The Art of Stephen Marc Stunningly Evokes the Intersection of Past and Present

Underground Railroad project premiers at the UB Art Gallery

Release Date: August 20, 2009

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Stephen Marc's "Woman Walking" includes a rendering of an African slave coffle from an 1875 issue of Harper's Monthly.

Stephen Marc's digital photomontage "Running Man" superimposes the anti-slavery symbol on a stone wall in Fort Erie, with downtown Buffalo across the river.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Stephen Marc, a noted African-American photographer and digital montage artist, has spent nearly a decade on the road in the U.S. and Canada documenting the places and people associated with America's Underground Railroad.

The network of secret routes and safe houses used by escaping enslaved African Americans is the subject of "Passage on the Underground Railroad," an exhibition of complex digital montages by Marc that will be presented Sept. 10 to Oct. 17 in the University at Buffalo Art Gallery.

The exhibit will take place in the first floor gallery in the UB Center for the Arts, North (Amherst) Campus. It will be free and open to the public. A public reception for the artist will be held Sept. 10 from 5-7 p.m.

Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. For information, call 716-645-0568.

Marc also will be a guest speaker in the UB Visual Studies Department free, public speaker series on Sept. 14 at 6:30 p.m. in 112 Center for the Arts.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a book by the same title published by Marc in conjunction with the University Press of Mississippi.

Sandra Olsen, director of the UB Art Gallery and curator of the exhibit, says the book will feature 87 full-color images, an interview by Carla Williams, editor of the journal Exposure, and essays by Keith Griffler, Ph.D., professor of African and African American studies at UB, and Diane Miller, national coordinator of the National Park Service's Network to Freedom.

"Stephen Marc is a nationally recognized photographer and digital montage artist whose work addresses the many forms taken by the African diaspora," says Olsen.

He has been called a "modern griot" or storyteller who visually connects the past of African Americans to the current black experience with stunning, even chilling, relevance.

She says, "'The Passage on the Underground Railroad' is comprised of two series: the Underground Railroad sites and montages. In the sites series Marc has documented the individual Underground Railroad locations with photographs taken inside and outside the historical structures, as well as the surrounding landscape.

"In the montage series" Olsen says, "he marries the landscape to slavery through the use of plantation sites, primary source documents and other remnants of slavery from diverse sources, many of them collected by the artist, and combines these with pertinent modern cultural references.

"Woven together digitally, the final images create narratives that generate insightful juxtapositions and bring the past palpably into the present," she says and adds that Marc will provide texts for each photograph that summarize the narratives and identify salient artifacts.

This project was begun during Marc's 2000 residency at CEPA Gallery in Buffalo, and three of the 35 Underground Railroad sites employed in this exhibition are in Western New York.

They are the Michigan Street Baptist Church, Buffalo, a legendary Underground Railroad station; Murphy Orchards, Burt, N.Y., where, for more than 20 years, the McClew family sheltered escaped slaves before moving them to the next station; and Root House in Pekin, N.Y., home of abolitionist Thomas Root, which was one of the last stops on the railroad. From here, in the 1850s, former slaves were transported to the Canadian border hidden in farm wagons full of produce.

Olsen says that in preparation for this show, Marc took thousands of photographs at more than 100 historic sites in the United States and Canada, and collected a vast number of artifacts, documents and historic photos for use in his montages.

"After months of experimentation," she says, "he settled on the panoramic format of presentation, using as few as four and as many as 20 digital photographs in each, the largest measuring 18 inches by 81 inches.

"Marc's work has alternated between self-revolving, diaristic approaches and broad explorations in history and culture," Olsen says, noting that his first book, "Urban Notions," focused on the three Midwestern cities where he grew up or visited frequently, and has been described as "a cross between decisive moment documentary style and fine art formalism."

His 1992 publication, "Black Trans-Atlantic Experience," features his photos of Ghana, Jamaica, England and the United States, which he employed to illustrate the British Colonial slave trade route.

His prestigious awards include the 2009 Elizabeth and Mallory Factor Prize for Southern Art, and fellowships from the Midwest Regional National Endowment for the Arts, the Aaron Siskind Foundation and the Mellon Research Fellowship from the Virginia Historical Society.

A professor of art at Arizona State University's Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, Marc has received ongoing support from Olympus Imaging America Inc. Olympus Visionaries program, and through the National Park Service's National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program.

The UB Art Gallery is funded by the UB College of Arts and Sciences, the Visual Arts Building Fund, the Seymour H. Knox Foundation Fine Arts Fund and the Fine Arts Center Endowment.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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