A clay figurine of Martin Luther King Jr. stands at a podium in front of a painting of the Lincoln Memorial, taking visitors to the most famous moment of the civil rights movement.
The recreation of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is just one of many detailed, intricate dioramas that tell the story of King’s life and other significant moments, such as his imprisonment in an Alabama jail cell.
“I like to do things that bring scenes to life,” said Pinkie Strother, the Fuquay-Varina artist who created the display. “That’s why I do 3D.”
The works are in a case in the lobby of Cary’s Page-Walker Arts and History Center through Feb. 21.
Never miss a local story.
Normally the Page-Walker lobby displays art without a history lesson attached to it, but supervisor Kris Carmichael said she likes the new twist, especially because February is Black History Month.
“We’ve never done something like this before, but it just seemed so appropriate, given the timing,” Carmichael said.
Strother’s work is all about recounting history – whether it’s larger-than-life moments, like the 1963 March on Washington, or everyday memories from her own childhood that illustrate broader topics, such as faith, family and segregation.
Strother, who is 64, stumbled upon newfound inspiration when she moved to Fuquay-Varina nearly a decade ago in 2006.
“It was like going back in time,” she said.
Bringing people together
Strother was raised in rural Maryland during the height of the civil rights movement and integration. She went to an all-black church and an all-black school.
She later moved outside Washington, D.C., and worked as an art teacher for 33 years. In both in that melting pot area and in her rural childhood town, Strother said, fairs, festivals and other cultural events were attended by people of all races.
Close to a fifth of Fuquay-Varina population is black. But Strother said she was worried when she came to Fuquay-Varina and had trouble finding other black people at art shows or cultural events.
Strother is now the vice president of the Fuquay-Varina Arts Council and also teaches private lessons and homeschooling groups at her home studio. She said she feels like she has a good platform to use art to try to bring people together.
“Black people do not participate, and my question is, ‘Why not? What is the comfort level of black people interacting with white people?’ ” Strother said.
Strother, a devout Christian in a devout area, said she figured churches would be the logical place to start.
“If we all believe (in Jesus), why is there this dark wall dividing us? We can all connect through church,” she said.
She started visiting and drawing local churches, finding that most are, like the churches of her youth, still divided along racial lines. She tried to bring congregations together with joint projects, Strother said, but the plans fizzled out.
Her daughter, Stroria Strother-Davis, moved to the area a few years before her mother and she also was taken aback by the lack of racial diversity downtown.
Looking to the past
Strother-Davis also is an artist, though her work is more abstract, involving symbolism.
Her mother’s work, on the other hand, relies on small details to tell a larger story.
For Martin Luther King Jr. Day last month, Strother unveiled a mostly to-scale model of the Jim Crow-era St. Agnes hospital at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh.
“There were people crying, saying ‘I remember that hospital,’ or ‘I was born there,’ or ‘Mom, isn’t that where you were born?’ ” Strother said. “There’s a lot of strong emotions associated with it, still.”
Using the building’s original floor plans, she recreated most of the building to show exactly what would’ve been happening, and where.
Nurses chat in one room, for example, while in other rooms, a family plays board games, a patient knits in bed, and women give birth. In one hallway, a janitor keeps the place clean with a straw broom.
But to truly know the place’s history, Strother said, one must also see what’s not there.
“The hospital didn’t have all the equipment the white hospitals had,” she said. “A lot of black folks died because of that – because it was segregated.”
History is key to Strother’s work. She has researched her family tree back five generations, to when an African man got off a boat in Baltimore and was bought as a slave by an Englishman living in the area. She later illustrated her family tree as the massive cherry tree she loved to climb as a child.
Even her name, Pinkie, tells a story.
“My mom named me after herself, and she was named after her aunt,” Strother said. “Pinkie was a popular name for black women in the 1800s.”
Her history often gets muddled in her art, just like she muddled the water of her childhood home’s well when she went to dig for clay to make little figurines of people.
Half a century later, she’s still making figurines and paintings, using her combined love of art and history to bridge racial divides and cope with personal tragedies. She made a diorama of her childhood home that burned down, and after crying over the devastation of Hurrican Katrina, she said, the only thing that helped was drawing.
She said she also hopes her paintings and dioramas affect others.
“Art is so much more than painting,” she said. “It’s a declaration of who we are and what we believe, and what is to come.”
And she believes that what’s to come for Fuquay-Varina can only be better.
“It has to,” Strother said. “It will get better. Life is like a rose. There’s the budding stage and everything else. We’re in the morning in Fuquay-Varina.”
Her daughter agreed, adding that the town’s growth might help create a closer-knit community.
“Before, you’d go to Raleigh or Cary to eat or got to the movies,” Strother-Davis said. “Now they’re building places here, and you have that opportunity to go out and see your neighbors.”