Cutting Edge in the Art Scene

Maiza Hixson wants you to know that art is an essential part of life, which is why she’s doing all she can to revolutionize the scene in Wilmington. And if asking people to make out in public is what it takes, so be it.

Maiza Hixson flips through a stack of canvases leaning against a wall in the kitchen of artist Crae Washington’s home and studio in Bear. It is an amazing place, most of it covered, graffiti style, in spray paint. The couch and chairs are painted. The television is painted. The refrigerator door and shower curtain are painted. The TVs. A bicycle.

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The place is as much a work of art as the artworks themselves—canvases, also spray painted, very precisely, with images of the people who define popular culture and current affairs, messaged subtly (How does it all end?) and not so subtly (1-800-BUSH-DOESNT-CARE-ABOUT-BLACK-PEOPLE).

“I love how your work is always bordering on abstraction,” Hixson tells Washington, examining one painting. “I have a feeling they’re going to detour the school groups who would go through your gallery,” jokes brother Corei Washington, the marketing side of their Smashed Label brand. Hixson laughs. “The docents are going to say, ‘How are we going to give a tour of this?’”

Joking aside, a racially mixed group of young teen campers and chaperones willingly lingered in the Constance S. & Robert J. Hennessy Project Space of the Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts in early July, where Smashed Label’s “xThe Popshow,” full of works with titles such as “xAfter Being Shot Dead Running Unarmed from the Police in South Carolina,” is on view until Aug. 23.

Hixson had, until spring, served as chief curator at the DCCA for five years. While working there on the groundbreaking “Wilmington Trap Stars,” a group exhibition of art that spoke to the plight of poor urban communities, she met Washington. His bold and edgy style marked him, in her mind, as a great talent, and his art appealed to her desire to challenge convention while inviting new audiences to the DCCA. She told him she would try to get him a solo show and, in so doing, gave him the thing he has labored alone and quietly toward for the past 20 years: recognition and respect as a true artist.

“This woman here,” Washington says, “is the leader of the revolution. She takes art to another level.” Though Washington speaks about revolution in a different context, revolution is what art is all about, Hixson says. It should not be the exclusive domain of big museums or wealthy collectors. It is not decoration. It should be an everyday part of living. In a city that enjoys an embarrassment of traditional arts, albeit one that struggles to maintain audiences and funding, she might be the best hope for invigorating the scene—by doing anything but the traditional.

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Revolution—informed by humor, compassion and a fierce intellect—flows through Hixson’s veins. Born into a family of activists and intellectuals, she developed an interest in marginalized communities while growing up in the home of artists. Her mother was an opera singer. Her father was a painter who ran his own commercial design shop.“I played with all his markers,” Hixson says. “He would get lots of paper samples, and I loved touching the paper, thinking about how someone else thought about that, the texture and the weight. I wanted to understand the materials, the importance of the details.”

At the University of Louisville, Hixson studied drawing and painting and explored an interest in sociology. “I felt sequestered from the world in the studio,” she says. “I kept going back and forth between the abstract and the representational. Meanwhile, there was this populism rearing its head, saying, ‘Make art people can understand.’ I didn’t fit in anywhere.”  So she worked two summers on an educational farm in southern France while earning a bachelor’s degree in French. While there, she visited great art museums such as the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay. “That was a big turning point,” she says.

Photograph by Joe Del Tufo

Some say curator Maiza Hixson  is leading a revolution. “She takes art to another level,” says artist Crae Washington.

Image provided by Smashed Label

This painting by Crae Washington is based on a man who was beaten by riot police in Wilmington in 1968.

She went on to study at The Art Institute of Chicago, where she encountered French Situationist notions about individual liberation and discovered that the simple act of taking a walk could become a work of art. “It dislodges conventions about how people think about space for art,” she says. She was also highly influenced by the ideas of Marcel Duchamp, whose “Fountain,” a urinal plainly displayed as a urinal, redefined what could be claimed as art.

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After earning a master’s in critical and curatorial studies from the University of Louisville, Hixson worked as a fellow at the Speed Art Museum, where she witnessed an intervention. In the French tapestry wing, curator Julien Robson worked with several artists to install a Piet Mondrian-style teahouse for the exhibition of contemporary works. Eroding the illusion of the court-like space through such “radical juxtaposition” changed her idea of what curation could be. At the very least, it was its own form of artistic expression.

Her early exhibitions cut across the grain. Shows like “Oh Boy! Men and Masculinity” at the now-closed New Center for Contemporary Art in Louisville examined how men—not women—are portrayed in the media. “American Idyll: Contemporary Art and Karaoke,” at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, explored a fascination with and revulsion of the medium. It ended with a karaoke sing-off.

When Hixson joined the DCCA in 2010, she brought the same provocative spirit. She also furthered audience participation through interactive exhibitions such as “DRIFT: Artists’ Walks & Runs,” each led by an artist-ambassador from a different Wilmington neighborhood, and “Imperfect City: A Real Time Exhibition,” in which area residents could direct the growth changes in an ideal Wilmington. In all, she curated 45 exhibitions there. “Maiza brought a lot of fantastic things to the DCCA,” says former co-worker Sara Teixido. “She loves experimenting, but is always thinking about the community. She wanted to engage people. She didn’t just want art on the walls.”

Painter Antonio Puri of Philadelphia, whose monumentally scaled “Birthplace” is hanging in the group show “Layering Constructs” at DCCA until Sept. 7, has exhibited around the world. He praises Hixson’s choice of artists in “Layering Constructs” and the design sense she employed in the display of his work. “I’m most proud of this show than any show I’ve done,” Puri says. “The artists together are wonderful to be with. Having Maiza as a curator is a true honor. I love her vision, how real she is, her intelligence. “She needs to be in the world arena, in my opinion. Delaware is lucky to have her.”

All of Hixson’s interests—exposing deserving or little-known artists, challenging societal norms, engaging many kinds of people in the act of making and viewing art, healing the individual and the society—intersected in May during The Make Out Mob. Hixson invited anyone and everyone to H.B. DuPont Park to make some display of affection as a way to counter the city’s portrayal by Newsweek as “Murder Town USA.” Local workers gathered at the end of the day to participate or to watch everything from hugs and polite pecks on the cheek to kissing that bordered on get-a-room. Social experience, Hixson says, can be a form of art.

“It went perfectly,” says Will Minster who, as director of Downtown Visions, hired Hixson, now an independent curator, to help him find ways to keep people in the business district after hours and create a hipper, more progressive city.“ There are 50,000 people working downtown every day. They need to feel comfortable,” Minster says. “That means making downtown a little different. You want to work somewhere that’s cool and different. Crazy ideas sometimes have legs. Maiza has ideas for events most people would never think of.”

Hixson is working with Downtown Visions, the Wilmington Renaissance Corporation, the mayor’s office and others to re-invigorate the city’s Art Loop and coordinate other projects. As part of Visions’ First Thursday series, she and curatorial partner Lauren Ruth on Aug. 6 will re-create the “little white cubes” that serve as galleries and 9-to-5 workspaces to display the art of people who labor daily in downtown offices.

“Everybody is an artist. I believe that. I know there are artists working in the cubicles of Capital One,” Hixson says. “We need to find an opportunity to be human. That’s what I want to encourage more of.”  


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