Sloane Siobhan: Painting through the pain

The budding artist bottled up the anguish of losing her mother to breast cancer. Then she found the words to speak — through her art.

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Sloane Siobhan’s 25th birthday was memorable, but not happy. That October day, the doctor delivered a diagnosis that marked the end of innocence for Sloane.

In less than a month, her mother, Reba Whaley, would be gone, lost to metastatic breast cancer at the age of 49.

Rage filled the budding artist and threatened to spill out in ways she knew would be self-destructive, she said. So she turned to her art to speak.

In Archetypes of the Subconscious, an exhibit at The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, Siobhan’s oil and acrylic paintings roar, buzz and ultimately give way to quiet reflection and remembrance.

The six paintings expose the hidden, suppressed emotions of the heartbreak, the anger, the deep grief and pain of losing her mother less than a year ago, and finally acceptance. “I don’t know if I can make it without her,” Siobhan said she despaired at the time.

But seven months later,  “I’m still here,” she says.

The art gave Siobhan (pronounced Sh’vonne) a way to speak the words that she had been holding at bay — “I’m afraid.”

When her mother was first diagnosed in 2007, Siobhan said she “didn’t have a language for what she was feeling and didn’t know how to channel it.” In art classes at Appalachian State, she learned how to speak about what was happening through art.

Working through the pain

Siobhan characterizes the first three paintings completed in 2016 as the “Id” series and the 2017 works as the “Ego” series.

Her animal subjects — the bears, the tiger, the bees — “are the imaginative expressions of bottled-up emotions that have seeped out,” Siobhan says. Violent, self-destructive thoughts buzz in her head and spill out onto the wood canvas.

But the latter works, begun six months after her mother’s death, show the artist coming to terms with mortality.  “At this stage I accept death. This represents a new chapter,” she says of Prelude to the Super Ego, 2017.”

Siobhan says she now “tries to find beauty in things and to avoid hurt, but it still rips away at you sometimes.”

Her mom “comes back in a lot of dreams,” she says, and on the day the exhibit opened, Siobhan heard strains of her mother’s favorite song, India Arie’s “Strength, Courage, & Wisdom,” being piped through the Gantt Center’s audio system.

Of the exhibit at the Gantt Center, the 25-year-old artist says, “I’m still pinching myself. I hope I don’t wake up.”

“It’s still really surreal to be in the same space with (renowned Charlotte artist) Romare Bearden.”

For Siobhan, the exhibit is validation that her work is recognized as art — “good art,” she says. “I’m just trying to enjoy it and stay humble.”

Archetypes of the Subconscious will be on display through Jan. 22, 2018.  Join Siobhan for an animal-themed mask-making workshop at the Gantt Center on Saturday (details below). Read on for more about this young Charlotte artist.

Best moment at the opening of the exhibit

A young black girl at the exhibit with her dad told Siobhan she wants to be an artist and that Siobhan was her role model.

About her mother

Siobhan says her mother was a woman of few words and didn’t talk much about the cancer that was sapping her strength.  “One night she woke up and said, ‘I just want you to live. I just want you to live your life.’ I didn’t pay much attention then, but now it means everything,” she says.

Siobhan and her mom were very close, but had different social justice philosophies. “Mom was Martin and I was Malcolm,” she said.

Her mom’s advice for staying out of trouble: “Don’t be stupid.”

What’s next?

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Siobhan is concerned with the way little black girls see themselves, especially the darker-skinned girls. She’s working on a new body of work around black characters in fairy tales. “I want to show black people (that) you are magical” — a theme that Siobhan also explores in a series of paintings inspired by Yoruba deities titled “Orishas”.

She is working on a new painting for a Mint Museum event in October that celebrates the work of John Biggers. She hopes to get an artist residency locally.

Are you able to financially exist as an artist?

Siobhan lives with her grandmother, Queen G. Whaley, and has a part-time job at Studio Cellar Charlotte that allows her “to be around art all day.”

She says she is “trying to think like a businessperson and an artist” and looks for paying venues that have space where people can see and appreciate her artwork. She does commissioned works and also sells prints on her website.

“I’m trying to have a retirement plan as an artist,” Siobhan said.


Animals of the Subconscious: Mask-Making with Sloane Siobhan and Dulce Tavares

Artist Sloane Siobhan uses wild animals to explore human emotions. Join Siobhan and Dulce Tavares as they lead this animal-themed mask-making workshop for the entire family. This Family First event is presented by Novant Health.
When: August 5 | 11:00 AM – 1:00 PM
Where: Gantt Center, 551 South Tryon Street
Cost: Museum admission, free for members.
More info

Follow Sloane Siobhan: Facebook  | Pictagram  | Website

[Read more: Gantt opens 4 new exhibits showcasing African-American art]

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