Buncombe County Libraries Celebrate Black History Month – The Blue Banner

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At all 11 public libraries in Buncombe County, Black History Month is in full swing. From curated playlists and book groups to virtual events, the shortest month of the year is full of opportunities to learn, educate and explore black history.

Many libraries have book displays or reading lists, but we also do something special at our branch. We’re hosting a series of Artists in Residence at the Library’s Flowstate Community Arts Space this year, and this month’s Artist did something special to celebrate Black Legacy Month. She’s created a series of coloring sheets and activities featuring famous African Americans that people can pick up while they’re at the library,” said Alexandra Duncan, Library Branch Manager. East Asheville.

Heather Tolbert is this month’s featured artist. Over the past three years, she has researched black history extensively state by state and translated her findings into a series of canvases featuring prominent black figures across the United States.

“I’ve always wanted to do something to help educate me about black history in a fun way, as much as I love to read and investigate. When the pandemic hit, it kind of hit me , like what if I had an activity book I was interested in. So I decided to do something where you could learn both states and state capitals as well as bits and pieces of the black history in every state,” Tolbert said.

Each artwork starts with a different state as the background. Detailed portraits of historical and modern black figures fill the empty spaces. Around them, figurative motifs alluding to their creations finalize the paintings.

“There were a bunch of people I didn’t know when I started researching this project, but who really inspired me. Not just because of their history and their talent, but because of their ability to overcome adversity, racism, sexism and all that. They had to constantly prove themselves to get where they were and are,” Tolbert said.

Originally from Burnsville, Tolbert moved to Asheville after completing his master’s degree in forensic studies and started his own addiction counseling program, From the Ashes Cultural Arts and Counseling, with his sister, Ashley.

“My sister and I are addiction counselors. We offer advice, education, facilitation and help people feel more empowered. We help them get their licenses back, provide them with helpful courses and act as supervisors while bringing the art into this healing as well,” she said.

For Tolbert, art is a way to heal and educate both herself and those around her.

“Growing up in the schools, all of that history isn’t there, except for the typical Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, which is good because they’re the catalyst. But it is important to know that there is also a before and an after,” Tolbert said.

Along with the East Asheville Library Gallery paintings, Tolbert has created a set of coloring pages and activity sheets featuring important figures in black history. These free resources in the library lobby offer community members of all ages a chance to learn more through creativity and fun.

Anne Burns, an Asheville resident and mother of two, picked up several copies of Tolbert’s activity sheets for her children.

“I think it’s a great way for kids, and even adults, to use it for engaged learning. I hope that while my children color the pictures, we can make it a mini research project and learn more about the positive and important impact these people have had on our history,” she said.

Duncan said library staff encourage people to take an activity sheet home, color it in, and bring it back to hang in the lobby.

“Hopefully soon we’ll be able to cover this space with everyone’s art,” Duncan said.

Coloring pages featuring prominent black personalities graphically designed by Tolbert for the library exhibit. (Lauren Boyle)

As the chosen artist-in-residence, Tolbert will be at the library throughout the month displaying his work and sharing it with members of the community.

“I want people to know the information is out there, and it’s not as tragic as Trayvon Martin or Emmett Till. Maya Angelou stopped talking, Malcolm X went to jail and they both got out and still made important lives for themselves in the time they had,” Tolbert said.

Tolbert said she wanted her childhood and young adult life to include greater representation of black personalities, their accomplishments, and their contributions to society.

“Hearing all that black people have created and the things that we continue to achieve today makes me think a lot. My nieces, they’re learning all these things in school these days, but if I had known that when I was younger, I wouldn’t feel so bad about being a black person where I am,” he said. she declared.

To combat the lack of storytelling around Black history and culture, Tolbert made sure her artwork, coloring pages, and activity sheets were intersectional and well representative of diverse backgrounds, lifestyles and contributions.

“I really focused on integrating LGBTQ members and people who were dealing with addiction, trans people, women and all those things that history often falters from, especially when talking about the black community. It felt necessary to try and uncover much of what was hidden in the story,” Tolbert said.

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