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Editor’s note: African American Museum of the Arts in DeLand Executive Director Mary Allen is among the Black History honorees featured on banners hanging in Downtown DeLand in February.

The African American Museum of the Arts in DeLand has been closed for nearly a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Executive Director Mary Allen is persistent in finding ways to connect with the community.

The museum at 325 S. Clara Ave., has launched a newsletter, as well as hosting virtual and outside events. While not the same as having guests inside to see exhibits, Allen said it has been nice to keep up with the museum’s members. 

“We didn’t want our visitors and guests who come out to the museum to think we’re closed forever,” she said.

The museum isn’t closed forever.

WELL-SITUATED — The African American Museum of the Arts sits at 325 S. Clara Ave. in DeLand. Across the street is the Dr. Noble “Thin Man” Watts Amphitheater, and next door is the historic Wright Building, currently undergoing restoration and recently named to the National Register of Historic Places. Also, in the neighborhood are Greater Union First Baptist Church, on the corner of Voorhis and Clara avenues, and Greater Bethlehem and New St. John Missionary Baptist churches on Clara Avenue just south of the museum.

A message of peace and love

The museum held its first virtual event in December 2020, an art exhibit called “A Message of Peace” with artist Sarah Matthaei. Matthaei made 1,000 canvases measuring 2 inches by 2 inches. Each had a painted heart on the front and a message on the back. 

Matthaei said the difficulties brought on in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic served, in part, as an inspiration. 

“I had already been talking with Mary [Allen] about an exhibit to help out the African American Museum of the Arts before this mess occurred, but when it happened, the idea of the exhibit took on a new importance, urgency and magnitude,” Matthaei told The Beacon. “The AAMA has always been dear to my heart, hence the idea for the heart in front of the canvas.”

The messages on the back were also personal for Matthaei. 

“As I listened to the gruesome news of death and losses of jobs and family, I wanted to give a message of hope to at least one person. These messages are nothing long or complicated; some were hopeful things I heard and some my own,” she said. “I want to instill peace and hope to anyone who reads these messages and let them know someone out there loves them when they look at this heart depicted in my painting, hence the title ‘A Message of Peace.’”

Matthaei’s canvases can be purchased through the museum website, here, by donating $20 using the green donate button at the top of the page. As long as supplies last, donors will receive a canvas in the mail.

While a little unorthodox, Matthaei said, she was glad she could still present her art to the community. 

“Art is always best experienced in 3D and using our full range of senses. Unfortunately, the pandemic took care of that, but we must go on,” she said. “A digital art exhibit is now the only practical way to share ‘A Message of Peace’ and help keep the African American Museum of the Arts alive so they can continue their artists’ programs for adults and children and to share their fabulous history with the rest of the world.”

The recording of the online exhibition is available to watch, HERE.

‘A MESSAGE OF PEACE’ — Deltona-based artist Sarah Matthaei, at right, painted 1,000 2-inch-by-2-inch canvases for her collaboration with the African American Museum of the Arts, “A Message of Peace.” Each painting is a different image of a heart with a personalized message on the back. “When we cultivate love and collaborate with others, we live happier lives,” Matthaei told The Beacon. “I want to instill peace and hope to anyone who reads these messages and let them know someone out there loves them when they look at this heart depicted in my painting, hence the title ‘A Message of Peace.'”

Staying afloat

The closure has made money tight, Allen said, but thanks to fundraising and grant money, the museum is staying afloat. She hopes another nearby project, the renovation of the J.W. Wright Building just next door, will help bring some foot traffic to the museum. The Wright Building, once a fixture of DeLand’s Black community, was added to the National Register of Historic Places on Feb. 1.

While Downtown DeLand is not typically thought of as going as far as Voorhis Avenue, the Downtown Community Redevelopment Agency’s boundaries end at the Wright Building, which shares a parking lot with the museum. 

“I’m hoping it brings attention not just to the museum, but the whole area,” Allen said. 

With Black History Month in full swing, Allen hopes locals will dig into the area’s rich history, especially the history right by the museum at the corner of West New Street and South Clara Avenue. 

On the corner are the museum, which first opened its doors in 1994, Greater Union First Baptist Church, one of the area’s historic Black churches, and the Dr. Noble “Thin Man” Watts Amphitheater, named for the DeLand native turned legendary jazz saxophonist, for whom the local jazz festival is named. 

VISIONARY — Mary Allen, in back, is shown with Irene Johnson, during Johnson’s visit to DeLand in 2017. Then Deltona residents, Johnson and her husband, Maxwell Johnson, founded the African American Museum of the Arts, which opened in the mid-1990s. Maxwell Johnson has since died; Irene Johnson now lives in Maryland.

‘Black history is American history’

This year, and every year, Allen’s goal is to get people out into the community and learning more about African American history; not just DeLand’s, but that of the entire U.S.

“I think it’s important African Americans realize they have a great history,” she said. “My thing has always been that we say ‘American history,’ and then we say ‘Black history,’ but Black history is part of American history. We are part of American history, even though it’s separate.”

While 2020 was a difficult year between a pandemic and a continued reckoning with the U.S.’s legacy of racism, Allen said she sees more people getting involved with learning and understanding.

“I think more people have become attuned to what’s going on, attuned to our history,” she said. “I’m glad to see people getting more involved. Everybody is somebody. I want everyone to appreciate everybody’s history. Every culture, every race, I hope that continues to prosper.”

While Allen said there is no definitive timeline for reopening the museum, she is preparing to reopen at a moment’s notice. 

POET AND HE KNOWS IT — Kevin Campbell reads poetry at an earlier event at the AAMA.

The African American Museum of the Arts will host its next outdoor event, a poetry slam, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 20, at the Dr. Noble “Thin Man” Watts Amphitheater, 322 S. Clara Ave. 

Everyone is encouraged to come out and enjoy the poetry.

Masks are required, and social-distancing measures will be in place. A food truck will sell food. The museum will give away free books about Black history to the first 75 people to attend.

Poetry events at the African American Museum of the Arts are hosted by museum board member and local poet Kevin Campbell. Campbell said a poetry event he hosted with the museum last summer went off without a hitch. 

“The last poetry event at the amphitheater, “Summer Slam,” had an audience of over 80-90 people and saw 20 poets and performers hit the stage,” he said. “We adhered to CDC protocols — and then some — and, to my knowledge, not a single case of coronavirus was transmitted at our events.”

Campbell, a poet by trade, listed Gil Scott-Heron, T.S. Eliot and Charles Bukowski as some of his artistic influences. 

“I believe that artists have a duty to reflect the world as accurately and completely as they are able,” he said. “Much of what I write concerns itself with race relations and other societal inequities. Ironically, my next full-length collection will be all love poetry and relationship stuff, so go figure.”

Those interested in following along with the next local open mic and poetry slam events, Campbell said, are invited to follow the MainStreet Art & Culture Slam Poets page on Facebook. 

Campbell still invites anyone interested to come out to the Feb. 20 outdoor poetry slam event at the Dr. Noble “Thin Man” Watts Amphitheater in DeLand. 

“Wear a mask, bring a comfortable lawn chair, and just enjoy the free entertainment!” he told The Beacon. “There is just something very nice about art and poetry outdoors.” 

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