The story goes that Reginald F. Lewis, the remarkably successful Baltimore-born lawyer, businessman and philanthropist, learned the value of saving money from his grandmother. She gave him a tin cup to hold his earnings from delivering papers when he was 10.
There's a little extra resonance to that anecdote this weekend, as the institution that bears his name — the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture — celebrates its sixth anniversary with two days of free admission and community events.
You won't necessarily find a tin cup in the museum, but a special exhibition called "Material Girls" was inspired in part by the stories of mothers and grandmothers and is filled with the provocative art that incorporates everyday items.
"Alice Walker wrote a profound essay in the 1970s called 'In Search of Our Mother's Gardens,' about how it wasn't possible to be a black woman artist for a long time," said "Materials Girls" curator Michelle Joan Wilkinson. "Black women and their creativity were hidden. But they made quilts and other crafts, and those traditions were passed on."
In her essay, Walker wrote of an exquisite quilt at Smithsonian Institution created by "an anonymous Black woman in Alabama, a hundred years ago." Walker suggested that if the woman's identity could be determined, she "would turn out to be one of our grandmothers — an artist who left her mark in the only materials she could afford, and in the only medium her position in society allowed her to use."
For Wilkinson, that image proved a potent starting point for "Material Girls," which runs through Oct. 16.
"I wondered what a show of African-American women artists using material in unexpected ways would look like," Wilkinson said. "The exhibit is about taking the traditions practiced by African-American women and reinventing them."
You'll find pieces by Chakaia Booker made from rubber tires, along with items by Sonya Clark, who uses human hair and combs in her work. There's a masklike work by Torkwase Dyson incorporating engine parts, bullet heads and other objects. Baltimore-based Maya Freelon Asante's art uses tissue paper.
The others in the show — Maren Hassinger, Martha Jackson Jarvis, Renée Stout and Baltimore-based Joyce J. Scott — likewise create fresh visual experiences from a rich variety of everyday objects.
Wilkinson finds that installation has a sanctuarylike atmosphere.
"You feel so soothed by the work," she said. "One of the visitor comments I read said, 'I wish I could live here.' I get that. People feel encouraged and inspired by the way the artists transform very ordinary materials."
For the anniversary weekend, extra events on Saturday include docent tours, crafts activities inspired by Asante's use of tissue in collages and a dance performance also inspired by that artist's work.
On Sunday, the museum has partnered with Art on Purpose's Black Male Identity project.
"We're holding a community day, with all manner of discussion and activities and programs connected to that project," said museum executive director David Terry. "The initiative uses art, culture, methods of communicating to address how we perceive black males and issues related to that."
Outside Baltimore, the museum's sixth anniversary is also being noted. The Reginald F. Lewis Foundation, carrying on Lewis's goals since his death in 1993, will be holding its annual gala luncheon in the Hamptons in New York. In addition to honoring Eugene A. Profit, CEO of Profit Investment Management, the event will raise money for the museum's endowment.
Back in Baltimore, the free-admission celebration provides "an opportunity for people who have never been here before to get a taste of the museum and what we do here," Terry said. "People can learn — or learn more — about Reginald F. Lewis, a Marylander who achieved so much."
If you go
The sixth anniversary of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum will be celebrated with free admission 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. The museum is at 830 E. Pratt St. Call 443-263-1800 or go to africanamericanculture.org.