Blue Lotus Artists’ Collective, or BLAC, is a new Tucson gallery—and perhaps the first of its kind—dedicated to elevating local, national, and international Black artists.
TUCSON—A downtown Tucson visitor might stop in their tracks while traveling down Pennington Street. Recently, a new gallery Blue Lotus Artists’ Collective—outfitted with large windows that enticingly display art to the street—showed a series of haunting life-sized paintings of Black figures, in threadbare or no clothing, on large panels suspended from the ceiling.
The fact that these works by Nikesha Breeze—and, in adjoining rooms, a twenty-two screen-print series about a white abolitionist created by the late Black artist Jacob Lawrence—were on view is something different, and overdue, for this Southern Arizona city.
Blue Lotus Artists’ Collective, or BLAC, is an entirely volunteer-run project that gives voice and space to Black artists. The gallery, which locals say may very well be the first Tucson gallery devoted to Black artists, came together after a string of informal meetings, one woman’s obsession with art, and a lot of on-the-go learning.
“We want to give visibility to local artists, but we have a larger perspective. We also want to bring things to this community [that show] the breadth of what Black artists are doing globally that might otherwise not ever make it to Tucson,” says Laura Pendleton-Miller, founder and president of BLAC, which had its grand opening in November 2023 at 15 East Pennington near Stone Avenue.
Pendleton-Miller grew up in a Pennsylvania town that she says wasn’t outfitted with museums or other cultural offerings. Her first exposure to art came during a regular babysitting gig for a family whose home resembled a gallery.
When the future gallerist enrolled at Georgetown University, she took advantage of Washington D.C.’s limitless access to museums and galleries. “It really put my interest on steroids,” says Pendleton-Miller, who eventually formed a relationship with two women who owned a Georgetown neighborhood gallery. There, she fell in love with a painting on display, Girl on a Bench by Joan Bopst.
“I would catch the bus when I was going down to the Smithsonian near their gallery. On my way back to school, I would always stop to visit my painting,” remembers Pendleton-Miller. “One day, when I was getting off the bus, I had this sinking feeling that I was going to get there and it was going to be gone.
“I got there, and it wasn’t gone. I told the two women that story, and they asked me what I could pay per month. I told them $10,” she continues. “They took it off the wall and handed it to me. Every month, I would go back and give them $10 for a couple of years” to pay off the painting, which she recalls costing over $200.
A few years ago, through conversations with Tucson artists such as Alanna Airitam, Willie Bonner, and Allison Miller (no relation), Pendleton-Miller became more aware of the difficulties for Black artists in attaining visibility.
In early 2022, she organized an informal happy hour at her house with a group of six artists, arts workers, and community members to discuss the under-representation of Black artists. Before BLAC and the recently opened African American Museum of Southern Arizona on the University of Arizona campus, there arguably were no Tucson art spaces fully devoted to showing Black artists.
“We started out thinking that we were going to be an advocacy type of group, but as time went on and more people got involved in that discussion, it evolved into something else over a five- or six-month period,” explains Pendleton-Miller.
She adds, “[Tucson artist] Willie Bonner said, ‘Why do we keep waiting for them to want us?’”
By May 2022, the group decided to start a gallery. A month later, through the generosity of Michael Kasser, they located a ground-floor space at the historic Pioneer Hotel Building in a unit that used to be a dance studio. In summer 2023, BLAC had a soft opening exhibition featuring Tucson artists Bonner, Amber Doe, Allison Miller, and George R. Welch; Phoenix artists Joe Willie Smith and Papay Solomon; Seattle-area artist Marita Dingus; and Casimir Bationo from Burkina Faso.
In November 2023, BLAC organized a community block party to celebrate its grand opening. The event included food trucks, a DJ, and tables and chairs directly in front of BLAC’s large windows displaying works by Breeze and Lawrence. The latter’s series the Legend of John Brown, on loan from Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art in rural Pennsylvania, was likely the first time a large exhibition of the artist’s work had ever been mounted in Southern Arizona.
The visibility of the art from the street is a strategic choice, one that was inspired by Pendleton-Miller’s visit to a Los Angeles gallery
“We want to have teachable moments and demystify this whole thing with galleries and museums being elitist spaces. We want to create a warm and welcoming space,” she says, adding that the gallery’s educational component consists of hosting school groups and additional offerings. Plans include workshops with young artists and community art projects.
BLAC will hold an artist panel moderated by Adiba Nelson, with Seattle-based Dingus (who exhibited in the gallery’s debut show in summer 2023) and Carletta Carrington Wilson and Tucson artist Monad Graves Elohim on February 16, 2024, 6:30-8 pm, at Forge, 44 North Stone Avenue. BLAC will open Three Voices, a show of works by the three artists, the following day from 5:30 to 8:30 pm.
Tucson artist Bonner came up with the idea to name the gallery after the blue lotus, a hearty water lily native to Africa that, according to the gallery, can grow in nutritionally poor conditions. “Like the blue lotus, Black artists have arisen from harsh and inhospitable environments to thrive, create, and bring beauty and wonder to the world,” reads text from the Blue Lotus Artists’ Collective website.
“It’s about visibility,” says Pendleton-Miller, who credits Bonner, board member and gallery attendant Joanne Stuhr, and many others for making the gallery a successful reality. “By getting the word out, we hope that more and more people will come in so that there are more and other opportunities for the artists.”
“We have a lot of big dreams for the gallery,” she says.