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Arts

Dail Chambers is an artist on a mission

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 6, 2011 - Those who know Dail Chambers understand that untangling the artist from the community activist would be like separating salt from seawater.

Like a superhero with a paintbrush and a sculptor's hands, Chambers, 28, strives to empower women, fight sexism and end racism. And unlike Superman, Chambers appears to have no power-draining kryptonite, the caped crusader's Achilles heel.

What Chambers does have is purpose, talent and drive. The latter is proclaimed, quite literally, by the writing on the walls of her north St. Louis studio. Painted in circular fashion around one room are these words from the poet Nikki Giovanni: "If the choice is between the able and the faithful, the faithful must be chosen."

Here, the word "faith" is not about religion but about walking the walk.

"Just because you're able to do something doesn't necessarily mean you're going to get up and actually start trying it and working through it," Chambers said.

SHAPING CLAY, MOLDING A CHILD

An ambitious only child raised by a single mom in the U.S. Marines, Chambers was artistically inspired through her passion for literature.

"I attribute my imagination to reading; I got an award for reading 400 books in the third grade," Chambers said.

Growing up with her mother and Mississippi-born grandmother, Chambers spent much of her childhood here, attending Marion Elementary and Ritenour Middle Schools, but she attended high school in Hawaii. Back in the Gateway City after graduation, Chambers studied photography at St. Louis Community College while managing a Sears portrait studio.

Having a baby at 20 didn't slow Chambers down. She fed and rocked her daughter and changed her diapers while completing her BFA with an emphasis on clay and a minor in art history from Memphis College of Art.

As a strong woman raised by strong women, and now raising Tiggy --- short for Antigone (from the play by Sophocles) --- on her own, Chambers is busy paying it forward. In Memphis, she founded the AIDS Project. In collaboration with another artist, she put together a traveling exhibition exploring generations of African-American families before the Great Migration north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Here in St. Louis, Chambers has shown her art at the Vaughn Cultural Center in Grand Center and at the Regional Arts Commission. She's taught at Washington University's visual arts retreat and at the Saint Louis Art Museum. In 2010, she founded Yeyo Arts Collective ("yeyo" means "mother" in Swahili), an organization empowering women through arts education and outreach.Every Sunday morning, at her Gya gallery and fine craft shop on Locust in north city, Chambers and Cowry Collective founder Chinyere Oteh work and play with 7-to-14 year old girls (and younger ones who come with their volunteer mothers). Each GirlsCreate class begins with Yoga, involves a project such as kite- or mask-making and ends with a simple snack and good feelings all around.

That's because art is a natural method for positive exchanges, Chambers said, due to its role as a universal conduit.

"Everybody may not be an artist, but everybody can understand visual imagery," Chambers said. "It's a vehicle for relationships, connections and understandings."

'BLACK SCAB TEARS'

Objects that appear to be iron ovals dominate an important body of Chambers' work. In actuality, they're made of clay, dipped in iron oxide. They represent tears.

"Black scab tears," a phrase coined by contemporary Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, is one that Chambers couldn't get out of her mind.

"Oh, that's so painful --- to be in so much pain that your tears scab over," Chambers said.

The artist's black scab tears adorn a blanket, a river, a shield and a 7-foot-long cotton bag like those filled by African-American slaves, among other items, in Chambers' collection.

Employing organic materials is a theme in Chambers' art. So is the use of knitting, sewing and crocheting to historically represent women. Sculpture is her favorite genre. But her work also encompasses painting, photography and jewelry making.

Marlene Schuman, who first got to know the artist in activism circles, was shocked to discover the depth of Chambers' creative side when she attended an exhibition.

"I knew her as a political activist, and I was blown away at how talented she is as an artist," Schuman said.

'SHE'S A WARRIOR'

True to her Giovanni creed, Chambers gets things done, according to Schuman. Working together on the curriculum development committee of St. Louis' Justice Institute, Chambers is the one who doesn't let ideas get stalled at the talking stage.

"For her, it's not enough to meet or gather to break bread and talk about what our politics are, they then must lead to an action," Schuman said.

As an example, filmmaker Jackie Masei, who's worked with Chambers on a variety of projects, pointed to Chambers' protesting a sign over a mechanic's shop in the Gya neighborhood, graphically depicting a sex act.

"At first Dail makes a comment about it, then she does something about it," Masei said. "We went and met with the owner, and he was a sweet man --- he's like in his 90s or something --- and we had a great conversation with him and he's going to cover the part that's inappropriate."

Although in most of her other relationships, Masei does the mentoring, she looks to Chambers as her own mentor.

"We inspire each other," Masei said. "She's wise beyond her years, she works 24/7. She's a single parent. She's a warrior."

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