When Stacy Lightfoot arrived at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga as vice chancellor for diversity and engagement, she immediately knew how she wanted to decorate her division’s offices.
“It is the mission of our division to support students, faculty and staff and celebrate all of the beautiful diversity that exists here on campus,” she said. “It is always awesome to connect with other divisions on campus. It is always awesome to connect with community partners on campus.
“So when I first met Dr. (Angie) To, I said, ‘I want some artwork on these walls.’ After an hour’s conversation, we created a new fellowship.”
Lightfoot and To, the head of the UTC Department of Art, came up with the idea of hosting an art gallery within Diversity and Engagement. Lightfoot would provide a stipend to cover art supplies. To created the parameters: a rotating artist series changing three or four times a year highlighting and honoring young alums and giving them the opportunity to display their work.
“When Stacy contacted me and said, ‘I’m really interested in art,’ I said, ‘We have so many students that once they graduate, they don’t have as much exposure as we would like, especially students who are coming from diverse backgrounds,” To said.
“As we were talking, the first person that came to mind was Tamia.”
On Dec. 12, the Diversity and Engagement Art Fellowship was introduced with six oil paintings created by Tamia Spinks.
Spinks, who received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from UTC in May, provided an artist talk—an opportunity for an artist to talk in-depth about their work, process and influences—in introducing her first solo gallery showing.
To said reaching out to Spinks to be the gallery’s inaugural artist was easy.
“Tamia was one of those students who just was a really open learner, someone who came to us ready to work on becoming an artist,” To said. “I’m proud of what she’s achieved, so it was great to recognize that.
“She is so dedicated to her work, really vivacious, and someone who I think is exceptionally generous in her perspective of how to illustrate the very rich life of African Americans within her community. Once I asked her to do this, her immediate answer was ‘Yes.’”
Spinks grew up in the small West Tennessee town of Milan, which has a population of around 8,000. It’s an area where football is popular and art isn’t understood, she said, but it was art that spoke to her. She came to UTC to pursue her passion.
“My goal is to open up a gallery and take it back home because I’m from a small town where art is really not that appreciated, especially with the Black community,” Spinks said. “It’s looked at as a hobby; if it’s not making you money, then it’s not something you should do. I want to bring that back and show them that you can make a career as an artist.
“If you enjoy it, do it and you can go as far as you want with it. That’s my goal right now, honestly. It’s to keep going, keep doing work and showing others and inspiring more people who look like me that you can make it as a creative.”
Spinks said she created paintings that focus on rejuvenating Black representation.
“My goal has been to try to transform the minds of my viewers by altering the common stereotypical narrative of Black Americans and displaying them in a more uplifting light,” she explained. “I do this by creating work that I can connect with by displaying my identity as a Black woman and my views on life. My paintings either tell stories about my life experiences or simply highlight those close to me, such as family and friends.”
When asked what it meant to her to be the inaugural Diversity and Engagement Art Fellow, Spinks admitted, “I’m at a loss for words right now to being the first. I never would’ve imagined me being the first at—especially in the art world—the first to do anything.
“This is a huge deal for me. It’s always been on my bucket list to have my own solo show, so for it to happen this quickly is just mind-blowing.”
Spinks’ oil paintings will be displayed on the walls of the offices of Diversity and Engagement until spring, when the next artist display is introduced.
“This is a really important new development on campus, not only for recruiting new students, but also establishing that we have the kind of support the University is ready to offer students as they’re moving through the programs,” To said. “As a minority myself, I understand how difficult it can be for students who want to choose art as a path of education—especially if you’re a first-generation student from a less urban situation. There are lots of concerns on the part of individuals and families about whether or not an art degree can actually support you moving through life.
“Being able to see how a student can take their education and develop a unique and personal pathway through life that can be supported by their university in terms of exhibiting their work is a really positive statement.”