Back in the late 1960s, when Barbara Wesson decided to scrap a fledgling acting career and become an artist, her mother did an uncharacteristic thing: She laughed.
Prentice Wesson had always encouraged her daughters to follow their dreams, but this one simply seemed beyond the realm of possibility. "Barbara had no experience," recalled her mother. "She brought home a little artist's kit from the May Co. one day. I guess laughing at her was the wrong thing to do."
Art connoisseurs all over the Southland would agree.
With pit-bull tenacity, Barbara Wesson not only developed herself into a successful artist, but she single-handedly assembled a comprehensive exhibit of black art for February, Black History Month. That was in 1981. Today, the annual "Artists' Salute to Black History Month" at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza has mushroomed into the largest annual exhibit of works by African American artists in the country, boasting about 150 artists from 20 states.
The nine-day exhibit, which opens today, turns the mall's two levels into a wonderland of paintings, sculptures, jewelry, graphics, photography, masks, ceramics, stained glass, porcelain, wood dolls and wearable art.
In addition, a series of lectures and discussions with artists, many of them centered on this year's exhibit theme, "Our Elders . . . Our Foundation," are scheduled through the coming week. And a special "Legends" exhibit, a tribute to enduring black artists Wesson especially reveres, features works by Noah Purifoy, Ruth Waddy, Clementine Hunter and David Butler.
"This is not just a fine art exhibit, it's an educational forum for the artist and the public," says Wesson, 46, tossing up her hands with typical youthful exuberance. "Yeah, I'm a tyrant about putting this on. But artists say, 'Barbara's doing this from the heart.' They understand."
Wesson grew up in South-Central Los Angeles, took up acting at Los Angeles City College and set her sights on Hollywood. But after she purchased the painter's kit ("I wanted to give myself something to do between auditions"), her creative passion gradually shifted to art. She found herself painting between auditions, determined to teach herself a new craft.
"My (first) stuff was pretty awful," a mixture of oils and acrylics that rubberized on the canvas. But two weeks after taking up a brush, she set up an exhibit and, remarkably, sold some pieces.
She exhibited her work in parking lots and other odd spaces. In the early '80s she founded the Bunker Hill Art League, a group of 300-plus minority artists in the Los Angeles area who met regularly to analyze marketing strategy, promotion and other business elements of art.
Wesson's business acumen sharpened even more during national tours with a group of artists who exhibited largely in shopping malls. She saw the potential of the modern-day marketplaces to bring fine art to the public, well beyond the stuffy confines of invitation-only galleries that were almost nonexistent in black communities.
"I was usually the only female artist, and definitely the only black artist, on tour," said Wesson.
"You had to be sharp, you had to keep up and compete with all the other artists. The sponsors took a liking to me. I was one of the best-selling artists. Of course, I attracted a lot of attention because I was black, and I was fine!" She laughed at her audacity. "When I got back from the last tour, I decided that I wanted to do something similar with black artists. I thought that L.A. needed something like that. And the rest, as they say, is history."
Synthia St. James, a local artist and illustrator whose star has risen steadily, has been part of Wesson's African American arts salute since the beginning. "Barbara's always had great energy," said St. James, a Bunker Hill Art League alumna and featured artist at this year's exhibit. "She's very giving. She runs a very tight ship, and some artists get uptight about that, but in the end it's best for them. Nobody tries to undercut anybody by a dollar, nobody duplicates work, everybody knows what's happening nine months in advance."
Painter Ernie Barnes, whose new book, "From Pads to Palette," chronicles his transition from pro football player to artist, rarely makes appearances at community art festivals. But he carves out time for Wesson's.
"She's a wonderful lady," he said. "She's been very innovative in working on behalf of black artists. The Crenshaw exhibit is just one example of that aggressiveness. If I have the time, I'm there."
The Crenshaw mall benefits from the festival with a dramatic, much-needed increase in foot traffic.
About 400,000 people came through during last year's five-day salute, officials said. The mall agreed to nearly double the number of days this year to accommodate more browsers and to respond to the oft-voiced complaint from customers that they needed at least two weekends just to cover all the ground.
Pleased as she is by large crowds, Wesson would trade them for more public passion for art. Too many exhibitors and even veteran artists bypass the premium lectures and discussions, she says, manning their booths to boost sales.
"There seems to be less of a sense of history these days," she says. "There's too much emphasis on selling. Believe me, I understand doing business, but at some point the quality suffers. It's suffering now."