Katonah exhibition.

Classic White
Classic White. Photos courtesy of V.L. Cox

V.L. Cox is an Arkansas-raised artist whose upbringing in the deep South had a heavy influence on her creativity over the past three decades. Her current solo exhibition, It’s Time, is on display at the Chroma Gallery in Katonah from now until July 13. The project showcases pieces that delve into themes like civil rights and social justice, with a particular focus on the South.

The 20 pieces are uniquely crafted historical objects acquired by Cox over the years. To ensure historical and cultural accuracy within her art, Cox does her homework by reaching out to supporters and advisors from the African American community and numerous religious groups.

Cox was raised by her grandmother in the Arkansas Bible Belt. Throughout her childhood, she frequented the company of strong-headed women whom she notes as prime influences in her career. One of the women, Queen Victoria, “Q.V.,” was an African American friend of her grandmother’s and the first to introduce Martin Luther King and his message to V.L.

Q.V., A Study – Arkadelphia, Arkansas, circa 1988-91. Photo by V.L. Cox.

“I was surrounded by very strong women from different cultural backgrounds, and it was amazing,” says Cox.

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She earned her BFA in ’91 from Henderson State University and proceeded to establish the beginning of her full-time art career in ’97, when her paintings took off. Cox’s first venture into merging the South and her art took form in the still-running 30-something-year-old series Images of the American South. The series includes paintings of locals in the rural South standing behind their screen doors, depicting visuals from her childhood.

Cox’s artistic direction took a complete 180-degree turn at a time of political unrest. In 2015, the Arkansas Legislature attempted to pass a bill that was dangerously written in an attempt to target the African American and LGBTQ+ communities.

“It freaked me out, and I realized that the loudest voice I had was my art,” says the 62-year-old lesbian, who feared for her rights in a community she continuedly supported. Cox has since relocated to the Artist District in Peekskill with her partner.

V.L. Cox
V.L. Cox

Her first project after coming around the bend was a set of doors based on de-segregation. Instead of solely creating the historically accurate “Colored Only” and “White Only” doors, she took it one step further by adding five additional doors which read “LGBTQ Only,” “Immigrant Only,” “Homeless Only,” “Veterans Only,” and “Women Only,” the latter which was added after the Women’s March. Thanks to a swiftly attained permit from the Arkansas State Capitol, Cox was able to demonstrate the first round of doors on the State Capitol Steps in 2015 and then later at the Lincoln Memorial.

Arkansas Capitol End Hate Doors
Arkansas Capitol End Hate Doors

Although symbolic, these seven doors – which have over 250,000 miles on them – opened up ample opportunities for Cox. She awoke to pictures of the art display plastered all over Yahoo News in a handful of languages.

“It changed my life,” she says. “I realized the power of the arts and how far visually you can make an impact, so I’ve been on that path ever since.”

This significant turning point in Cox’s artistry provoked backlash from white supremacists, specifically members of the Ku Klux Kan, whose headquarters are in Harrison, Arkansas. Once the first round of five doors hit the State Capitol Grounds, Cox began receiving death threats and white supremacy propaganda from a member of the KKK. This was quickly resolved after one message addressed to the FBI.

“Being a girl raised in the South when your father wanted a boy, you know my father gave me a shotgun,” Cox shares, adding that a shotgun occupied a portion of her studio between 2015 and 2017.

For the past two years, Cox has been traveling the country with her current body of work that reflects who she is, not only as a history buff but as a caring, open-minded human being.

This project is stocked with strong pieces, each holding a personal story for the queer, Southern-raised artist. The pieces at first glance come across as simple – although strong – with Cox emphasizing the importance of reading the narrative correlating to each piece. Without the description, some visuals could be misleading.

“I try to tell things from my perspective so I’m not culturally telling someone else’s story, while also using history to tell that story,” says Cox.

The collection features a New York gaming device from the ‘30s or ‘40s that depicts a vintage claw picking up cherries to represent cherry picking. Another is a teabag flag made up of ripped-out bible pages filled with black tea. Prior to creating the piece, Cox talked with a Baptist minister, Presbyterian minister, and a devout Catholic to ask their thoughts about the project. To her surprise, they all said the same thing: “People pull pages out of the bible every single day, and they rip them out to harm others. You’re ripping them out to show that it’s not okay.”

Check out the rest of Cox’s impactful work at the Chroma Gallery in Katonah from now until July 13. The gallery hosts an opening reception on June 22 from 4-8 p.m.

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