Cheryl R. Riley, artist, New York and New Jersey

with Kelsey Dalton

Cheryl R. Riley


photo by TOM GRILL

An Email Correspondence with Kelsey Dalton McClellan

Cheryl R. Riley makes art that explores similarities between seemingly disparate cultures through the lens of memory, history, iconography, rituals and symbols. She is currently working on two sculpture series dealing with aspiration, staging and representation. Born in Houston, she lives in Jersey City’s Powerhouse Arts District.

Cheryl’s involvement with the art world is wide-ranging and long-standing. Her public art projects are installed in San Francisco, Sacramento, Atlanta and New York. With artworks in the collections of connoisseurs as well as museums including the Smithsonian, she is a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Individual Artist Grant recipient. 

Kelsey Dalton McClellan co-owns and operates a Chicago-based sign painting business, Heart & Bone Signs, and is dedicated to promoting and supporting the growth of local entrepreneurs and economic development in urban Chicago through the craft of hand painted signs. She currently works for SAIC as an administrator in the Dean’s office and intends to extend her sole-proprietor business into a non-profit organization after graduation from the arts administration and policy program.

sea foam double square


KELSEY DALTON MCCLELLAN: Can you please provide a short introductory bio of your practice and artistic background?

CHERYL R. RILEY: I believe art is an unfiltered view into what constitutes the essence of the Artmaker. The origins of my artistic background are genetically linked to my maternal family—my grandfather was a leader of his community and renowned in Shreveport, Louisiana, as a decorator and contractor who worked for the wealthy, White Establishment. Because she returned to Texas Southern University for her art degree after my birth, the first smells I can recall were my mothers’ oil paints and molding clay. She allowed me to draw on my bedroom wall, and that room was furnished with reproductions of Louis XVI furniture and gold-framed Baroque and Renaissance Masters’ paintings. My social consciousness was formed during the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, which introduced positive representations around all things Black and African into the national conversation and among African-Americans. My paternal family was ‘salt of the earth’ Southern Baptist farmers and entrepreneurs who did not have access to higher education but could heal, grow, cook, and sell from their land and small businesses.

This background influences what I create—custom furniture, wall art, murals, sculptures, installations and public art. It influenced my persona—the boundary-buster, muse, model, art collector, cosmopolitan who never lets anything get in the way of being fully self-expressed. Much of my creative output is fabricated in whole or part by technicians, artisans, and craftspeople, to my specifications and in collaboration with their skills and tools. My work is typically a mash-up of world cultures with materials that are highly embellished and ornamented, which I attribute to my mother’s home being furnished with reproductions of European furniture, porcelain Asian accessories, and the gilded frames on Baroque and Renaissance paintings. From a political standpoint, the gold discovered in West Africa by Europeans is a source of further inspiration. I typically create furniture and furnishings that are both beautiful and functional only if they are not for museum commissions, and visual art with appealing surface details which reveal or conceal layers and meaning upon repeated or longer viewing.

KDM: Please discuss your current projects and if they are commissioned or public pieces.

CR: I believe that African-Americans are beacons of possibility, endurance, intelligence, innovation, and spiritual power. I believe this because we are still here in the United States, where we have been and still are most often financially and culturally disenfranchised. Despite the best, sustained efforts of government, religious, institutional, business, and popular culture, we survive. Despite what should be intractable obstacles, we accomplish astonishing feats of mastery and achieve unmatched levels of success as soon as we get a foot in any door. I believe this because all world cultures imitate our dances moves, singing styles, slang, attire, and gestures derived from the ghettos.

These beliefs led me to my current sculpture project entitled, TRANSCENDENCES PRESERVED. It explores concepts of aspiration and survival through the act of preservation. It explores a practice that manifests the domestic perfection and attainment of middle-class dreams for many races and aspirational classes in the U.S.

We all have experienced rooms that are essentially ‘stage sets’ that are for viewing and admiring only. The content of these spaces is preserved from the wear and tear of ordinary life through the use of custom vinyl slipcovers and floor runners. Taking a personal vantage, I select mundane objects as symbolizes of tactics employed by my family, that allowed them to survive, thrive, and excel.

Recalling both my grandmothers’ gardens that fed their large families, and their practice of canning the surplus into their pantries for off-season meals, I used a concrete garden border, I ‘elevated’ it to a precious, reliquary-like object by painting it gold on one side. I will repeat this gesture for other mundane, symbolic objects—after which they will be encased in custom vinyl slipcovers. I will display them high on the walls, backed by a wash of gold that outlines their shape and on pedestals tall enough that one must look up at all these ‘sacred objects.’

Taking a page from the crowd-funding platforms, I am realizing this project through the generosity of my Patrons. These individuals have relinquished all control of what objects the sculptures will be and which work they will receive from the fifty I will create. In addition, each has agreed to loan their sculpture for photography, and inclusion in publications or museum exhibits, whenever I request during my lifetime.

When I relocated to New York in 1999, I found few clients who would commission my conceptual furniture solely from my drawing and sample board. Other than a full office suite I created for Ms. Judith Jamison, of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, I found this market more receptive to non-functional fine art. So I pivoted and began a series of ‘Because You’re Worth It’ mirrors whose surfaces are always covered with materials that have a trade or monetary value like leather (skins), currency, funerary paper (burned for credit in the afterlife), etc. The size of the actual beveled mirrors is incidental, it is the frame that is the focus and the actual bridge between art and function. Some grew to large proportions have become psychological ‘portals’ to another dimension.

KDM: When reading your past articles and interviews, design plays an important role in your process. Can you explain the importance of functionality in your work and how this relates to your interest in design?

