Thursday, March 1, 2012

Barbara Chavous: Arts Mother

For over thirty years Columbus’ artistic mother has been Barbara Chavous, painter and sculptor. Barbara was raised in Columbus, graduated from East High, Central State University and was married to movie photographer Adger Cowens in New York.

She met Stanley Sourelis in New York, they married and resettled in Columbus. She says that he taught her the sense of color that now characterizes her work.

During those exciting days, Stanley and Barbara were the artistic mentors to many of us; Queen Brooks, Terry Logan, Pheoris West, Candy Watkins, Stephen Canneto, Walt Neal, Sandy Aska and countless others. They moved to 776 Franklin Avenue, the former Henry Hallwood Mansion, and were one of the pioneering household in a diverse community now know as Olde Towne East.

Barbara was born and raised in Columbus in a very creative household. "I don't know that we called what we did art at the time, but we we always involved in things artistic."

She graduated from Columbus East High School, where she was involved in drama, music and she went to college at Central State University, graduating with a degree in elementary education. She met and married New York photographer Adger Cowans and had a son named Eden. She enjoyed living in New York, "A whole new world opened up to me. I felt at home there and discovered so many wonderful things about living."

She taught for ten years in the New York City School system, emphasizing visual arts. "At least once a week I took my classes somewhere. If it was not to a museum, we went to Midtown New York and strolled around looking at buildings." She continued educating herself by attending classes at the Museum of Natural History, the New York Art League and visiting galleries.

Barbara was noted for her sculpting called Jazz Totems, tall layered-wood pieces that frequently used found objects and recycled materials. Sculptures, wall hangings, drawings and other works by Chavous are included in the Columbus Museum of Art collection. Her commissioned sculpture The City stands Downtown in Bicentennial Park.

"I learned that art didn't have to be perfection; it had to do with spiritual feeling, emotions, reacting to nature and doing what comes naturally." She said, "I began to visit flea markets and wound up with a lot of junk. One day I started putting all that junk together and the education process started again. I was getting myself into wood and metal, seeing things in their natural form."

She established a circular trademark on her totems called loukoumis, named after a Greek candy that she liked (Sourelis is from a Greek family heritage). She says that she paints the whole structure white, then adds color to it as it occurs to her. In the 1990s she discovered puff paint, a dimensional paint that expands when heated and she added a new texture and meaning to her colorful palette.

"My jazz totem art does not fit into any mold. It doesn't have limitations; one has to explore who they are. America is a creative place and we do types of work here that are not done anywhere in the world."

"What makes people important to each other and to themselves is creativity. It doesn't answer all the questions of life, but it's a start."

In 2003, I was honored to be nominated for the Arts Freedom Award, presented by Southside Settlement House and the Columbus Museum. The two other honorees that year were Steven Anderson, director of Phoenix Theater for Children and Barbara Chavous, my mom.

What a joyful evening; like the proverbial “Old Home Night.” All of the Columbus arts family that we partied, exhibited and loved with during those frenzied days of the seventies and eighties came together to celebrate the recognition of our life’s work.

Barbara passed in January, 2008. To paraphrase a composition from my pastor Mary Kay Beale Carter, “With grateful heart I thank you, Lord, “ for bringing Barbara Chavous into my life.

Arnett Howard

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