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HIGH PROFILE: Artist V.L. Cox opens doors to let everyone in

Arkansas artist opens doors to let everyone in with artwork speaking up for human rights. by Rachel O'Neal Arkansas Democrat-Gazette | May 10, 2020 at 7:56 a.m.
“I feel very strongly about my beliefs as far as people doing the right thing, being good to one another, don’t kick people when they’re down, that kind of thing. That was the way my grandmother raised me, and I feel very, very strongly about that, and I will fight pretty hard. I don’t like bullies. I will stand up to bullies all day long. I just don’t believe in that kind of stuff.” (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

Colored only. Whites only. LGBT only. Immigrant only. Homeless only. Veterans only. Women only. Human Beings.

The words are written in capital letters on eight segregation-era doors painted in a rainbow of colors. Just words. But powerful words used by artist V.L. Cox to provoke discussion on human rights concerns.

"I believe all objects have a story. In the South, we're storytellers. We really are. A lot of oral traditions, a lot of oral histories are passed down that way and I also believe -- and I've learned that this is definitely true, it's not just a belief -- that the arts are a completely different language, they're a different language altogether. And that language has the ability to transform across boundaries. I guess it's the best way to put it," Cox says.

"It crosses religious and political boundaries very easily because people can relate to it and I've learned through my work that it opens the doors to more conversation and I like that. That's what I want to do with my work."

In 2015, Cox launched her "End Hate" project based on those segregation-era doors. The project was in response to the proposed Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Under the proposed legislation, Arkansas wouldn't be allowed to "substantially burden a person's right to exercise of religion" unless doing so is necessary "to further a compelling state interest." Critics said the bill would allow businesses to discriminate against gay Arkansans and others.

A compromise was reached and Gov. Asa Hutchinson, joined by a bipartisan cadre of legislators, signed into law a legal defense against government laws, ordinances, regulations or policies that run afoul of people's religious beliefs. But critics said they feared the new law, though shorter, will still lead to discrimination on religious grounds.

Cox's doors were placed twice on the steps of the state Capitol and twice at the base of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

The "End Hate" project eventually grew to more than 53 pieces and toured nationwide at locations including the LGBT Center in New York; the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Ala.; the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond and the Delta Cultural Center in Helena-West Helena. Cox toured with it, spending several years on the road before returning to her art studio at the old St. Joseph's Orphanage in North Little Rock.

"I feel very strongly about my beliefs as far as people doing the right thing, being good to one another, don't kick people when they're down, that kind of thing," Cox says. "That was the way my grandmother raised me and I feel very, very strongly about that and I will fight pretty hard. I don't like bullies. I will stand up to bullies all day long. I just don't believe in that kind of stuff."

Cox, the daughter of Mary Hardman and Lynn Cox, was born in Shreveport, next-door to where her father was stationed at Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City. After his service ended, he moved the family to Arkadelphia where both he and Mary had been born and raised.

When Cox was 10, her grandmother, Louise Pilkinton Hardman enrolled her in a summer art program for kids at Henderson State University. She recalls fondly her art instructor, Joe Scott, who eventually became her adviser, mentor and friend.

"I used to go to his house and play with his two girls who were my age and he had an art studio, and he would tell us to stay out of his art studio. We are not allowed in that art studio," Cox says. "Of course, you know exactly where we went -- the art studio."

Over time, her mother developed a substance abuse problem and took out her anger on young Cox.

"One night we were going to bed. We heard a gunshot go off outside the bedroom window and this was before my parents divorced. We thought she killed herself, and she had gone out and just acted like she killed herself because she was drunk."

Her parents divorced, leaving Cox and her younger sister with their mother. But only Cox was the target of her mother's abuse.

"I got beat up on a lot. And so, the night that I was removed from the house, she had basically just beat me down to the floor. And she had a belt. She was hitting me with the buckle part, and I grabbed it away from her, and I swung back just because I panicked," Cox says. "I thought she was going to kill me, and I just panicked. And when the belt made contact on her shoulder, she kind of freaked out."

Her uncle removed her from the house, and Cox moved in with her grandmother Hardman, who became her legal guardian. From her grandmother, she learned about her great-grandmother Virginia Louise Betts Pilkinton, who was also an artist.

That side of her family was highly educated, and a young Cox learned about art and literature. The other side of the family did not have an education but was self-sufficient.

"It was really great to learn from one side of the family how to grow your own food. I used to go deer hunting with my father. He wanted a boy and, of course, he didn't get one. And I'm the oldest so I just had to do, I guess," Cox says.

"I learned how to grow tomatoes, I can can vegetables and jellies and jams to this day. I learned how to fish. I learned all that ... I can basically survive in the woods by myself for a month or two if I wanted to.

"And then on the other side, I learned about art, literature and culture. I feel like I had the best of both worlds. And the cool thing about it is that regardless of the divorce, my grandparents became very good friends with each other and absolutely adored each other. ... I feel very fortunate to have had that in my life," she says.

THE MAKINGS OF AN ARTIST

Cox got her degree in computer graphics from Henderson State University -- the same college her educated grandparents graduated from in the 1930s. She first moved to Dallas and worked in advertising and marketing for accounts like the Dallas Opera and the Dallas Ballet. She later spent some time at an advertising firm in Memphis before returning to Arkansas to work on the Alltel Corp. account at Cranford Johnson Robinson and Woods Inc.

"I didn't like the corporate world, I didn't fit in well with it, it was very difficult for me to sit behind a desk," Cox says. "I made some wonderful friends. I'm still friends with a lot of people in all these firms, especially Cranford. I just love those guys. It just wasn't me. I am a very active person. I can't sit still very long. I'm always doing something, it seems like. But when my painting started selling, I really embraced that and went 100% into it."

The first piece she sold was a painting of a magnolia blossom. She painted it for a woman who was looking for a gift for her mother. It sold for $98.

"I was pretty thrilled with that," Cox says. "I've gotta be honest with you, I was pretty happy about that."

Her art was noticed by Robyn Steinmetz, the owner of June's Hallmark. Steinmetz had an art show at her home to showcase Cox's work. By 1997, Cox gave notice to Cranford and became a full-time artist.

Steinmetz says when she held the show at her home, Cox sold every piece of art that she brought. Steinmetz now is one of Cox's top collectors.

"Of all of the people I have met in my life, she is a genuine friend, through and through," Steinmetz says. "She really is a true artist. When I think of a true artist, I think of her. She has a passion and love of what she does."

Today, Cox's work sells in the $450-$10,000 range, according to Melody Stanley, owner of Red Door Gallery in North Little Rock where some of Cox's pieces are available. The wide price range is because Cox's miniature paintings sell for far less than her larger pieces.

"Her art has soul. It is emotional," Stanley says. "In her art, you can see the different places she has been in her life. Everything she touches has emotion in it."

Stanley says that well-known Arkansas glass-blower James Hayes once told her he couldn't believe he was in the same room with Cox.

"Other artists look up to her -- she has that much name recognition," Stanley says.

J. Chester Johnson, an Arkansan native now living in New York, met Cox at the September 2019 dedication of the Elaine Massacre Memorial in Helena-West Helena. Johnson is an award-winning poet and author. His latest book, Damaged Heritage: The Elaine Race Massacre and a Story of Reconciliation, was released Tuesday.

"Art has this surprising way of reminding who we have been in the larger sense and what we have done. And it does it in a way that's more stark and, more importantly, more persuasively than pure facts or a recitation of history can possibly do," Johnson says. "I think that's the power of her pieces, which are not timid pieces. It is sort of the [opposite] of the timid. It's the other side of timidity and I'm attracted to that."

COMING OUT

Like any artist, Cox was initially hesitant. Would others like her work? But she says an artist must "embrace your vulnerabilities."

"Fast forward to those doors," she says. "That's when I literally threw my whole personal life out there for everyone to see."

One of those people was her own father. The doors were on display on the front steps of the state Capitol at the same time Lynn Cox was at the John L. McClellan Memorial Veterans Hospital in Little Rock recovering from a heart attack.

V.L. Cox was running back and forth from the Capitol to the hospital. A friend watched over the doors while she was away. She was sitting with her father in his hospital room and the news was on. The story was about the doors and Cox was shown holding the LGBT door.

"I just looked at my father and I thought, 'Oh no, we haven't had that talk yet. Oh no.' I was mortified and I thought I should have expected this and I just looked at him and I said -- I mean he's hooked up to all these things -- and I said 'Dad, I think we need to talk.'

"He was a very religious man, my father was an extremely religious man. And he looked at the TV, he didn't look at me and he said, 'We don't have anything to talk about.' He said, 'I love you. I'm proud of you. And you need to get back over to the Capitol and be with your friends.'

"I will never forget that as long as I'm alive and that's the only time we ever talked about it," Cox says.

Lynn Cox died two years ago of pneumonia.

FORGIVENESS

Several years ago, V.L. Cox got a phone call letting her know her mother was sick and at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. She hadn't seen her mother in years.

