Updated: Feb 10, 2022
Akron Black Artist Guild members. Top row: Josy Jones, Bronlynn Thurman, Diane L. Johnson, Dominic Moore-Dunson, Dara Harper, and Kenmore resident Charlee Harris. Seated: Floco Torres and Ashley Pippin [Dara Harper/Ideastream Public Media]
The Akron Black Artist Guild (ABAG) launched in 2021 as a mission-driven and value-centered organization dedicated to fully realizing the shared vision of a more diversified arts and culture scene in Akron. Among those cultivating, amplifying and advocating for the work of Black creatives is Kenmore's own Charlee Harris.
Harris, co-operator of So Fresh Used Auto Sales, jokes that being surrounded by family members and friends who are artists meant that she had to become an organizer. In 2017, Harris joined her artist mother in leveraging their large commercial space, relationships with creatives, and Harris's business savvy to create East Ave Flea Market, a small group of traditionally underrepresented makers and entrepreneurs.
Harris's work was on the leading edge of creating a community for Akron's underrepresented artists. It is a concept that crystalized in 2020 after the Akron Cultural Plan uncovered a perceived lack of connection and diversity within the arts sector and a sense of isolation among Akron's Black artists.
As the Black Artist Guild began to form, and after Harris worked on Kenmore First Fridays as an AmeriCorps VISTA, she had the idea to renovate the family's commercial space to host a full-fledged, multi-media art gallery. That, combined with their makers market, evolved into what is today East Ave Market & Galleries, the first facility of its kind in the Kenmore community.
"We wanted to have an art space where local artists who maybe can't get into those institutions, or maybe don't qualify to have a space, that they can use and present their art," she explained.
On the second Saturday of each month, the space features a new installation by an Akron-area artist, and the market is now open for shopping during business hours and gallery events.
Harris's ingenuity is one example of what the Black Artist Guild hopes to pass on through their 2022 Reimagine Fellowship, which will commission three local Black artists to create original works that reimagine and investigate the intersection of creativity in Akron's non-art sectors. The ultimate goal will be to build thriving communities, foster artistic, educational and professional development, and connect Black artists to opportunity and resources.
"I've been in Akron my whole life and part of the arts my whole life and there’s never been anything like it" Harris of the Black Artist Guild.
Fellowship staff like Harris will support Reimagine Fellowship artists, who will be paired with mentoring organizations in West Akron, East Akron and Kenmore. Selected artists will create original works that reimagine and investigate the intersection of creativity in non-art sectors through collaborations with residents and organizations like Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance.
“Akron has a past, but it also has a future," Harris said, "and I think it's a bright one, especially for young black creatives and young black artists."
For more information about the Akron Black Artists Guild and the Reimagine Fellowship, visit www.abaguild.org. For more information about the East Ave Market & Galleries, visit www.facebook.com/eastavemarket.