Along black limousine pulls up to the front door of the Mobile Museum of Art, headlights beaming in the dark evening of early October. The rear passenger door opens and a foot slides gently to the ground wearing a delicate white satin shoe. Following the foot, a tumble of white fabric, lace and pearls emerges from the back seat. Princess Cupcake — and the woman wearing it — have arrived for their debut.
The woman in question, local artist Monica Beasley, already had the bridal gown in her closet, a leftover from an art film that she made years ago — “A Day in the Life of a Dress.” As the opening reception for the first solo museum exhibition of her career loomed on the calendar, Beasley realized the gown was the perfect choice. “My exhibition was like my debut,” laughs the 51-year-old artist and educator at Old Shell Road School, whose work unabashedly focuses heavily on the themes of love, marriage and femininity. “I named [the dress] because she looks like a cupcake with the dotted pearls on it.” The dress — like Beasley’s art -— is a shower of frills and femininity covering something deep and complex just waiting to be discovered.
Beasley moved to her mother’s hometown of Mobile from Minnesota at age 12 after her parents’ divorce. She experienced culture shock upon arriving. “It was so traumatic to move down here,” she remembers, laughing, explaining she left a culturally diverse suburban community (although she was the only African-American) and moved to her grandmother’s house in the predominantly black Crichton. There, she was raised under the guidance of several strong female figures — her mother, grandmother and aunts — who modelled true Southern femininity and grace enveloping a core of strength and purpose. All of these women would inspire themes in Beasley’s later work.
As she settled into her new life in Mobile, Beasley found the Port City a complicated place. “It took me a while to realize that down here, even though I’m light-skinned, for some people I’m not the right kind of light-skinned. My family wasn’t Creole.” Interactions with lifelong natives gave Beasley a love-hate relationship with her adopted town, so she was eager to head back to the Midwest for college.
After encouragement from her mother to become a teacher, Beasley got her undergraduate degree from Barat College in Lake Forest, Illinois, and her Masters of Art in teaching from Spring Hill College. After a few short years teaching in Mobile, however, a deeper experience with the arts was still tugging at her heartstrings. She was lured to Chicago once again by post-graduate work at the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and following that, she earned a full ride to Northwestern where she received her Master of Fine Arts as one of the first African-American women accepted to the program— a course of study which only accepted five students per year.
During this time of free exploration of her art, she created works with Afro-Caribbean roots, namely a series of voodoo dolls about 5 inches tall that at one time lined the walls of her home “in the hopes of conjuring up a husband.” The chance to push boundaries and explore other cultures was freeing, but Beasley began to focus her art more and more on the theme of love and marriage. “We had some interesting peer critiques,” she laughs. “Those other art students were so much younger, and they didn’t get it. I was in my 30s and ready for marriage! But they all have kids now.”
Today, Beasley is a mixed media and collage artist who gathers scraps of lace, fabric and beading left over from Mardi Gras trains and applies them to boards, along with cut paper, painted canvas and epoxy. But underneath the girliness and beauty of her exquisite work often lies a smattering of Mobile dirt and clay (over which she says she whitewashes.) “I’m using all these flowers and politeness, but under, there’s all this grit. And so I think that’s what my work is about.” She admits she is not a figure painter, and so uses traditional toile fabric throughout her works. “The toile is my hidden Southernness, daintiness and the narrative of what’s going on in the South.” But it is often hidden amongst flowers, sequins and a smattering of glitter for good measure. This juxtaposition of beautiful and profound is what makes both Beasley and her work fresh and exciting.
Looking for Love
In Beasley’s exhibition at the Mobile Museum of Art, in addition to her collage flowers and mixed media abstracts, she showed a work made from of a pile of blue Tiffany’s boxes all wrapped to perfection (she confesses she became fast friends with the manager of the Tiffany’s store in New Orleans throughout this process) and stuck small powder blue Tiffany’s cards to the wall with mantras about love — “I will marry a man who will keep gas in my car.” She is not embarrassed by her search for her true love and is not disheartened that she has not yet found him. “I once even called ‘Car Talk’ to ask the guys what kind of car I should buy to attract a guy. I’ve bought all three cars they recommended at some point in my life: a convertible, an Audi SUV, now my mini. I do get guys looking at me in my Mini Cooper!” But with age comes an increased confidence in self and a focus on self-love, evident by titles of some of her recent works, like “You Don’t Need a King to be a Queen.”
“There is no love in my life right now. That is why I can freely talk about what I want. The pressure is off to find Mr. Right.”
Beasley is more confident than ever in this stage of life and finds fulfillment not just from her art practice but from her work as an art educator with the Mobile County Public Schools where she recently won Teacher of the Year. And she can honestly say she loves and appreciates the town she now calls her home. “That’s why I call myself a Mobilian, because I didn’t choose to come here as a child. But the second time, I chose to come back home after graduate school. I chose to come back to teach because I believe in all these kids and in the arts.” And she prioritizes being close to family — especially all those strong Southern women that gave her the feminine strength she now exudes.
Perhaps Beasley is a lot like her works of art — beautiful and bright. But if you are lucky, and you get the chance to dig a little deeper, you will find a complex layer of emotions and stories that are constantly being explored and occasionally even shared. But all wrapped up perfectly like that little turquoise present from Tiffany’s.