Dionne Warwick's distinctive voice has been part of American pop music for more than 60 years. With more than 100 million record sales, 80 billboard hits, six Grammys, and one lifetime achievement award, Warwick has been credited with “bridging the gap” between pop and R&B audiences.
At home in South Orange during the pandemic, she took to social media and used her ability to unite and engage people, quickly amassing 563.1K followers and establishing herself as the “Queen of Twitter.” In Newark, an arts exhibition paid homage to her legacy, and was graced by an in-person visit by the muse herself.
Dionne Warwick: Queen of Twitter, curated by Souleo, showcased original artwork inspired by the tweets of Warwick, plus rarely seen archival material including items from Warwick’s personal collection. Contributing artists included Lavett Ballard, Pamela Council, Jo-El Lopez, Beau McCall, Dianne Smith, and Felandus Thames. The exhibit was on view from October 6 - November 20, 2021 and was featured during the Newark Arts Festival.
(LEFT PHOTO) Souleo, Dionne Warwick, and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka
The artists used a wide range of media including collage, painting, 3-D interactive installation, neon signage, found objects, and more. What unified these diverse works was a sense of reverence, playfulness, and familial love for Warwick, her wit and wisdom.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka greeted Warwick and participating artists at the event, “Newark is just dope. That a group of artists can come together with these ideas and produce what you see here today is awesome. It speaks volumes to the talent that here in our city.”
Jersey Arts had the opportunity to hear from members of the Newark Arts community, artists, and even Warwick herself about their works and what this unique experience means to them. What follows is a selection of their narratives and photos from the event. The narratives have been lightly edited and condensed.
Dionne Warwick: “This is where I want to be today. I feel it’s quite an honor and I am truly overwhelmed. To have an exhibit based on my Twitter! Oh, my!
Being the ‘Queen of Twitter’ is a lot of fun, and I am thrilled that it's now being taken more seriously. When I first joined Twitter, I saw kids bashing each other, calling each other names and things of that nature. I said to myself, ‘they need the presence of a grown-up - someone that can steer them in another direction.’ I kind of decided to get into their minds and remind them that a smile never hurt anybody. And show them the way we should be treating each other.
I don't give advice, I make suggestions. And I encourage - I will always encourage. I want kids to know: There is no need to be ugly. You can be beautiful. I think they now understand me, and they understand the work of laughter. How wonderful that they can laugh with me, because that is really what it's about.
If I hadn’t become a singer, I’d be teaching music education. I grew up in a singing family, and music education has always been a part of my life. I was surrounded by adults encouraging me. Then, I went to Hartt School of Music, where music education was my major, and the rest is history.
I’m excited about Christmas - that's my favorite time, and for my birthday, which is just prior to Christmas. I stay excited about my babies and my grandbabies, and those that are still with me in my family. I am just hopeful and excited about general things just like you. We are excited about the same things that you'd be - I'm just a human person like you.”
Souleo, curator: “As I reflected on how to embody festival’s theme of ‘Creative Resilience,’ I realized, Ms. Warwick is the perfect person to spotlight. She's on Twitter, she has roots in Newark, she uses social media, and her life story shows how the arts help people overcome challenges. We used her Twitter account as an entry point to her larger legacy. We wanted to highlight her sassy wisdom while also looking at the humanitarian efforts, her life and legacy of music. So, we have a timeline and archival materials that really show that the ground is she's broken in the industry. She has become the blueprint for what is a pop leading lady of in music.
Curator Souleo pointing out details in Lavett Ballard’s installation
A challenge was obtaining and curating the archival material. Ms. Warwick doesn’t know me from a can of paint, so top priority was reaching out and making sure she was comfortable with us caring for her personal objects. And, over the years, she has given a lot of objects to charity, so I had to find other ways to supplement those which she provided – in order to make sure we told the full narrative of her life and legacy. It all came together in less than six months, which is not a lot of time.
As producers, Lauren LeBeaux Craig and Marcy DePina of Newark Arts did an awesome job of securing the space, getting all the necessary approvals and resources for me and the artists to make this happen. It means everything that she can see it in person today! I mean we did this for the community, but we also did it to honor her. I hope she loves it, and I'm thrilled to share in the ‘Dion-issance.’”
Jo-El Lopez, artist: “When Souleo first invited me to be a part of this, I said, ‘No, there is no way I can do it justice.’ He told me take two weeks and think about it. At that time, all I really knew about Ms. Warwick was that she has raised millions of dollars for AIDS research by donating royalties from ‘That’s What Friends Are For,’ starting at a time before others didn't want to acknowledge the disease. Even President Regan wouldn't say the word AIDS out loud until she intervened.
Jo-El Lopez with his painting, “The Queen”
I also knew she was from Jersey. In researching her, I learned about many barriers she had broken, and eventually I decided to accept the challenge and paint her. I spent a long time thinking about what kind of image to create. Besides the queen of Twitter, she's a queen in life, so I wanted to show her royalty, on a worthy throne. I wanted her to have a halo because, in a way, she is saintly.
That's how it started, but as I worked, her face changed several times. I didn't want her to look cartoonish, but I also didn't want her to be too serious. I also didn't want a young Dionne Warwick memorialized and I didn't want to show her elder self. I wanted to show her as a mature queen, in her 50s. So, that was my process. I am at a loss for words that star of her caliber would visit the Newark Arts Festival when she could be anywhere in the world. That means a lot to the community, and to me personally. I'm just thrilled, amazed, and so glad to be a part of it.”
