Bevelyn Ukah’s journey to becoming an artist and an arts advocate began with an invitation to make art outside her community co-op. In just two years, she has blazed her own path by being open, proactive, and asking for help along the way.
During Penland’s 2022 winter residency, we had the pleasure of meeting Bevelyn Afor Ukah and admiring her powerful work. She is killing it! “Every day I have been getting so much good news around my art practice,” she told us. In addition to participating in winter residency, she is preparing for several upcoming opportunities. (There’s a list at the end of this article.) A self-taught artist who is passionate about the power of art to heal and empower, Bevelyn brings creative expression to others, both through her personal work and through her extensive community outreach.
Bevelyn was kind enough to share the story of how she arrived where she is today, under her own steam and with the enthusiastic support of people she met along the way. We hope this story will remind us all to take on new challenges and to invite others into the spaces and activities that have enriched our own lives, like craft and Penland!
AN ART TABLE OUTSIDE A GROCERY STORE
In February of 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic would upend everything, Bevelyn was running errands when she came across Karen Archia, sitting at a table covered in art supplies outside the Deep Roots Community Co-op Market in Greensboro, NC. This was one of 60 free art-making sessions that Karen hosted between September of 2019 and March of 2020 through her project “Public Art Practice,” which seeks to “liberate, encourage and affirm the creative spirit in all people.”
Karen invited Bevelyn to have a seat and create. While she had been excited about art as a child, it had been some time since she had expressed that side of her creativity, and it felt great! “Karen had recently been at Penland,” Bevelyn told us. “It was a huge transformation for her, and she thought everyone should have access to art. She built Public Art Practice out of her imagination.” Bevelyn attended two of these sessions before the pandemic, but the seed was planted. “Whatever I was creating, it was just making me feel better,” she said. She experimented with new media and new ideas. Her roommates encouraged her. “I started liking what I was making, and I just didn’t stop,” she told us.
MAKING HER FIRST SALE
Bevelyn began to feel like she could call herself an “artist” about a year into her creative practice when she sold her first piece. “That was so exciting,” she said. “I was like, let me just go ahead and put myself out there.” The person who purchased Bevelyn’s work was Tema Okun. Tema and Bevelyn had met professionally some years before and eventually became friends. Tema, who is a collage artist, had a close-up view of Bevelyn’s artistic awakening. “She was really called to it and took that calling very seriously,” Tema said. “In a short period of time I could see the way her work was developing.” One of the joys of Tema’s life is collecting artwork that speaks to her. “I am someone who likes to look at things on my walls and be moved and feel joy,” she told us. And for Bevelyn, selling her first piece of art felt “glorious.”
BUILDING A TINY HOUSE
In the summer of 2021, Bevelyn attended Wild Abundance, a permaculture and homesteading school located in Weaverville, just outside of Asheville, NC. There, she learned the carpentry skills that would allow her to make and sell a tiny house. She also met Ellie Richards, a Penland resident artist and Wild Abundance instructor.
Ellie was struck by Bevelyn’s ability to bring people together. “She was really kind of like the glue,” she said. As the class drew to a close, the group gathered in a circle to consider what they had learned and the challenges they had overcome. Ellie remembers that it was Bevelyn who “got us all in tears.” “She has that sort of vulnerability and way of expressing herself that allowed everyone to open up,” she said.
During the workshop, Ellie talked to the class about Penland. Later on, Bevelyn followed up with Ellie, who was able to put some color on the Penland experience (It’s very rural… You take one class at a time in one of 16 different studios…) and help Bevelyn prepare for next opportunity on the Penland calendar: winter residency, which she had already heard about from her friend Tema! Bevelyn put together a strong proposal and was selected out of hundreds of applicants.
WINTER RESIDENCY AT PENLAND
Bevelyn spent two weeks at Penland during winter residency. “I didn’t know what to expect, but it was perfect,” she said. In the drawing and painting studio, she enjoyed working alongside the other winter residents. She was the studio DJ, playing “everything from the nineties to all over the place.”
“We had a really great balance between talking and respecting each other’s space. It was great to be able to talk to my studio mates about what it means to be an artist, to strategize and share ways that we have been successful.” Studio assistant Caryn gave thoughtful feedback, made sure Bevelyn had the supplies she needed, and inspired through her own work. “I felt really cared for,” said Bevelyn.
“I love the work that I made,” she told us. “I started ten pieces and completed eight” A riot of color, Bevelyn’s work deals with body image, body positivity, and her relationship to the natural environment. “Our human-created systems have so many toxic images around body image that isolate people from their bodies and physical experiences, messages of inadequacy. They tell us that you’re not beautiful, that you’re not enough. The natural environment does the exact opposite,” said Bevelyn.
MAKING THINGS HAPPEN
Bevelyn’s outreach work is imbued with as much positivity as her artwork. It’s hard to sum up all of her projects, but the short story is that she is making things happen! As the founding consultant of AFI Oak Consulting and co-founding consultant of the Auralite Collective, she trains youth and adults in skills that encourage equity, organizational efficiency, cultural connection, and collaboration. She is also the co-founder of Mekafi, a social enterprise that supports Black farmers and a member of the Black Women’s Art Collective of Public Art Practice. She coordinates the Food Youth Initiative Program and co-coordinates the Racial Equity in Food Systems initiative, which are both programs of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems. And she serves on the boards of Transplanting Traditions Community Farm, Rooted in Community, and the NC Climate Justice Collective!
Just over two years into her journey as an artist, Bevelyn is on a roll. Her personal work is evolving, she has made wonderful friends and connections, and she is finding innovative ways to connect her climate and food equity work with her art practice, despite the challenges of the pandemic. She is now a member of Public Art Practice, the outreach program that initiated her art journey. She hopes to return to Penland and to help connect others to the experience as well. “I want to learn everything,” she told us. “Woodworking, printmaking, oil painting… I want to make masks. Penland is like Hogwarts for artists!”
While at Penland, she requested a meeting with Yolanda Sommer, Penland’s Manager of Diversity Recruitment and Partnerships. Together, they are looking for ways to collaborate. Said Yolanda, “I look forward to working with Bevelyn in the future because of her energy. The fact that she is new to craft gives her a special, fresh perspective.” When it comes to Bevelyn, we are certain that her openness will continue to bring many and varied opportunities and that she will be a stepping stone for others as they have been for her.
Bevelyn has upcoming exhibitions and residencies with the Durham Art Guild, the Center for Visual Arts Greensboro, Creative Greensboro, and Pink Dog Creative in Asheville.
You can find more of Bevelyn’s work at https://www.afioak.com/.
Follow her on Instagram at @afioak