Step into "Reflections of the Black Experience," and the first thing you'll see is a photo of an Independence, Mo., kindergarten classroom from 1980 or '81. Children are seated around a long table, most working on the assignment, one raising his hand, another giving a deer-in-the-headlights look to the camera as teacher Mrs. Wheaton looks on.
But young Kinya Christian stands out, being the only Black child in the room and one of the very first Black students at John W. Luff Elementary School.
"It showed, though not in a memorable way until second grade," Christian's caption reads. "I can remember standing out then. And there were kids who made it known in no uncertain terms how they viewed us. ... It's evident that the biases, the bigotry and hate are learned behaviors. ... It's my hope that you will take away from this exhibit some truth to arm you with the power to help repair what was learned."
"Reflections of the Black Experience" is an exhibit by 22 multicultural artists that celebrates Black history and hopes to help others understand their connections to it. It's for anyone who has born witness to the violence against Black men like George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Rodney King and others to better learn what all the Black community has been through and to really grasp that Black history is an integral part of American culture and history. Desegregation, the Elaine massacre and the 1921 Tulsa race massacre are all touched upon in the exhibit.
"We are a part of why this country is built the way that it is," Christian says. "The whole system needs to be (different); attitudes have to change. That's why I created this, where people can come in and see people from all walks of life, all ages, nationalities and races talking about this and reflecting the beauty."
The exhibit began as a local introduction to the 1619 Project, an ongoing initiative by The New York Times. Its goal is to reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the center of the national narrative. Karen Wagaman, vice president of the Rogers-Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce, had asked Christian to brainstorm the theme for February's Art on the Bricks art walk in 2020. They met when collaborating the previous year as volunteers at the Rogers Experimental House, a place where art is made, shown and performed.
"I said 'I'll do it' because I had an idea to take the 1619 Project, Black History Month and combine art because it'll be a good way to introduce aspects of the project that touched me the most," Christian says. It grew into a sort of Black history timeline along the way.
Christian connected with multicultural marketing executive Gwen Kelly, and the two worked with Nikole Hannah-Jones of New York Times Magazine to gain permission to use nearly two dozen excerpts from her essays of the 1619 Project. Christian used the text to bring social context to historical images she selected from the Library of Congress.
"The result was an exhibition that was both educational and inspiring," Wagaman says of the first year's collection, which featured 50 works by a dozen artists. "It lasted well beyond the month of February when it was installed at the Rogers Historical Museum, where an artist panel and reception took place just days before the pandemic shutdown."
Now in its third year, it's more personal. Not only does it include that photo of Christian as a little girl growing up in an otherwise all-white community, it talks about her experiences with codeswitching and microaggressions. It also features a number of her works -- including "Nine," a painting based on Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine -- as well as her daughter Cydney's art, her niece's works and contributions from other friends of color.
"Kinya's greatest quality as a soul is her ability to empower anybody around her to be the best version of themselves," says Phillip Price, a friend who began to show Christian his art and run his creative ideas by her. He says his life is better for having Christian in it. "She has an innate ability to find that person's greatest characteristic and amplify that."
"Reflections of the Black Experience" is in Christian's relatively new gallery Into+View in downtown Rogers, something that she secured as a result of that first exhibit.
Christian lived paycheck to paycheck in the early stages to be able to afford the gallery because she felt it needed to be a permanent place for folks to take a closer look at their culture and ponder their everyday lives. She hopes the exhibit will broaden viewers' perspectives and make them think differently.
"You may have other friends of color and think 'That's just how they are because of their experience and they don't talk about (certain things),' but the microaggressions and things that happen to us that don't happen to you as a white person affects us and who we are and are part of why we act the way that we do," Christian says. "It's important to discuss those things and to learn and to accept and then to move forward. That's the point of this."
SAME, DIFFERENT, OTHER
Shortly after Kinya's birth, Christian's parents moved to Independence, Mo., in 1976. By then, interracial marriage had only officially been legalized for nine years, and the community was not yet accepting of Christian's family.
"When they moved in, a lot of the neighbors moved away," she says. Together they had to find a way to navigate life in the post-Jim Crow era.
