African-Americans during the Revolutionary War, brought to life through art

Durham painter depicts historical figures in Hayti exhibit
Jul. 04, 2013 @ 10:27 AM

Michelle Nichole didn’t like history when she studied it in school. She didn’t like the names and dates, blood and sadness, and the worst of man’s inhumanity to man, she said.

“Then, of course, when blacks were mentioned, it was in regards to slavery. I didn’t, at the time, think it was something to be proud of – that we survived it,” Nichole said. Her perspective on history changed after reading an 1855 book by William Cooper Nell about African-American contributions during the Revolutionary War. She learned the names and stories of people she had never heard of, and now she is bringing their lives to light through her art.

Nichole, a self-taught oil painter, has 30 paintings on exhibit at Hayti Heritage Center, on display as “In Hopes of Freedom.”

“Art draws people in,” Nichole said this week as she showed her work. “History is a story about somebody who actually lived. I feel like I am rescuing them from obscurity. I don’t want them to be regulated to a book on a dusty shelf,” she said.

Originally from New York, Nichole majored in business at Hampton University and is a massage therapist. She has lived in Durham for about a year, and this is her first solo exhibit.

Her interest in history began after a client talked about working on a PBS commercial about William Flora and the Battle of Great Bridge in Chesapeake, Va. Flora was an African-American man, born free, who fought as a Patriot in the December 1775 battle. A street was named for him, Billy Flora Way, in 2010 in Chesapeake. He was last to retreat as British troops advanced, and took a bridge plank on his way to slow them down. The Patriots eventually won the battle.

“I didn’t know there were blacks who fought in the Revolution,” Nichole said. She painted Flora twice in 1998, her first work depicting people. It was a challenge for her, as she was used to painting birds, flowers and waterfalls.

Nichole learned to paint by watching Bob Ross on his television show, “The Joy of Painting” on PBS. After he died in 1995, she decided to buy supplies and start painting.

“I spent $118, and my first painting sold for $450,” she said, of a lighthouse on a beach.

None of the paintings in “In Hopes of Freedom” is for sale, as Nichole hopes it will become a traveling exhibit and one day a museum.

Other paintings depict escaped slaves who lived in the Great Dismal Swamp, the First Rhode Island Regiment of black soldiers and James Forten, a powder boy who helped a white boy as they escaped a British prison ship. Another person, more familiar to Triangle residents, is John Chavis, who served three years in the Revolutionary War with the Fifth Virginia Regiment. Chavis was an educator and preacher, teaching both black and white students. John Chavis Memorial Park and Community Center in Raleigh is named for him.

“They are a real inspiration, what they were able to achieve,” Nichole said. “I have more stories and more paintings to do. I just need time.”