“I’ve never witnessed a murder,” artist PeggyJo Aughtry told me in regards to watching the video of George Floyd being choked to death by a police officer. “I was so beyond shocked.”
Aughtry, who is white woman married to a Black man, has experienced racism due to her relationship, usually in subtle ways. She described going into a restaurant with her husband Danny arm-in-arm, but having their orders taken separately by separate servers, then being treated as though they weren’t together when they were checking out.
Then there was a moment at her first job in Savannah, after moving here in 2007.
“I didn’t immediately say that I had a completely mixed family,” she recalled. “Between my husband and I, we’ve got a white child, a black child, and a mixed child. And I pulled out the family portrait one day and you could have heard the foundations settle.”
The response was jarring to Aughtry, who was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, where she asserted that people of all skin colors “mingle together and everything is fine.”
“I was just appalled,” she added. “Because we got the memo many, many years ago. We’re all equal. We’re good. I just can’t believe that it’s tolerated down here.”
Despite these experiences, Aughtry and her family “try not to lean on the whole racism thing in [their] family,” she told me. The same could be said of her artwork, which has tended to be generally lighthearted with fun explosions of color. The killing of George Floyd, however, changed all of that.
“I became afraid to go out with my husband,” Aughtry said. “Because I figured with white people mad at black people, black people mad at white people… I felt afraid. And I don’t want to feel like that. And so I had to get it out somehow that this has really affected me.”
In response, Aughtry explained that she began a series of portraits “to reflect just what I was feeling based on what I was seeing.” Given that her husband is a black man not much older than Floyd was himself, it’s easy to see how she would be profoundly affected. In one piece, she took a very modern day approach to documenting the horror that we all experienced when we saw the video of his slaying.
“It seems kind of odd,” began Aughtry. “But I took a selfie of exactly what my face looked like when I was witnessing his murder and then the aftermath, and everything that’s been going on. And I just was feeling horrified, or distorted, or I didn’t know what to believe anymore. And I wanted to portray that no matter what. I wanted those eyes to say something is seriously not okay.”
The corresponding piece came to be titled “OH GOD PLEASE STOP,” and is one of at least eight oil pastel pieces created so far by Aughtry to help her cope with the injustice we all witnessed in the murder of George Floyd. Stylistically, most of the works might be classified as Neo-Expressionist, utilizing non-traditional composition techniques, bold and somewhat disharmonious colors, and figures rife with internal conflict.
For the painting, “IM SORRY GEORGE,” however, Aughtry chose to use a much more traditional approach.
“I got to thinking, ‘George, you are here with me,’” she relayed. “You are right here. If nobody else, I want his family to know some little white women here is brokenhearted over this gentleman’s death. It broke my heart to see that that could be done to somebody. It broke my heart.”
The simplified portrait depicts the profiles of Floyd on the left alongside the artist on the right, each facing the viewer. Both are nude and retain their natural skin tones. The artist’s slightly sad eyes look off to the side, as if mildly ashamed, while Floyd himself stands peacefully with his eyes closed.View this post on Instagram
OH MY GOD ..... NO 9X12 oil pastels
“I put the soul into the eyes, as much as I can,” Aughtry explained. “I really work hard on that. His soul is gone. His soul’s not here. And so I shut his eyes.”
The artist continues to work on the series, and has been filling my inbox with another new piece every day or two since we spoke. Aughtry herself isn’t certain when it will be finished, saying only that she “can’t seem to stop yet.” The racial inequality that we have in this country is a difficult subject to come to grips with, but she seems determined to find some sort of resolution, at least in her own mind.
“The Bible says, and I’m not a thumper or anything like that, seek wisdom, seek knowledge, but in all your seeking, seek an understanding,” concluded Aughtry. “And I think we need an understanding here.”
Listen to my entire conversation with PeggyJo Aughtry embedded here. You can learn more about her and her work on Instagram @PeggyJoAughtry. Next week I’ll be speaking with artist Michael Mahaffey about the way that he’s used online resources to build his career.
Tune in to “Art on the Air” every Wednesday from 3-4 p.m. on WRUU 107.5 FM in Savannah, and streaming worldwide at www.wruu.org.
Art off the Air is a digital-only column that is posted every week on dosavannah.com as a companion piece to the WRUU 107.5 FM show “Art on the Air.”
Rob Hessler is an artist, host of the radio show Art on the Air on WRUU 107.5 FM Savannah, and Executive Director of Bigger Pie, a Savannah-based arts advocacy organization.