Six Weeks For Nina

Valerie Watson

Valeria Watson’s installation “Reparations for Nina” is part of a multimedia exhibit at Upstairs [artspace] that honors Nina Simone, the “High Priestess of Soul.” / Photo by Tim Robison

Since late January, the Tryon art gallery Upstairs [artspace] has been busy paying a multifaceted birthday tribute to their town’s most famous — sometimes controversial — daughter, jazz singer/pianist Nina Simone, born Feb. 21

The Nina Simone Project: Celebrating Black History Month and Tryon’s High Priestess of Soul has included art exhibits, a concert, a panel discussion, and a fiber-art show inspired by Simone’s signature headwear.

But the more than month-long community collaboration, which continues through mid-March, actually began an entire year ago. And it got its start, fittingly, when a conversation between two local artists led to a powerful partnership.

“We talked about how it would be nice to do something to celebrate Nina, almost as an act of healing, something very positive,” says Margaret Curtis, a member of the gallery’s exhibits committee, referring to her conversation with Valeria Watson, a fellow artist who has long been inspired by the jazz giant. Watson recalls getting to see Simone perform at the Roxy in Los Angeles in 1982 and feeling as if she were watching an angel.

Before the two knew it, their idea grew to involve area musicians, professors, and other artists. Watson had past experience working on a Black History Month project in Arizona, and was excited to have another opportunity to engage and connect the community. “If we can find ways people can come together and work and have fun and laugh,” she stresses, “it makes a difference.”

She deems the project a community-building success already. But from the artists’ perspective, success in some ways comes after a show, once viewers have experienced their work and pieces have been sold to happy buyers.

Turbans by Leigh “Madame” Magar address the impact of Nina Simone’s signature style.

Turbans by Leigh “Madame” Magar address the impact of Nina Simone’s signature style.

The trio of exhibits at Upstairs [artspace] is varied in Simone subject matter, addressing everything from her activism to her iconic fashion. Gallery guests first encounter the exhibit “Madame Magar: The Mood Indigo Collection,” from Charleston artist Leigh Magar, which attempts to “capture the aura of Nina’s one-of-a-kind strength and style.” It features a large quilt with Simone’s silhouette and Simone-inspired headdresses, all crafted from the sewing remnants of indigo-dyed dresses and hats. (Magar uses indigo heavily in her work because of its connection to South Carolina; she was born and raised in Spartanburg, and, in high school, became aware that Simone grew up nearby.)

“I’ve always been inspired by her music,” says Magar. She hopes viewers absorb that inspiration and come away with an interest in Simone’s legendary songs.

Next, Upstairs visitors walk through Asheville artist Linda Larsen’s work “Sights Unforeseen,” an exhibition of sculptures, paintings, and monotypes grappling with the results of the unseen history of slavery. Attendees end downstairs at Watson’s installation “Reparations for Nina,” which re-imagines the interior of Simone’s childhood home. Each room has a name and helps tell a story as the space is toured, and Watson crafted it all: from the painted clothing hanging in the dressing room, to the artwork on the walls of the living room, to dolls in the bedroom.

“Instead of sitting at a lecture, it’s an interactive experience,” Watson notes. “It becomes a mirror for whoever sees these things.”

The Nina Simone Project: Celebrating Black History Month and Tryon’s High Priestess of Soul
Through March 13

Free events

March 6: African wrapped-doll workshop with artist Valeria Watson, 4-6 pm at Upstairs [artspace]

March 7: “Cooking with Soul” soul-food demonstration, led by area chefs Brit Castaneda and Hanan Shabazz, 4-6pm at the Roseland Community Center (56 Peake St. in Tryon)

March 13: Screening of the short film Ghosts of the South, by Watson and Julie Becton-Gillum, which features Butoh performances, 6pm at Upstairs [artspace]

Upstairs [artspace] 49 South Trade St., Tryon,

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