Cox stayed up all night, wondering what she should do. The next morning, she decided to go to the hospital.

"I walked in her room and where I once saw a monster, I saw a frail little old woman who was very, very ill," Cox says. "She looked at me and she started crying. And I went over to her and I said, 'You know what, you don't have to say anything to me.' I said 'All's forgiven. Let's just move forward.'

"And we did. She lived about another year, and she told me she loved me for the first time in my life and then she died."

A mom herself, Cox's children are both in their 30s. Her son, Devin, is an anthropologist. Her daughter, Noelle, works at Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Over the years, Cox says she has evolved in the way she thinks about others and the world. She says she likes to tell the story of when she was approached by a man when she was with her doors at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

"He was huge, bald headed, he was a skinhead and had white supremacist tattoos on him. And he was there with his wife, they were dressed in black and he reached out his hand," Cox says. "It scared me to death. I've had gang training. I've worked with incarcerated youth, I know what those tattoos mean, and he stuck his hand out, and he shook my hand."

The man thanked her for creating the doors.

"Literally, you could have knocked me over with a feather. I mean, I was stunned. And I said, 'Excuse me?'" she says.

The man told her he was born in south Georgia and all of his family were members of the Ku Klux Klan. He told her he had fled with his family to Washington because his son was transgender and other relatives had threatened to "kill their own flesh and blood." The man told her he was now a "man of peace."

"I thought if that man who had been indoctrinated in hate since the day he was born could change his heart, anybody can and the love of his son overcame all the hatred that he had learned," Cox says.

"I've got so many stories like that. It's been the most wonderful journey I've ever had in my life. I've learned so much and I've seen so much. And it's changed me. Even though I'm just the same person -- just an old country girl, you know -- it's changed the way I look at the world and how I look at other people."

SELF PORTRAIT

• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Aug. 14, 1962, Shreveport.

• MY FAVORITE ARTIST IS: I have two -- Robert Rauschenberg and William Christenberry.

• WHEN I PAINT, I LIKE TO LISTEN TO: Mavis Staples and Otis Taylor.

• MY FAVORITE CHILDHOOD MEMORY IS: Running barefoot through the woods and creeks as a kid with my best friend Byron. We would have Little Golden paperback science books tucked in our back jeans pocket as a reference guide to birds, fossils and trees. That was our secret world. I could write a book on those adventures.

• TO RELAX I LIKE TO: Write and explore.

• IN MY REFRIGERATOR YOU WILL ALWAYS FIND: McClard's BBQ Sauce. I've eaten there since I was old enough to sit in a high chair. I've even had it mailed to me while I was on the road.

• THE ONE THING VERY FEW PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT ME IS: My grandmother taught me to read at the age of 4. I'm a speed reader. I can read a 500+ page book in one day.

• I'VE BEEN BINGE WATCHING: The Curse of Oak Island.

• I DRIVE A: Black Dodge Grand Caravan. I miss having a truck, but it's a great art vehicle.

• MY PRIZED POSSESSION IS: My very first art portfolio. My grandmother signed me up for a summer art class at Henderson State University when I was 10 years old. Joe Scott was the instructor (who later became my mentor) and at the end of the program, we put everything we created in a handmade book. When my grandmother died, I found it among her possessions.

• A BOOK I RECENTLY READ AND ENJOYED WAS: The Broken Road, George Wallace and a Daughter's Journey to Reconciliation by Peggy Wallace Kennedy. It's an incredible book. (Thanks Lisa.)

• MY FAVORITE MOVIE OF ALL TIME IS: Fried Green Tomatoes.

• MY SECRET TALENT IS: Apparently I can raise baby cottontail bunnies and squirrels pretty well. Rescued and released nine baby bunnies from the studio/farm last year and nursing a baby squirrel now.

• I ABSOLUTELY WILL NOT EAT: Grape jelly or tartar sauce. I mean, why? Never going to happen.

• I WOULD LIKE TO BE REMEMBERED AS: A regular person who stood up against injustice.

• THE ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Compassionate

“It’s been the most wonderful journey I’ve ever had in my life. I’ve learned so much, and I’ve seen so much. And it’s changed me. Even though I’m just the same person — just an old country girl, you know — it’s changed the way I look at the world and how I look at other people.” (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)
Preston Noland with the Arkansas Arts Center helps set up the installation of artist V.L. Cox’s doors that are part of her “End Hate” project outside the entrance to the arts center in 2015. (Democrat-Gazette file photo)

High Profile on 05/10/2020

Print Headline: V.L. Cox

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