Debbie Crawford calls them her field trips. She goes to large chain stores and observes black women examining and purchasing greeting cards.
“I can tell they’re not really finding what they want, and they end up buying these stock characters,” said Crawford, a Raleigh artist.
The dearth of greeting cards and gift items for African-American women hit home the year she received two identical birthday cards from friends.
“That just made me realize how limited the choices and themes were. Plus the cards seemed like they didn’t come from a real African-American person. Let’s just say that I didn’t feel the love,” she recalled with a laugh.
Crawford, 52, had been making cards and collages highlighting strong, positive words like “courage,” “achieve” and “beauty,” when she decided to turn the focus on color.
“I just want to say in a few simple words, ‘I see you.’ I see my niece, my girlfriend, my son’s best friend. I see images that are real.”
The mother of four grew up in Apex surrounded by words and art.
“My mother really encouraged us to be creative,” she said. “We were always writing and creating, and once a week we had to create a performance or read something. She had been a librarian and was an avid reader, and education was very important.”
Crawford graduated from Hampton University in Virginia in 1980 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and hightailed it to Washington, D.C., to nurture her creative side, she said. For almost two decades, she and her husband, Gary, lived in Washington, where she worked in desktop publishing and made art on the side.
“I did paintings and cutouts. Everything had images that brought happiness and joy, anything with a positive message,” she said. “Then I started doing collages and I put words on everything, either from magazines or combined with some of my own words and poetry. My entire message was about inspiring people.”
The family moved to Raleigh to open a Jani-King commercial cleaning franchise and to raise their children in a less urban environment. The couple still runs the business, and five years ago Gary Crawford, a martial arts instructor, opened Vanguard Karate in Raleigh. It was after moving back to her home state that Crawford focused more on art for black women.
“Coming from a metro area like D.C., with so much diversity from the art to the food to the people, I missed that. That’s when I found my niche.”
As a mixed-media artist, Crawford combines acrylics, fabric and found objects. Some of the couple’s cleaning clients even set aside items they think Crawford could use, from flooring samples to different types of paper.
One of Crawford’s most popular items is wooden “art blocks,” which are covered with collages that often include an image of a black woman with empowering messages, some penned by Crawford, such as “adjust your vision and see greatness,” or a string of words, such as ‘gorgeous, real, brilliant.’ ”
In 2011, after Crawford’s mother died, she expanded into new work inspired by boxes of photographs found of her parents, grandparents and their friends from the 1940s to the 1960s.
“I was struck by the regalness of these people, the way they carried themselves in a time when things were a lot tougher.”
She noted that many had ended up moving north as part of the Great Migration, when millions of African-Americans left the rural South for more integrated urban areas in the Northeast and Midwest.
For a series of works called “Comin’ & Goin’ ” she scans original photos to create mixed-media wall hangings that include painted acrylics and sometimes fabric and paper. Scenes hint of travel and sometimes segregation. The overall effect is nostalgic and somber, proud and hopeful.
“The first time anyone saw them was at Artsplosure in 2012,” said Crawford, who will also participate in this year’s downtown art festival on May 17 and 18. “I was nervous because they weren’t whimsical or feel good, but would bring strong emotions for people who remembered the era. What happened was I ended up having riveting conversations about the good times and bad times, and not just with black people.”
Crawford’s art, in general, crosses color lines, said Lola Olufolabi, co-owner of the Africa-themed Durham boutique Exotique.
“We’ve had Debbie’s work for about nine months and customers, white and black, really like her. They like the stories behind the images, especially in the blocks. Her work is very striking.”
Sometimes people ask Crawford if it feels strange or even wrong to display her family’s private photographs.
“I wanted to put those photos into the world to give people a peek at that time and share those lessons about our past,” she said. “That’s what art is about – sharing ideas.”