Even though she wouldn't put it together for a long time to come, Kinya was teaching her own teachers a thing or two about race along the way just by showing up to class. During the evaluation process to get into kindergarten, she entered one of the testing partitions made of pipes and drapes and was given the simple assignment to draw her grandmother. Christian chose to draw a picture of each of her grandmothers, using a dark crayon for one and a light crayon for the other, and it confused the teacher doing the testing. Kinya's mother had to explain that although both women were Black, there are different shades of skin tones, different complexions.
Christian remembers getting made fun of at school and from second grade on realizing that some people didn't like her because her skin color was different. It necessitated Kinya's mother to make a number of trips to school to deal with those issues.
"Something I find so incredible is how people, especially those professing to be Christians, can have the idea that somehow there's someone superior to you based on the color of your skin," Christian says. "... As a child, you're not born with those thoughts or tendencies."
Kinya spent a lot of time with her sister Kameha, who is close in age. The pair took care of their pets, spun cartwheels in the yard and gardened throughout spring and summer. Once they became teenagers, they fought over clothes like typical sisters do.
"She's so smart and talented, which may seem a bit cheeky coming from her baby sister, but she's also great at using her intellect and talent to make peace," says Kameha Howard. "Kinya's belief in what the Bible teaches to be real is a way of life for her. How she treats others, how she conducts herself, is all motivated by understanding and applying Scriptures."
By sixth grade, Kinya noticed a distinct change among her peers. Friends who had long since attached themselves to her were taking heat for it and getting called names, but then there was a new set of people who wanted to associate with her for a different reason. MTV raps were popular and suddenly identifying with Christian's culture was cool.
That was the age when she had to distinguish among them and find her true friends who accepted her for who she was: the geeks or nerds, the alternatives and skaters. Christian threw herself into marching band, glee club and anything creative, where she found her tribe.
She also began to draw and sketch whatever was on her mind. During a long phase of horseback riding, there were a lot of horses drawn in pose. While collecting Beatles albums, she did a lot of portraits of people.
As a sixth grader, Christian got her first major sense of accomplishment from art when she won the contest for the yearbook cover art with her drawing of a lion.
DESIGNING AN ARTIST
As much as Christian loved art growing up, she didn't chose to study it. Instead she earned a certificate in computer systems and business administration from Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City in the early '90s with visions of a career in technology. Her first real job was correcting errors for LifeTouch, a company that makes school yearbooks, and it gave her a taste for editorial work and publications.
But not long into it, she met her first husband and moved to Northwest Arkansas, where his family was from, and didn't see any available work in that field.
Christian went to work for an offset printer in Rogers as an assistant for pre-flight. There she fell under the guidance of the graphic designer on staff, who noticed her ability to pick skills up quickly and mentored her, handing her projects to try, opportunities for client work. Before she knew it, she had a portfolio.
She quickly got recruited to Taylor Displays, working on pop-up displays and graphics for environmental design and museum design. Christian found a mentor there too and added to her skill set in trade show exhibits, designs and signage.
When the company folded, she used that experience to get a gig with Sign Artists in Rogers, a company that put lettering on vehicles and boats, printed big posters and made logo designs. Then it was on to a big portfolio job with OnDisplay Marketing, doing multimedia designer graphics for point-of-purchase displays, product designs, brochures, branding; work for Walmart buyers and Walmart catalogs.
Christian formed a relationship with Visit Rogers, the Rogers Convention and Visitors Bureau, while working on advertising campaigns for them in 2001, and through that met Mike and Beverly Maloney, a couple that would be influential in her life for years to come. She went to work for their company, Maloney Marketing Group, and finally had the chance to work on magazines there, including three years of Parade of Homes. Christian had a team of graphic designers and worked on newspaper ads, TV graphics and web design as well as in conjunction with various nonprofits.
"I liked being in the community, getting out and talking to people and fulfilling that need they had," Christian says of the work she did for seven years.
At Maloney, Kinya brought her daughter to work for her entire first year and then some. She set up a Pack 'n Play Playard and a rocking chair in her office, and took her on client meetings too. The arrangement worked out for them all. Christian felt supported, and together they worked on some award-winning campaigns, including one for the Drug Free Rogers-Lowell meth task force that won an Addie. And in a move that truly brought her experiences full circle, they won a couple of awards for the redesign of the Northwest Arkansas Community College logo.