CR: It was always of paramount importance to me that my designs, versus my fine art, function ergonomically. I consult Architectural Standards to assure that heights and depths conform to human scale, and if my clients are dimensionally smaller or larger, I would measure them. Yet, with my visual artworks, those constraints no longer concern me.

KDM: How does craft play into your work, and what forms of craft do you draw inspiration from in your own designs?

CR: Craftsmanship is of paramount importance to realizing my vision. I constantly seek out the best technicians, artisans, and craftspeople to construct and finish my designs, fine, and public artworks. I am often inspired as I learn more about their techniques, the tools they have at their disposal, and materials they have mastered. Because I am not trained, I often see unorthodox methods for utilizing their skills. Having served on the boards of the American Craft Council and the Museum of Arts and Designs, I had opportunities that exposed me to the top makers in the country.

KDM: How do you see the function of your work impressing emotional value unto the to-be owner? How important is the emotional aspect of your work to your audience, and in other forms of design do you see this lack of emotion or sentiment problematic?

CR: The completion and then reception of my works by those who have commissioned them has always been an emotional experience. For me to see my drawings and sample boards become a finished piece is akin to giving birth. For my clients, it is seeing so much of what they have shared about themselves reflected in the design. I cannot address the emotionality or lack thereof of other designs—that is too broad a subject, and I don’t know if I agree that work can lack emotion to at least some who experience or see a design—it’s such an individual reaction.

KDM: In your bio, you state that your art ‘explores similarities between seemingly disparate cultures through the lens of memory, history, iconography, rituals and symbols.’ Can you add onto this, specifically what cultures you are vested in and how these lenses provide opportunity to reference similarities?

CR: For example, my ‘Tudor Side Tables’ in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum, were inspired simultaneously by Henry VIII, and his daughter Elizabeth I, and stylistic similarities between them and an image of a Maasai female in traditional garb. In both instances, anyone in their societies would easily recognize signifiers of their social status—simply by looking at the ornaments, jewelry, fabrics, colors, and style of clothing they wore. I was particularly struck by Elizabeth’s receding hairline and full, round collar and the almost identically prominent forehead and elaborate round neckwear on the Maasai woman. For many, there could not be more differences between England and Southern Africa, yet I see similarities like this, cross-culturally, very often.

KDM: In a video interview by the Museum of Art and Design you discuss the ‘power of design’ and the ‘spiritual power’ that is created through images. Can you explain how you interpret this power personally as well as through your own practice?

CR: Let’s look at the continent that is a major source of my inspiration. The ‘power of design’ can then reference the relationship between patterns and shapes and their intended ritualist functions in pre-Colonial African religious rituals and cultural ceremonies. As an example, a Makonde belly mask is worn to promote fertility—a pregnancy is the same physically for all humans so we can all easily relate to and see its purpose. The Nkondi sculptures pierced with nails and metal fragments look fierce. Yet these sculptures belong to the entire village and each nail represents their collective wish for good hunting, good health, or to appease their deities. When I proposed Maasai warrior shields as the templates for light sconces in my public commission for Bayview Police station, I was able to convince the police force of their suitability because the Maasai are a para-military, hierarchical, male-dominated group who are entrusted with the safety of the community and the marks on their shields denote their rank just as with the police.

KDM: You mention that you began producing furniture after not being able to find affordable pieces that were well made or unique. I am interested in when artists or people who may not call themselves artists produce work out of necessity/desire for their own use rather than for the market or a larger audience. How do you feel this beginning element of your work has informed your current trajectory?

CR: This beginning for my work left me lots of freedom to produce whatever my creativity or necessity required. I immediately began making murals, public art, drawings, and sculptures, as I could follow my inspiration rather than the market. However, the furniture design was the starting point and where my reputation was most renown. My double major in college was Fine Art and Fashion, so I did have some training as an artist and had always been the go-to person for posters, logos, and aesthetics throughout my childhood school years. So when I was required to shift my creative oeuvre to appeal to the different culture on the East Coast, it was an easy shift for me. What is most important is that I have creative freedom. The medium is not what matters.

KDM: Can you discuss your public art projects and the process of creating them? When you began the conception of these projects what did you have in mind for the impact of the public and have you received any distinctive reception from these projects?

CR: In each of my public projects to date, I interject some aspect of the culture of the community for which the work is intended often via some African cultural signifier like ritual signifiers, symbols or patterns. I’ve referred to the Bayview Police Station’s Maasai Warrior Wall Sconces in a previous response. Staying with that project, the center bench has a plank-like structure at the top, which I found on the top of Bobo masks used in ceremonies to remove negative spirits. The shape of the cone was derived from African clay granaries and is embedded with crystals that emit forgiveness and calming energy. The bench sits on a concrete floor with a seven-pointed star (same as the number of points on the police badges) whose pattern I found on an Akamba stool on which only the honored or elderly are able to sit in that African society. I did this because during my research visiting other stations and speaking with police I learned that typically only the elderly and handicapped sit in the lobby while filling out paperwork and waiting for service to report crimes. I am told by each subsequent Captain at this station in the intervening years since it completions in 1997 that this is the most calm and respected lobby of any they have worked in. I attribute that to the thoughtful research and spiritual forces I injected into concepts and creation that I mined from my greatest source of inspiration—my clients, my life, family and the continents of African, Europe, and Asia.

  • with Kelsey Dalton

    CHERYL R. RILEY is an artist, creating sculpture, wall art, installations, site-specific murals, public artworks and furniture designs since 1986.
    Instagram: @cherylrriley

    Kelsey Dalton McClellan: