Surveying the Artistic Landscape at the Western Reserve Historical Society

By Regennia N. Williams, PhD


Those who have not visited the Cleveland History Center for some time may be pleasantly surprised to see the wealth of visual art that now adorns the walls of the Norton Gallery.  This project, the culmination of work that started in 2020, was completed over the summer of 2021, thanks to the visionary leadership of Dr. Dennis Barrie, Chief Curator Eric Rivet, Dr. Mary Manning, Patricia Edmondson, Kevin Barrie, and three external art historians who reviewed the WRHS art holdings.


According to Dr. Dennis Barrie, whose extensive background in Art History made this exhibit particularly important to him, “For the last year or so, it has been the desire of the Curatorial staff and leadership to get more of our collections out of storage and available to the public.  We started with Fine Arts storage because, like many of our collection areas, it was not in particularly good shape.”


Barrie went on to say that he and the other members of the review team were looking for:

  • works of artistic merit that had not been seen in a long time
  • works of special interest to the history of the Western Reserve
  • works that demonstrated the breadth of our holdings

“The works selected are to be rotated in the future to provide even more opportunities to get the collection out before the world. The Fine Arts exhibits are but the first of what we are deeming “Open Storage” exhibits. Eric [Rivet] is working on getting more of our Shaker collections, decorative arts, etc. on display in the near future,” said Barrie.


The approximately 40 works in the current exhibit are a mere fraction of the total collection.  Nevertheless, visitors are able to view 19th-century art, some of which pre-dates the 1867 founding of WRHS, as well as 20th-century and 21st-century paintings.


In September of 2021, Charles J. Pinkney and Anna Arnold, two of the living artists whose works are currently on view in the Norton Gallery, agreed to participate in the Historical Society’s A. Grace Lee Mims Arts and Culture Oral History Project. Together, their paintings and the excerpts from their oral histories are part of an open invitation for guests to come and learn more about the WRHS collections. In commenting on the project, Chief Curator Eric Rivet stated, “I chose Anna Arnold’s portraits because her style is unique in our collection. There is nothing else in the museum’s fine art collection that looks like her [work], and I’m quite drawn to it. Her pieces add a lot of color and vibrancy to the gallery.”



Anna Arnold

*An excerpt from her oral history narrative


I am the director for the John C. and Florence O’Donnell Wasmer Gallery at Ursuline College. I’ve been here since December of 2012.


I was born in Cleveland in 1960, that time of tremendous change in the country when we had all of this hope. I went to Iowa Maple School. Then we migrated from Cleveland to Shaker Heights in the mid-70s, so I went to Shaker Heights High School.  I later graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art and Case Western Reserve University.


Both of my parents came from the South. I believe that they came in the 50s. It could have been late 40s or 50s. My father’s name was Tyler Arnold Jr., my mother is Gloria Arnold, and my sister Lisa is also creative. She’s a writer.


I think I’m a teaching artist. I’m not in the classroom, but a lot of students will come to me, and they will talk to me about their direction or something that is going on in their lives, and it’s not necessarily people who are in the arts. So, I feel like I’m still an educator.  Even with the art that I create, I am teaching.


I love [Faith Ringgold’s and Vincent van Gogh’s] work and the work of Frida Kahlo. I love their work because it takes all of that emotion, whether joyful or tragic, they put everything in it. They didn’t leave anything out when they painted a portrait, or a flower, or water, or a landscape, or whatever it was. I look at their art and absorb that, the color and the texture. I include that in my own work. I’m always looking. I’m looking at everything to get ideas.


I always saw murals as another way to do a larger painting, and it’s a way to engage the public, maybe people who would not come into a gallery. They get a chance to walk up to a piece of art and engage with it, enjoy it, and look at it for years.


The Cleveland Museum of Art had a project probably 10 or 12 years ago, and Robin van Lear with Parade the Circle had this idea. She wanted the Museum to do these murals all over the Cleveland area near the art museum. We went into the communities and talked with the people, and got some ideas about what they wanted to do. One of the first murals I did was called “The Storyteller,” and that’s at the Thurgood Marshall Recreation Center.  The storyteller is an older woman, and she’s telling the kids about her life and how important the church was. Now, I’m looking at that, and it’s like that woman is me. I’m the storyteller now. I know I was doing it back then, too, but that I am the elder now who is responsible for the younger people, encouraging them to dream and to have hope.




Charles J. Pinkney


I’m Charles J. Pinkney, and I’m affiliated with the Fine Arts Society, a group of individuals interested in the fine arts, as well as some other groups. I happened to be the first President of the San Diego Portrait Society.


I was born in Cleveland on East 97th Street, off Cedar Avenue, between Cedar and Quebec.   My parents were Theodore “Ted” Pinkney, and my mother was Mildred Jackson, Pinkney. I was the oldest of three boys that they had during their marriage, and I went to Bolton Elementary School. As a matter of fact, my second grade teacher, Miss Sherman, recommended that my mother take me to the Cleveland Museum of Art to draw on Saturday mornings in the classes for young students at that time.


My father was not opposed to the idea, but my mother was very interested.  She got me together and took me to those classes every Saturday morning. It was a wonderful opportunity and experience for me, because my mother certainly encouraged my need to become an artist and to become a painter, because I could draw and paint. Picasso said we are all born to be artists, but we live in a society that conditions us away from being artists. I was blessed to be able to get the kind of encouragement that I needed from my mother early on.


I went to Rawlings Junior High School, and I graduated from Glenville High School, and Kent State University.  As far as my early life is concerned, I grew up on the streets of Cleveland. As a boy, I remember shooting marbles on the Karamu House, parking lot. When a photographer there took me into the dark room and showed me how to develop a  photograph, that was magic to me. I thought that was the most interesting thing.  As a result, I was hooked on photography early on. I had a very interesting and very colorful, pleasant boyhood in Cleveland.


I called [the Cedar Avenue Community] the “Harlem of Cleveland.” It was the cultural center for Black people. As a matter of matter fact, the Karamu House, which is very famous, is located near that area, in the Quincy Avenue, 89th Street, Cedar Avenue area.

So I was very blessed to come in contact with many of Cleveland’s cultural leaders, if you will.  There was the Cedar Gardens, which became a very famous place where black musicians and other artistic people came together.  It was a very interesting and diverse area for that kind of activity.


Art was my major course of study at Glenville High School.  I wanted to study it, and I kept pursuing it.  Of course, I couldn’t make a living as a painter when I left Kent State, so I picked up a camera, which I learned to use very professionally while “painting” with my camera. I took that camera and eventually became the first African-American person that The Pittsburgh Press newspaper hired.