From Cabrini-Green to York County, artist educates and illuminates through her work

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch

During a time of social and political upheaval, art is Ophelia Chambliss' weapon of choice.

"People are operating very often from a position of ignorance," Chambliss said at her studio at Marketview Arts in York City. "(It's about) really changing that thought process and getting people to think differently."

Chambliss, a Chicago native who moved to Manchester Township in 2000, has cemented herself as a local activist and award-winning artist whose goal is to empower minority communities — and show there's more to Black art than race.

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Chambliss' studio embodies that of someone who dedicates their life to the arts. The walls on Tuesday were covered in colorful paintings, while others remained on canvasses.

Paint containers were scattered around the studio as if she never took breaks from working on her art. But with unstained hands, she sat upright and spoke confidently and eloquently about her art and inspirations.

Chambliss' art focuses on the human condition through a style she calls "realistic cubism," she said. Cubism is a style partially influenced by African primitive art that was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.

Cubism rejects traditional art that focuses on three-dimensional perspectives and the imitation of nature, instead utilizing geometric shapes to depict humans and other objects.

Some of Chambliss' most notable work was her series "Contiguous," where she drew portraits without lifting her hand from her canvas to show how humans are interconnected, she said.

Upcoming exhibit: She is slated to display her project "The Glass Ceiling" from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 26, at York College's Center for Community Engagement. The exhibit features work from 12 female artists and is aimed at empowering women.

Artist Ophelia Chambliss, recent recipient of the Dorrie Leader Advocacy Award, is shown with her work titled "The Glass Ceiling Girls" in her studio at Marketview Arts in York City, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. The work portrays York teens Tziphorra Goins, left, and Arlette Morales, both 17 at the time, who co-organized the York Black Lives Matter Peaceful Protest in June of 2020 that was attended by more than 1,000. The work will on display along with works by selected artists in and upcoming exhibit curated by Chambliss. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The upcoming display is  partially inspired by Vice President Kamala Harris, the country's first female vice president who is also a person of color — and a perfect example of breaking that ceiling, Chambliss said.

"I feel that I have the ability to communicate difficult subjects and have difficult conversations with art, so that's probably the strongest part that keeps me involved," Chambliss said.

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But Chambliss is not just an artist who focuses on social issues. She emphasized that not all artwork has to portray a distinct message or identity.

She pointed to a painting of a red bird hanging on a nearby wall. She said she knew that those who saw the painting would inquire as to what type of bird it was.

However, that's not something she intends to answer, she said, as the unknown is something than can be intriguing.

That work is just one of 20 or 30 pieces she intends to display in October at the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art, a nature preserve near Millersburg in Dauphin County.

"The art they're used to having are your traditional realistic paintings of forests, birds and trees and things like that," Chambliss said. "I thought if I'm going to have a show at a conservatory like that, I'm really going to flip things over a little bit and show them birds, trees and flowers like they've never seen them before."

Not 'Black enough': The artist recalled her first ever art exhibit in York, where she overheard an attendee assert that her work "wasn't Black enough" — something she said someone never would have said back in Chicago.

"Why can’t a Black artist depict sunsets and rainbows?" Chambliss said. "Are we pigeonholed into doing that one thing?"

The experience, she said, led to her exploring what it really meant to be Black in a city that was once in flames during the 1969 York Race Riots.

Invested in community: Decades later, Chambliss  is very active in the York community. She serves as an adjunct professor of communications at York College and Penn State's Harrisburg and York campuses.

She also serves as the second vice president of the York NAACP, is on the planning committee of the Confronting Racism Coalition and is on the board of the York County Cultural Alliance.

Richard Craighead, president of the York NAACP and founder of the Inclusive Arts Movement in York, said Chambliss has acted as a mentor to him.

Artist Ophelia Chambliss moves one of her works for an upcoming exhibit during an interview in her studio at Marketview Arts in York City, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

“She was very instrumental in getting me involved in the arts and in the downtown area,” Craighead said. “I’ve definitely looked for insight from her. She’s definitely mentored me in certain ways.”

But life wasn't always like this for Chambliss.

The artist said she is well aware of the reputation of her hometown of Chicago, a city people often associate with gun violence and other crimes. 

Chambliss specifically grew up in Cabrini-Green Homes, which was a public housing establishment in Chicago that was demolished in 2011. At its peak, about 15,000 people lived in its row homes and towers. 

"We knew there were dangers," Chambliss said. "We knew there were issues with gangs and guns and things like that, but me and my family and other people in our little community were able to stay away from that."

Chambliss recalled her parents planting flowers near her home. People in the community, despite its reputation for poverty and violence, looked out for each other. The parents, she added, cared deeply about their children's education.

Pairing her experience growing up in an area with a "horrible reputation" with an optimistic sense of humor, she said she has joked that moving to York was a part of a witness protection program, where no one from Chicago would ever find her.

But nearly 700 miles away, where she actually just moved for a job opportunity that didn't work out, things aren't all so different from Chicago, she said.

Gun violence and poverty have for decades also been prominent issues in York City. A surge in gun violence in particular has reared its head this year.

The difference, she said, is that York is much smaller than Chicago — meaning it may not be as difficult to address those issues.

The role she can play in the process is to highlight the issues, empower communities whose voices are often silenced and encourage more interaction among residents through her activism and art, Chambliss said.

Artist Ophelia Chambliss, recent recipient of the Dorrie Leader Advocacy Award, talks about her work in her studio at Marketview Arts in York City, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021.

"I saw this is as a great deal of potential to have an impact to make change," she said.

Impact undeniable: Chambliss' impact on the community has been undeniable, said YWCA York CEO Jean Treuthart.

YWCA York last week announced it would  be awarding Chambliss the Dorrie Leader Advocacy Award, which is named after the the late civil rights advocate who served as the organization's president in the early 1950s.

Leader later went on to serve on the national board of the YWCA from 1958 to 1976. She had also brought her two daughters to the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech.

Chambliss knew Leader, she said. In fact, Leader's activism, benevolence and focus on her community became an inspiration for Chambliss.

"For all of us, we know that Mrs. Leader would be thrilled with Ophelia as the recipient — for so many reasons," Treuthart said. "And the fact they actually knew each other really deepens that."

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.