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Museum Minute: 7 Steps

One of the most memorable works on view at the museum and a focus of school tours is Radcliffe Bailey’s “7 Steps.” This large mixed-media work features a shadow box in the center of its canvas, holding a reproduction of an old photograph of two Black children and some dried flowers. The surface of the work is covered with what look like shingles or asbestos siding, in overlapping rectangles, plus paper funeral fans, all of which are painted with encaustic wax in greens and yellows. Marks that look like brands or butterflies appear in brown, with their pigment trickling down. On the side of the work is a ladder with seven steps and a big number seven painted on it, and seven flameless candles sit at its top.

Drawings of it show up frequently in the thank you notes the museum receives from school groups, perhaps because there’s so much to look at in the work. Radcliffe Bailey grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, where he lives and works. As a child, he spent a lot of time with his grandfather, a blacksmith. They made birdhouses together, which helped spark Bailey’s love of art and creative work. Bailey uses found materials to translate his experiences and heritage and focuses on the history of the American South and of African Americans during the Atlantic slave trade. The photograph in the middle of this work comes from a collection of tintypes his grandmother gave him, but his goal is to focus on collective memory rather than the histories of individuals.