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Tuesday, October 20, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Rachel Dolezal paintings prompt flap between downtown Spokane library, artist

A black Spokane artist is considering ending his annual yearly exhibition benefiting local charities after concerns were raised when he featured art by Rachel Dolezal at this year’s show.

Anthony Stevenson, who uses the artist name Salik Seville on social media, hung four works by the former Spokane NAACP president in the downtown Spokane library last month, part of an ongoing exhibition he’s held in the space for the past five years. It was the second year Stevenson sought to highlight the work of Dolezal, who helped him personally with housing issues before it was revealed she’d been born to a white family and lied about her lineage on official documents to seek postings to city boards and obtain employment at Eastern Washington University.

“If Rachel wants to help people through my exhibitions, then what’s the problem?” Stevenson said in an interview this week. A previously homeless U.S. Navy veteran, Stevenson asks for donations of cash or food to buy artwork during the show, and he’s included the work of both white and black artists in his displays in previous years.

Library officials said Stevenson didn’t inform them beforehand that Dolezal’s work would be part of his exhibition this February, after his initial request to include her work was turned down last year over concerns it would clash with the message of a larger celebration of art by people of color in Spokane.

“For me, it became an honesty and integrity issue,” said Eva Silverstone, arts education specialist for the Spokane library who helps facilitate rental of the gallery space.

Stevenson admitted keeping Dolezal’s contributions from Silverstone, but said that he has difficulty recruiting artists to supplement his work – abstractions of human faces and other subjects with vibrant colors, depicted using oil paints and watercolors, mostly. He also believed Dolezal should have a right to display art in his exhibit, and that he’s earned the right to curate the work after displaying at the library for several years.

“I felt like, look, I’m putting her work up,” Stevenson said. “Yeah, I told her a little lie, because I didn’t want any problems.”

The artwork was eventually purchased by library staff. A security guard bought three of the paintings, and another piece was purchased by the library branch’s deputy director, Silverstone said.

For the past two years, Stevenson’s show has been part of Saturate, a program during Black History Month designed to highlight artists of color that is organized by the nonprofit Spokane Arts. Library officials said Stevenson contacted them last year about including Dolezal’s paintings, which she sells on her own personal website, in his exhibition. They immediately contacted Spokane Arts and City Hall to determine whether her inclusion was appropriate, said Jason Johnson, manager of the downtown library branch.

“It’s not that this conversation shouldn’t be out there, but just maybe not in this venue,” Johnson said.

The Coeur d’Alene Press initially broke the story identifying Dolezal, who’d also been active in the Idaho city’s civil rights organizations, as the child of white parents living in Montana. That prompted additional questions about her background story, and later led to resignations from the local NAACP and the Spokane Police Ombudsman Commission. Dolezal went on to write a book and told the Associated Press last year she continued to identify as black.

The streaming service Netflix released a trailer Wednesday for an upcoming documentary focused on Dolezal and her family titled “The Rachel Divide.” It is scheduled to debut April 27.

Dolezal did not respond to an email requesting comment for this story.

Melissa Huggins, executive director of the Spokane Arts nonprofit, said the group provided the opinion that including Dolezal, especially in the program’s first year, might cloud its purpose, which was to promote artists of color working in Spokane.

“We were worried it would dominate the whole narrative of Saturate as a program,” she said. “We were worried none of the artists of color would get any coverage related to their work.”

Brian Coddington, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said Gloria Ochoa-Bruck, the city’s director of multicultural affairs, was contacted by the library for input. But the decision about whether to include Dolezal’s work was made by the library, he said.

Stevenson was offered a different month to display Dolezal’s art, and Johnson and Silverstone said they’d be open to displaying her work if she filled out an application to do so. Silverstone pointed to this month’s exhibitions in the downtown library, featuring an exhibit on the history of anti-Semitic imagery by artist Melanie Lieb, and baby clothing featuring the phrase “I am the future of America” in dozens of different languages as evidence the space is open to provocative pieces.

“Art starts conversations,” Johnson said. “Just having it here allows us to have conversations.”

But Stevenson said the denial he received amounts to censorship, and while he would like to continue a relationship with the library for his exhibitions, he’s uncertain about their future after this year’s flap. Stevenson also said Dolezal should not have to continue “to be punished for the rest of her life.”

“Trust me, I understand where people are coming from,” Stevenson said. “She made her mistakes, but then she paid for it. And everything was taken away from her.”

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