February Feature: Cleaster Cotton

Brooklyn-born, Nubian American painter, photographer, inventor, author, educator and Master Teaching Artist, Cleaster Cotton, is a force to be reckoned with. In an acclaimed artistic and educational career spanning over two decades, Cleaster has made a name for herself from coast-to-coast through her distinct style of primitive contemporary art, an expression of the ancestral messages that ignite her vivacious spirit and guide her intentional life’s work.

LEAF Community Arts has been proud of the influence Cleaster has had on the organization as a Master Teaching Artist with the Easel Rider Mobile Art Lab and through her 6-year tenure on the Board of Directors, now Board Emeritus. As Board Member, Cleaster advocated for expanding visual arts programming to underserved, historically African-American communities in Asheville because she recognizes the impact self-expression and positive role models have on a developing mind.

“Art saves lives. I know because it saved mine.”

Growing up in New York City in the 60’s, Cotton quickly asserted her place at the social justice table. Her school system was the battleground for what became known as the Conflict at Ocean Hill-Brownsville, the result of years of tension between Cotton’s own community and the school system that perpetuated systemic racism. At the spry age of 12, she seized every opportunity to speak out about her experiences and the feelings of her student body, which she represented as Class President. Her zeal for equity, coupled with artistic expression nurtured by her mother, allowed Cotton to escape the struggles of injustice which she witnessed her peers succumb to.

LEAF Arts & Parks Summer Camp youth show off their Cleaster Cotton inspired artwork at the Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center.

Cleaster holds fast to her convictions to this day. Serving as a positive role model to youth in the community through Easel Rider is still Cleaster’s biggest LEAF passion. On any given week, you can find Cleaster supporting after-school programming across Asheville – from the Burton Street Community in West Asheville, to Delta House Life Development in Downtown, to the Shiloh Community in East Asheville. She is also a featured resident Easel Rider program provider during LEAF Arts & Parks Summer Camp. Her bright smile introduces her before her voice and children run to her attention. Having Cleaster on the Easel Rider team is inspiration to our entire community.

“Watching Cleaster Cotton’s thoughtful dedication and passion for her craft and the way she translates it to inspire, teach and uplift children has been a powerful learning experience I am honored to have everyday.”

– Marsha Almodovar, LEAF Easel Rider Teaching Artist & Community Events Coordinator

Cleaster plays with students at the CEDIN School in El Tejar, Guatemala where LEAF collaborates with Child Aid and PEG Partners

Cleaster is also an advocate for cultural conservation and an avid world traveler. She recently journeyed with LEAF friends and staff to Centeal America on a Cultural Expedition where she felt an immediate connection to the LEAF International Guatemala music program in El Tejar’s CEDIN School. She remarked admirably at the school mothers who invest their time in supporting the musical pursuits of their children and the Teaching Artist, Sara Morales, who captivates youth in music lessons that pass forward the rich Mayan traditions of their beautiful country.

During her travels, Cleaster teaches a literacy and communication tool she invented called ALNUGE, a ‘modern-day hieroglyphic.’ ALNUGE landed her on the Purpose Publishing’s list of Major Inventors and Scientists in 2012 and a feature experience in the Family Adventure Village at LEAF Festival. Through puzzles and games that relate the alphabet, numbers and geometric shapes, youth develop their cognitive reasoning and language skills. ALNUGE is currently being researched for it’s vast implications on brain development by the Neurology Department at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City.

Cleaster’s students visit her Opening Reception at Blue Spiral 1.

Cleaster is a powerhouse you just must experience for yourself. She is currently exhibiting in the Annual Artist Invitational at the Blue Spiral 1, a prestigious gallery on Biltmore Ave. where she will be delivering an artist-talk on Friday, February 16th at 6:00pm reflecting on her experience as a black artist in the South. For other opportunities to meet the artist and her work, stop by her studio at The Refinery Creator Space in Asheville’s south-slope neighborhood and visit her website.