Tribute to champion of African American art draws special guest in Morristown

From left, Superior Court Judge Michael Wright, Charles Craig, and Superior Court Assignment Judge Stuart Minkowitz at MPAC celebration of Viki Craig's life, Feb. 5, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
From left, Superior Court Judge Michael Wright, Charles Craig, and Superior Court Assignment Judge Stuart Minkowitz at MPAC celebration of Viki Craig's life, Feb. 5, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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By Marion Filler and Kevin Coughlin

In life, Viki Craig had a knack for bringing people together.

That magic extended to her memorial gala, too. Tuesday’s popup art show in her honor even attracted his Honor, the judge responsible for closing the Atrium Gallery and, by extension, the annual Art in the Atrium exhibition Craig co-founded 27 years ago.

Superior Court Assignment Judge Stuart Minkowitz, whose concerns about the propriety of art displays near courtrooms prompted the Morris County freeholders to close the gallery, joined guests in the Starlight Room of Morristown’s Mayo Performing Arts Center.

Artist Ron EA Powell of Irvington and show co-founder Viki Craig, at Art in the Atrium 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Artist Ron EA Powell of Irvington and the late Viki Craig, show co-founder, at Art in the Atrium 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“I’d like to thank Judge Minkowitz for having the courage to be with us tonight,” said Craig’s pastor, the Rev. Sidney Williams Jr.

Although Minkowitz declined to comment, Williams and the Craig family expressed optimism about discussions to reopen the gallery, which spanned four floors of the county Administration and Records Building in Morristown.

“The process is continuing and Judge Minkowitz is a lover of the arts, so we believe we will come to a good solution to get art back in the Atrium on all the floors,” Williams told a gathering that included artists Alonzo Adams, Bisa Butler and Ron Powell.

They were there to pay tribute to Craig, a retired 3rd grade teacher who died two days after Christmas, at the age of 71, from a rare heart condition. Friends and family sustained a double blow in January, with the passing of what would have been the 27th edition of Art in the Atrium, one the northeast’s premiere showcases for African American art.

Slideshow photos by Marion Filler & Kevin Coughlin. Click / hover over images for captions:

Viki Craig's daughters Simone and Lauren, granddaughter Charleigh, and husband Charles Craig at MPAC celebration of Viki Craig's life, Feb. 5, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Artist Bisa Butler at MPAC celebration of Viki Craig's life, Feb. 5, 2019. Photo by Marion Filler
Artist Ron Powell at MPAC celebration of Viki Craig's life, Feb. 5, 2019. Photo by Marion Filler
Sorority members (L-R) Lucretia Agee (Delta) and Paulette Primus, Sanderal Brown and Lorraine McCullen (AKA) at MPAC celebration of Viki Craig's life, Feb. 5, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
From left, Superior Court Judge Michael Wright, Charles Craig, and Superior Court Assignment Judge Stuart Minkowitz at MPAC celebration of Viki Craig's life, Feb. 5, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Andrea Lekberg, Leslie Allen and Kadie Dempsey at MPAC celebration of Viki Craig's life, Feb. 5, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Morristown Civil Rights leader Felicia Jamison and Henry Lee, deacon from Calvary Baptist Church, at MPAC celebration of Viki Craig's life, Feb. 5, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Kadie Dempsey of MPAC; Tarin Fuller Ransom, daughter of the late artist Norman Lewis; and artist Bisa Butler at MPAC celebration of Viki Craig's life, Feb. 5, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Ivory and Marjorie Herbert at MPAC celebration of Viki Craig's life, Feb. 5, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Artists Dan Fenenlon, Bisa Butler and Alonzo Adams at MPAC celebration of Viki Craig's life, Feb. 5, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
MPAC President Allison Larena and Kadie Dempsey, community outreach coordinator, at MPAC celebration of Viki Craig's life, Feb. 5, 2019. Photo by Marion Filler
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“It’s important to keep the legacy alive,” said Powell.

Viki Craig could raise the room temperature with her warmth, according to Adams. “She’s watching over us right now,” he said.

Butler credited Craig with enabling her to launch a career as a fine arts quilter, after teaching high school art for 13 years in Newark and Maplewood.

“She put me on the stage and treated me as a professional when I was not even sure I was one,” Butler said. “Last June I was able to retire from my teaching position and do art full time.”

Artist Alonzo Adams remembers Viki Craig. Video by Marion Filler for Morristown Green, Feb. 5, 2019:

The evening was organized by Andrea Lekberg, owner of the Artist Baker café and a trustee of Art in the Atrium, and Kadie Dempsey of the Mayo Center.

“I had goosebumps,” Dempsey said afterward.

Lekberg, who prepared and served a buffet dinner for the guests, said the she got hooked by Art in the Atrium when she saw parents and their two kids talking to an artist at an opening night.

“They were teaching their kids about their culture and it was an amazing dialog. It was really educational and was very compelling for me. I thought it was very exciting that we could do that here in Morristown,” Lekberg said.

Dr. Lynn L. Siebert of the nonprofit Morris Arts served as Atrium Gallery director for the last decade and swiftly became a fan of Art in the Atrium.

“Bursting with amazing art, these exhibits attracted artists from throughout the country and introduced our larger community to the universe of fine art from African American artists,” Siebert said.

Viki Craig was a visionary who did more than just talk about black artists’ need for a platform, said Linwood Oglesby, former executive director of the Newark Arts Council.

Viki Craig's daughters Simone and Lauren, granddaughter Charleigh, and husband Charles Craig at MPAC celebration of Viki Craig's life, Feb. 5, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Viki Craig’s daughters Simone and Lauren; granddaughter Charleigh, 6; and Viki’s husband Charles Craig at MPAC celebration of Viki Craig’s life, Feb. 5, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“We see voids but we don’t always step up to do the hard work to bring something like this into existence. That’s what I want to celebrate tonight,” Oglesby said.

The evening heartened Viki Craig’s husband, attorney Charles Craig, and their daughters, Simone and Lauren Craig.

“The community showed its love and support for Art in the Atrium, and for her,” said Charles Craig, co-founder of the exhibition. “She would have enjoyed it.”

“She’d be thrilled, overjoyed,” said Simone. “We wanted this to be a celebration, not a sad, somber thing.”

They got their wish.

“Her spirit is here,” Lauren said of her late mom.

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