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Setting the TONE: Orange Mound’s local art group focuses on Black artistry

<p>TONE displays art, primarily for Black Memphians and midsoutherners. The space helps Black artists display their art, which some find difficult.</p>
TONE displays art, primarily for Black Memphians and midsoutherners. The space helps Black artists display their art, which some find difficult.

There is no shortage of Black artists in the city of Memphis, but there are a limited number of opportunities that allow these artists a platform to display their work.

Located in the heart of Orange Mound, the non-profit organization TONE encourages, embraces and cultivates Black artists.

For many creatives, art is the gateway tool used to communicate their perception of the world around them, so without a safe space to flourish many are met with dead ends.

“TONE, in its origin or its ‘perfect point,’ is an incubator for Black creative folks to advance themselves as artists and thinkers and people who are invested in creativity,” said Lawrence Matthews, co-founder of TONE. “It’s a place where you can go and have a platform to build yourself up and learn the skills you need.”

According to Matthews, TONE is a Black arts non-profit organization with a goal to advance the professional and creative careers of artists, specifically Black artists based in Memphis and in the Midsouth.

The University of Memphis alumnus said throughout his journey he struggled to find a platform where he could present his art in his own way.

“The stories I was trying to tell with my work – I didn’t really find an audience for with school,” Matthews said. “The difference ended up being my professors. They started to pour into me and help me out.”

Matthews credits his relationship with his professors for assisting in the jumpstart of his own artistry and throughout his journey uses that same knowledge to help ignite the light in others. His time at TONE gives him the opportunity to steadily help in the advancement of other upcoming artists.

TONE for Matthews gave him the space to regularly help other artists expand in their artistry and believe in their own capabilities.

One of those artists is Amber Ahmad. As the curator of TONE and a visual-artist, they have had their fair share of expressing themselves through artistry and receiving exposure through TONE.

“It’s the first place that I’ve worked and been a part of where I saw folks who look like me having a safe art space,” Ahmad said. “... where the people were dedicated to seeing you grow as a person, but also as an artist.”

And after being recommended by their co-worker, Ahmad was able to feature their artworks in The New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA) 2021. Like Ahmad, many artists receive opportunities through their connections with TONE that they may not get to experience from other places around Memphis.

“Being a Black artist in the city, if you don’t have a big name, it’s very hard to get on walls like at Crosstown or at the Brooks. They don’t care. They’re not looking for you. So it’s dope to be a part of something like this and actually have them want you,” said Dawn Ross, marketing manager and conceptual photographer at TONE.

The feeling of being overlooked is a common shared experience for many Black artists, and having no space for your work can be discouraging. Fortunately the walls of TONE are filled with spaces that exist as placeholders for up and coming artists from Memphis, without racial boundaries.

Richard Echols, visual artist and instructor at the University of Memphis, says he creates his work as a way to uplift his people.

“That’s what my work is about. I am intentional about highlighting people of color, because we don’t get that shine or highlight,” he said.

From a young age, Echols took his artwork seriously and that childhood drive led him into his adulthood, where he has multiple artworks featured on different walls around the city, including at TONE.

His painting Hard To Let Go, showcased in a group exhibition called Spectrum – an exhibition that explores gender and gender variation hosted by TONE, portrays an African American male with a basketball on his side looking towards the Wilder Tower.

He was inspired to highlight the people in his life. So after capturing the picture, Echols recreated the photo on a canvas in order to create a shared experience between African American men and the University of Memphis’ community.

But TONE represents more than just a space for the artists, it is also a space for the community as a whole. From the artists to the appreciators, there is one common feeling experienced by the people who walk through the doors, a sense of belonging.

“There’s something about being at TONE. It's such a wonderful feeling as soon as you walk in the building,” said Alliyah Jordan, a U of M alumnus.

TONE hosts shows, exhibits and workshops in order to bring people from the community out to engage with each other and show off the bodies of work created by other Black people.

TONE is constantly searching for ways to engage with the community around them and breathe life back into Orange Mound and its enriched history.

According to Black Past, Orange Mound is the first African American community built for and by other African Americans. TONE continues to uphold the foundation that created the community and plans to continue to press forward and pour more opportunities for the culture of Black people.

In the upcoming months, TONE plans to have a celebratory series of events to commemorate Juneteenth for the people and the community.

TONE, for many, is more than a building located on Lamar. To some it’s the opportunity to have a space, “for us and by us” where you get to be yourself, authentically and embrace in Black culture. 

TONE displays art, primarily for Black Memphians and midsoutherners. The space helps Black artists display their art, which some find difficult.

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