Emerging Artist winners on display at the Chastain Arts Center Gallery

23/24 Emerging Artist Award Recipient exhibition at the Chastain Arts Center & Gallery. (Photo by Isadora Pennington)

The Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs has curated a showcase of works by three Emerging Artist Award Winners at the Chastain Arts Center & Gallery. This recurring program is intended to support and encourage emerging artists through a monetary grant and an exhibition of their works. 

One recent sunny afternoon, I made the trek into the heart of Buckhead to visit the Chastain Arts Center & Gallery and discuss the award process and current exhibition with two of the winning artists, Billy Clifton-Strawn and Mary Shannon Kelly. 

Billy Clifton-Strawn is a self-taught artist who began his career as an artist just a few years ago in 2021 at the age of 64. After retiring from his long-held position as a kitchen designer at Home Depot, and faced with the forced solitude of the pandemic, he began experimenting with making art on his phone. His husband, David, is an esteemed photographer and was instantly supportive of Billy’s new creative streak. Soon after, he bought Billy an iPad to further the development of his artwork.

Billy Clifton-Strawn (Photo by Isadora Pennington)

Over time, Clifton-Strawn furthered his artistic practice that incorporates photographs of faces, flowers, and textures that he then layers atop one another and manipulates into compelling new compositions. 

“Originally, it was just doodling and play, but now it’s developing into portfolios of work,” explained Clifton-Strawn. “I’m developing this body of work that is about reflecting on my life. Where was I, where am I now, and where am I going?” He explained that his works frequently explore the experience of being an aging gay man, or as he calls it, a “gray gay.”

“I started playing around with finding a new way to do a portrait, using photographic techniques but also bringing in digital drawing. One day I realized I could take a floral photograph and make a torso out of it, and fit that with the head. In some of my other work the images get headdresses also, making them a little more spiritual and mystic.” 

Clifton-Strawn had originally pursued a career in horticulture, and has had a life-long love and appreciation for flowers, so he has a lot of photographs of florals that he uses in his work. “It’s crazy now because I live in a high-rise and can’t have them,” he said with a laugh. “I bring those florals into my portraits to convey a message. I’m still figuring it out, but it’s aging, and spirituality, and sexuality.”

Mary Shannon Kelly, a visual artist working primarily in watercolors, has spent the last nine months developing her artwork and following her passions into a career in the arts. In her career, Kelly was a public school teacher for more than a decade. Though she’s self-taught, she quickly fell in love with the medium after joining her mother for a watercolor class in Follansbee, West Virginia. 

Kelly first started by painting pictures of her child, and then her friends’ children. “And then the pandemic happened, the world shut down, and I had a kindergartener all of a sudden.” At the time, interest in portraits of children dropped, and so Kelly challenged herself to paint 20 portraits of 20 birds in 20 days. “I sort of developed a business around painting birds, I just really loved that. Because I’m not traditionally trained I came at things in a funny way. I did portraiture, then animals, and then urban landscapes. I come at everything from a portraiture perspective, so it’s all hyper-realistic.” 

Mary Shannon Kelly (Photo by Isadora Pennington)

“The thing that I find is that if you paint something it becomes more beautiful, and it becomes something that you are intensely focused on,” said Kelly. She mentioned how many watercolor landscapes focus on serene, pastoral scenes, but that she’s drawn more to places where you can see the story of the people and wildlife that exist there. 

“There’s something about turning that gaze to these urban spaces that I think is incredibly beautiful. I think Atlanta is beautiful; I love the graffiti, I love the way there is so much layered and clustered together. I find that gorgeous. If I paint it, it forces the viewer to stop and look and see it in a different way,” said Kelly.

“Who thinks a chain link fence is beautiful? I do. It’s so beautiful, it reflects so much light. Multi use spaces where people, animals, and plants have made their marks on it, and you’re just kind of showcasing these moments of absolute beauty. If you just take a second to stop and look. For me, there is something so meaningful about that. It’s such a beautiful world we live in, even when it’s ugly.”

Lee Osorio, actor, narrator, and playwright, on stage during a recent performance. (Provided)

Lee Osorio, the third Emerging Artist Award Recipient, was on set during my visit to the gallery. Thankfully, he was able to provide me with some stills of his performances and an explanation about his process. Osorio is an actor, narrator, and playwright. His work Prisontown is featured in this exhibit at the Chastain Arts Center & Gallery, with stills from his performances and an immersive projection featuring snippets from the film.

“At the heart of my playwriting is a desire to queer the audience’s worldview. How do we move past binary thinking that builds walls between us to an ability to see our full, complicated humanity,” explained Osorio. “I wrote Prisontown to explore how the immigration detention center in my hometown of Lumpkin, Georgia, and the prison system as a whole, hurts not only the detainees held there, but the guards and town as well. A Third Way is a very different play, but also explores a couple that decides to open their relationship and ends up queering much more in their lives than they anticipated.”

Prisontown had its world premiere in Savannah earlier this month, and another of Osorio’s works called A Third Way will debut at Actor’s Express this fall. Osorio is a recurring guest star on NBC’s Found, a television show that explores the stories of missing people who have been forgotten. 

The showcase of works by these three Emerging Artist Awardees will remain on display at the Chastain Park Arts Center & Gallery through June 15. Admission to the gallery is free and open to the public during regular business hours. Learn more about the artists and this exhibit on the City of Atlanta OCA website here

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