Lavett Ballard, artist: “During the 2020 quarantine, unable to access my lovely art studio, I was working at home in a very small office space with limited time and supplies. Wood slices were available to me because I had planned to use them in table settings for somebody’s wedding. I started collaging, and, before I knew it, I had about 60 complete. I included about 30 of those original wood slice collages in this finished installation. I also created collages on wooden fans.
Details from Lavett Ballard’s installation
I was inspired to create something that brings the viewer to what Ms. Warwick might have experienced at church, because Ms. Warwick and I both grew up in churches here in the Newark area. Ms. Warwick’s first singing experience was in her church and my first experience with visual arts was in my church.
I was able to obtain a real church Pew and I hung the work on the wall salon style, like you might find in somebody's living room. The collages function almost like a visual timeline. About six pieces directly contain her image and reference specific moments in her life. Other collages reference historical events before her birth and during her lifetime that affected her.
I had a great time researching her life. I interviewed my friends and family members of different generations who knew her or her family members. I also used her music as my own playlist to create this timeline. Songs would pop up on the playlist and inspire new ideas, so I felt like the work was telling me where it wanted to go.
The biggest challenges in this installation were logistics. I now live in South Jersey, and we needed two trucks to transport small pieces and building materials for the installation. We also had to disassemble the pew in order to transfer it safely. Then we had to install all the wood paneling. Hanging the small pieces on the paneling was not very difficult but editing was a challenge. It was hard to decide which pieces were essential to telling the story.
I am so excited that she came here today to see the work in person, especially since installation work like mine needs to be experienced to really feel the textures.”
Lavett Ballard’s interactive installation was inspired by Warwick’s childhood church in Newark
Dianne Smith, artist: “In my art practice, I usually work with some sort of text or cultural icon, such as literature text from Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, or James Weldon Johnson – but to use tweets from Dionne Warwick is something special! She is female, she transcends the decades through time and she's having a very contemporary moment!
I love that we are celebrating during her lifetime, when she is here to get her flowers. She's participating in this as she's very present in all aspects of her life, at age 80. It’s beautiful and awesome, and something to aspire to the way she moves through life with that level of presence and grace.
Dianne Smith’s installation comprised of butcher paper and video footage
Creating my piece, biggest challenge was figuring out what footage and archival images to use. I wanted to represent her grace, elegance, and beauty, but also tell the story of her quiet activism from the ‘60s until now. She wasn't necessarily in the front lines of the protest movement, but her music and success were a form of protest each time she was the first to have done something.
I had the pleasure of seeing her documentary on Friday and it validated my creative choices. The documentary is spectacular, and I think it's going to further solidify her not just in Black culture and Black history, but in American history and culture, and even in global history as she spends quite a bit of time in South America and Europe.”
Beau McCall, artist: “For this exhibit, I created 12 original button collages printed on metal, inspired by Ms. Warwick’s sassy, spicy tweets. I think my work is sassy and spicy too - 'cause it's colorful and vibrant and most of her tweets are very colorful, vibrant, and memorable. I picked tweets in which she referenced Wendy Williams, Chance the Rapper, Nicki Minaj, and other current icons of today. Her interaction with the younger generation shows her relevance and puts her in real time, while opening a new audience for her and what she represents to the world.
Primarily, I work with actual buttons and there's a lot of heavy physical work lifting and moving from transporting from location, so I had to figure out a way to take part in this exhibition without that. So, I came out of my comfort zone and created paper collages the old-fashioned way – cut, paste, and glue. This is my first foray in doing collage. We printed them on metal but didn’t use any type of editing or computer software. I really enjoyed the process and finished product, and I am so happy that she’s interested in what we did and how we honored her.”
Curator Souleo and artist Dianne Smith both in wearable art created by Beau McCall in front of Smith’s multimedia installation
Lauren Lebeaux Craig, Director of Marketing and Artistic Initiatives at Newark Arts and Co-Producer of the Newark Arts Festival: “We're in a beautiful, important, commercial space downtown, sponsored by L&M realty. The Warwick show shares this space with our main exhibition for Newark Arts Festival, as well as our headquarters. It was important for us to have one main space for people to gather after the pandemic, supporting the city’s efforts to bring Newark back together again. We wanted people to feel safe gathering, and wanted the artists to have a space that represented our best, so we worked intentionally to make the space beautiful and worthy of their beautiful art. The space is going to get rented after we leave because we add value wherever we go. This demonstrates one way that the arts are an important economic driver in the city of Newark.
Wow, it’s so exciting that Ms. Warwick came! We knew from the beginning that there was no guarantee she would be able to visit in person, as she would be on tour for her new documentary. For her to make the time to come today just means so much. We had such a great festival, but this is just the cherry on top. It’s great motivation to start planning for Newark Arts festival 2022 and our 21st anniversary celebration.”
Work by Felandus Thames made from repurposed hairbrushes
The exhibition — sponsored by Audible, in partnership with the GRAMMY Museum Experience at Prudential Center — was part of the 40th anniversary of the Newark Arts Council and 20th anniversary of the Newark Arts Festival. The exhibit was on view from October 6 - November 20, 2021.
All photos by the author, Rachel Fawn Alban.