Laurel photographer's perceptions of beauty

Curlers. A hair dryer. An oven mitt.

Much of Nakeya Brown’s photography features items found around the house that she arranges to reflect her vision.

“Most of the time, I know what I want to do when I go in,” Brown, of Laurel, said. “I have an image in mind.”

Her photographic images have placed her as one of six finalists for the prestigious Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape prize that includes a $25,000 fellowship.

Winners will be announced on July 14 before the start of Artscape, Baltimore’s annual art fair.

Now in its 13th year, the Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape prize was started by the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts as a way to recognize Artscape’s 25th anniversary and local visual artists, according to Tracy Baskerville, communications director for Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts.

This year, 335 artists from across the region submitted work for the prize, Baskerville said, and all disciplines and mediums of visual art are accepted. Thirty-six semi-finalists were selected and will have their works on display during Artscape at the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Decker and Meyerhoff galleries.

The six finalists, including Brown, currently have their work on display in an exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art through Aug. 5. The other five finalists - Erick Antonio Benitez, Sutton Demlong, Nate Larson, Stephen Towns – all from Baltimore - and Eunice Park, from Parkville- have work in various mediums including sculpture, paintings and fiber arts.

Brown, 30, is just trying to soak it all in.

“I try not to think about it too much,” Brown said of the prize. “I’m just grateful for the experience. To have a show at a major museum is pretty incredible.””

Born in California, Brown settled in Laurel after getting a master of fine arts from George Washington University. “I just stayed here. It is a real community,” said Brown, who lives with her husband, Larry Cook, also a photographer, and her 6-year-old daughter, Mia.

“Motherhood... It really can change the way, and why, you make the work and for whom,” Brown said. “She [her daughter] always comes up. I think about her when making my work.”

Beauty and what it means, is a common theme, where hair is often featured.

“A lot of my work, if not all, centers around beauty politics,” Brown said. “How hair is used to deem black women as beautiful or not. Perming hair, braiding hair… how we do things ...for beauty standards.”

She takes portraits and still life photos featuring everything from hair grease and old rotary phones to head scarves.

“Things found in your grandmother’s house. Things found on a dresser in your bedroom,” Brown said. “Objects in a very specific world. A world of perfecting beauty or acts of self care.”

Brown took time in selecting the pieces she submitted for the exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art. All prints were tweaked and proper frames selected

“I’m very big on presentation. Symmetry and balance,” she said. “I want to create a nice flow of space.”

The BMA exhibit features her newest works first and end with her older works, to show her “growth and progress,” she said, as well as her commitment.

“I have freedom in my work to explore possibilities beyond what you think,” Brown said. “To show women of color in a way not always expected.”

While she has had shows in Chicago, Washington, D.C. as well as in Germany and London, the BMA show has been a challenge.

“It is a great opportunity to take advantage of but it definitely comes with its stresses,” Brown said, including preparing for an interview with the jurors on July 14.

“The jurors come and go through the show and do interviews with each of the finalists,” Baskerville said, of the contest “I’ve been there for every one. It is really exciting to be in the room.”

“I’m comfortable speaking in front of an audience,” Brown said. “I know what to say. I’m preparing.”

While there is only one $25,000 prize, the remaining five finalists each will receive a $2,500 honorarium courtesy of M&T Bank, Baskerville said.

“Twenty-five thousand dollars would really help my family in so many ways. It would help out anybody,” Brown said.

Brown is already trying to figure out her next project. She has shows coming up in Pittsburgh and Milwaukee.

“It’s important to get your work out there,” Brown said. “In this day and age, you can’t always be one-dimensional. I have a bunch of things going.”

As to how she manages everything, she credits her daughter.

“Being a mom, you learn how to do it all,” she said.

The Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape award announcement and reception will be held on Saturday, July 14, at 7 p.m., at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive, Baltimore.

Brown and the other five finalists have their work on display at the BMA now through Aug. 5.

Artscape, Baltimore’s free arts festival, takes place July 20-22 on Mount Royal Avenue and North Charles Street in Baltimore.

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