New Director and Curator of Fisk University Galleries, Jamaal B. Sheats
With the help of artist and curator Jamaal B. Sheats, incredible art can be found all over Fisk University’s campus.
Written By: Karen Parr-Moody
Photographers: Audrey Spillman
Since childhood, Jamaal B. Sheats loved to draw and paint, but he didn’t plan on an art career. Now, he’s the new director and curator of Fisk University Galleries, where historically important artworks are at his fingertips, including those by Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Georgia O'Keeffe.
It began with supportive parents, who enrolled the Brentwood native in art classes at the age of 12. By the time he enrolled at Fisk University, however, Sheats wanted to pursue business. Then, his advisor told him to take an art class.
“I did, and I loved it,” Sheats says. “It was the first place I felt truly at home. Internally, I fought with it.”
After Sheats showed his parents several of his paintings, his dad turned to his mom and asked, “Who is the artist?” “She said, ‘I didn’t purchase these; Jamaal did them,’” Sheats says. His father, an endodontist, told him he should pursue art—but that, if he was going to do it, he should pursue it full force.
“So, that’s when I made the transition to being an art major,” Sheats says.
He studied with Fisk professor Greg Ridley, who guided him in the ancient art form of repoussé, a type of metal relief sculpture he would go on to master. After obtaining his bachelor of arts degree in art from Fisk University, Sheats attended The School of the Museum of Fine Arts through Tufts University in Boston, where he received an MFA in studio art.
Sheats’ sculptures, mixed media works, and paintings have been exhibited in galleries and museums all over the U.S. and abroad, garnering awards and accolades. But it was in founding the Charlotte Art Project, a Nashville gallery and studio where Sheats put together exhibits, that he discovered a new calling.
“That’s what started to lead me in this path to being a curator,” he says.
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At Fisk University there are 4,000 objects in the collection, which covers a broad spectrum, including three centuries of art. Sheats says 30 to 100 visitors might pop in on any given day. “We get a ton of out-of-town visitors,” he says. “We’ve had people come in from all over the world.”
The past year has been a busy time for Sheats and the university. One major coup was the completion of a million-dollar renovation of the Carl Van Vechten Art Gallery. Sheats’ department has also hired new staff, created a Fisk University Galleries Fellowship program for art scholars, and organized a “Friends of the Gallery” campaign.
Going forward, Sheats says, “I’m looking at ways to enhance the user experience.” The university is filled with art, not only in its Carl Van Vechten Art Gallery and Aaron Douglas Gallery, but throughout campus buildings, as well.
“It’s an interesting place,” Sheats says. “No matter what building you go in, you’re going to see art.”