RICHMOND -- An annual exhibition that showcases artwork from emerging and established African-American artists will soon be on display at the Richmond Art Center.

Now in its 18th year, the Art of Living Black returns to Richmond on Jan. 11 and will feature the work of more than 50 artists. The event aims to give African-American artists a voice and venue to showcase their work.

"It's a unique experience to see African-American art from some artists that probably wouldn't be shown anyplace else," said Stephen Hopkins, one of the exhibition's organizers.

The Art of Living Black is the only annual open exhibition and self-guided art tour in the Bay Area to exclusively feature regional artists of African descent, its organizers say.

The artwork that has debuted at the event since its 1996 founding ranges from paintings and photographs to a variety of sculptures, all with common roots in African-American history and experience.

But this year's exhibit will be missing a familiar face. Melba Lazenby, an organizer described by colleagues as the event's guiding force, died just days ago at age 62 after a five-year battle with cancer. The show will be dedicated to Lazenby's memory.

"We were working to keep the Art of Living Black together," said Hopkins, who is Lazenby's brother. Hopkins' wife, Rae Louise Hayward, co-founded the art show, and following her 2008 death, he and Lazenby took the torch to continue the work.

"Melba put in a lot of hard work and dedication into getting the artists and material ready to go," he said. "She was really dedicated to keeping the program alive."

Richard Ambrose, executive director of the Richmond Art Center, said many artists were saddened to hear of her death.

"(Lazenby) was the energy and fireplug that kept the organization intact," Ambrose said.

Dana King, one of the artists whose work will be featured, says the show offers emerging artists informal mentors, a merging of experience and youth that helps keep each year's exhibition fresh and creative while cultivating precocious talent.

"I've met a lot of people and learned a lot more about the art scene in the Bay Area by being in this show," she said. "And we support and encourage one another, which to me is the most important thing."

After 25 years as a broadcast journalist and 15 years with CBS San Francisco, King left her post to pursue her art career.

"We can't wait for the art world to bestow upon us the mantle of acceptability," she said. "We have stories to tell, and we tell them very well with our art.

"We have to create our own way, and that's exactly what this show does."

This article was produced by RichmondConfidential.org, a nonprofit news service based in the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

if you go:
What: The 18th annual Art of Living Black featuring the work of more than 50 African-American artists from around the Bay Area.
When: Jan. 11 to Feb. 28. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. The opening reception is 2 to 5 p.m. Feb. 8, and artist panel discussions will be from noon to 2 p.m. Feb. 8 and Feb. 15. A special jazz art workshop will be from 1 to 3 p.m. Feb. 8.
Where: Richmond Art Center, 2540 Barrett Ave.
Cost: Free
For more information, call 510-620-6772 or visit www.therac.org.