Just a few short years later, in 2010 and '11, Christian felt confident in her abilities to do the full range of work and created her business 4209 Creative, an agency for artistic services including fine art, graphic design, consultation and curation. It allowed her to employ all those marketing skills she'd picked up over the years, but more importantly gave her many more chances to use her own artwork and get it out into the world.
The first time Christian did her own TV advertisement, a spot for the Illinois River Watershed, she cried from the sense of accomplishment it brought.
WHAT I WORE
When Kinya moved from Kansas City to Arkansas in 1999, there weren't any Black people to hang out with, she says, and she once again had to figure out her own way. She found community with Arkansas Public Theatre, then called Rogers Little Theatre. In the more than 20 years since, she has been on stage, been a board member and volunteer and used her artwork in many ways to promote APT shows and events.
By about 2012, Christian was single again and that year she was in the production "Love, Loss, and What I Wore," the Nora and Delia Ephron play that was directed by Joseph Farmer. She liked the concept and felt like it was true to life, how outfits gain meaning and hold memories.
She was wearing gold Banana Republic costume jewelry, an H&M kimono, black stretch pants and black heels one girls' night out to Bonefish Grill when she found herself unable to focus on the conversation. A man in the kitchen nearby was talking loudly, and for some reason she was drawn to him even without seeing his face. Christian and her friend struck up a conversation with Emory and realized they shared a love for the Kansas City Royals. They developed a friendship first, but less than a year later, they were married.
"Kinya's a powerful, compassionate woman and is very balanced with Emory," friend Phillip Price says. "Together they have the capacity to change the lives of people around them."
Lisa Turpin, director of operations for Arkansas Public Theatre, echoes that. She met Christian while still a volunteer at the theater, noticed her artwork around the place, and says Kinya has been instrumental in her personal growth.
"She is warm, encouraging and empowering," Turpin says. "As one of my only Black friends, she has made it a safe space to teach me about the Black experience and allowed me to ask those tough and often uncomfortable questions."
Turpin often reaches out to Christian to ask how to phrase something or whether posting a certain item is appropriate, with the hope of keeping APT a welcoming and inclusive place.
"She has never made that conversation difficult," Turpin says. "In fact, she loves those conversations and teaching moments."
A lot of people seem drawn to Christian's approachability and dry humor, which has opened the door for many new opportunities in recent years, including staging rooms with art for HGTV's "Fixer to Fabulous," hosting art and wine discussions for high-end clients and making her gallery the communal hub of the Rogers Short Film Festival.
Barry Cobbs, co-founder of the festival, asked Christian to come up with the whole packet of graphic design for the entire festival, with print materials like posters to T-shirts, news ads, web logos and advertising for TV, because her art is so versatile. But what really blew him away was her adept handling of the festival's filmmaker mixer.
"Filmmakers are pretty pissy and guarded, they're a zero sum game, but our (mixer) didn't have that vibe," Cobbs says. "Kinya had a lot to do with that. Her warmth and sincerity shows that she really likes people."
Like everything she does, Christian hopes her studio space reflects the way she sees the world and allows every person who visits to walk away more mindful of how they view other people and be challenged to let go of the stereotypes.
"I think about [those biases] being already out there in the spirit of the world, and how do you stop that?" Christian asks. "The only way I know is by knowledge."
Kinya Dinica Christian
Date and place of birth: June 24, 1976, Kansas City, Missouri
Family: Husband Emory Christian and daughter Cydney Elenbarger, 15
My favorite place in Northwest Arkansas: other than my home, downtown Rogers.
A typical Saturday night for me includes: cooking and a great bottle of wine.
The accomplishment I’m most proud of: Being a mother.
Something I think everyone should try at least once: Raw Pacific oysters and Champagne, like Billecart-Salmon (make it a 2007 Billecart-Salmon Blanc de Blancs for a special treat!)
My fantasy vacation destination: Maldives.
Something you may not know about me: I’m becoming a sommelier. I passed my Introductory or Level 1 exam in 2019 and wanted to pursue doing art and wine together. I’ll be sitting the Certified/Level 2 exam in August, an exam I’ve been studying for four years.
The question people ask me the most: Where are you from or how long have you lived here?
Three words to describe me: Honest, determined, light.
The thing that makes me laugh the most is: irony.
The last show I binged on television: “The Book of Boba Fett.”
One thing that would make our world better: The truth.