The first artwork you see when you walk into the Blue Lotus Artists’ Collective is a hanging sign made out of gold burlap. Stitched on the sign with black thread in all caps are the words: WE ARE HERE BECAUSE YOU WERE THERE.

Frayed loops of multicolored thread hang low over the letters. Artist Amber Doe created the piece. Doe is a multimedia artist who uses sculpture and performance to bear witness to the experiences of Black women, “even as American society aims to render us and our lives as invisible and meaningless.”

Based in Tucson, Doe relies on materials that “reference her desert environment and lived experience as a black woman with Indigenous roots,” including palm leaves, branches, flowers, hair extensions and cotton rope. 

She doesn’t see her experience highlighted in dominant culture, so she “uses her art to rectify this representational void.”

The president and founder of Blue Lotus, Laura Pendleton-Miller, says of the work, “It sort of encapsulates what we’re trying to do.” 

The Blue Lotus Artists’ Collective space at Pennington and Stone in downtown Tucson. Credit: Michael McKisson

Blue Lotus Artists’ Collective is a new nonprofit gallery space in downtown Tucson, at 15 E. Pennington Street, that features and celebrates Black artists. Its soft opening was March 25, and the current show exhibits the work of eight artists, four from Tucson, two from Phoenix, one from Seattle and one from Burkina Faso.

“It’s just too hard for Black artists to get visibility,” Laura says, explaining the impetus behind the gallery. Black artists around the country struggle to make a living, get into museums, sell their work, and receive recognition, she says. 

Laura spent her career as a financial analyst. Though she’s been interested in art since she was a teenager, she says she’s not an artist, and is “terrible at Pictionary.” As she was contemplating how to help Black artists show their work in Tucson, over the past few years she started touring a number of other big American cities to see how they were faring elsewhere. 

“Nothing happened [in those cities] until Black artists started taking things into their own hands,” she says. 

And though she found there’s ground to be made up throughout the country, Tucson was lagging far behind. 

Willie Bonner, one of the artists exhibited in Blue Lotus’s first show, said to Laura, “Why do we keep waiting for them to want us?” 

Bonner is another Tucson-based artist. He works in multiple mediums and is currently represented in the gallery by two painted “stamp collections,” featuring headshots of famous Black American musicians and other figures represented on paintings of stamps. On his website, Bonner says his art is “​​an allegory of what it means to be black in postmodern America.” 

Not wanting to keep Black artists waiting any longer, in 2022, Laura and a group of artists and collectors started a happy hour to talk about how they could encourage galleries and museums to start showing more Black artists. 

“We didn’t mean to open a gallery,” Laura says. 

But they found that the interest in showcasing Black artists was less of a spark and more of an instant fire. Laura started receiving calls from other artists and art lovers she didn’t even know who wanted to be a part of the conversation.

In less than a year they went from brainstorming to securing a space off of Stone Avenue, in prime downtown real estate. 

Laura Pendleton-Miller sits in newly opened gallery, Blue Lotus Artists’ Collective in Tucson on May, 4, 2023. The gallery opened in March to showcase Black artists. Credit: Michael McKisson

Doe has four works up in the new gallery, including “American Flag,” from 2019. The flag is made from “grandmother’s old linen,” with the multiple red and single black stripes made out of sewn hieroglyphic crosses and Xs wobbling off to the right. 

The stars are mother of pearl shells and the blue background-sky for the stars is homemade blueberry dye and indigo. Laura says the work represents Doe’s grandfather coming home from fighting in World War II and facing prevalent and pernicious racism. “Finding that being a hero in the war didn’t make you a hero here,” she says.

All of Doe’s work bridges the simple — a flag, a message, a slip hanging from a wooden hanger (“God is Non Binary,” 2022) — and the enigmatic: a door in the wall that opens not just forward, but back into your initial observation and understanding. 

The positioning of “We are here because you were there” almost feels like a welcome message for viewers entering into the gallery and reflecting on which people the U.S. has and hasn’t welcomed. The limp, colorful, unevenly spaced strings both partially obscure the message and underscore it. The fold-wrinkles in gold burlap (the material itself embodying the greater paradox of the work) gives an air of haphazardry, or desperation, or — that door still opening into understanding — quiet insistence that: All are welcome, Laura says.

“We want to use our shows as teachable moments,” she says. 

The gallery is already establishing relationships with local schools, and Laura hopes to soon offer artist talks and summer classes for kids.

The new gallery, Blue Lotus Artists’ Collective is located at 15 E. Pennington Street in Tucson, Ariz. on May, 4, 2023. Credit: Michael McKisson

Bonner chose the Blue Lotus as a symbol for the collective. The African-native flower was considered sacred to the Ancient Egyptians, and was considered to have brought light into the world with its first bloom. Besides serving as a symbol of the origin of life, the now-endangered flower has been used as a medicine, stimulant and aphrodisiac.

“Like the Blue Lotus, Black Artists have arisen from harsh and inhospitable environments to thrive, create and bring beauty and wonder to the world,” the gallery website says.

Blue Lotus is open by appointment and will have a formal grand opening in the fall.

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John Washington is an investigative journalist based in Tucson with a focus on immigration and borders, as well as criminal justice and literature. His first book, "The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum...