Riverhead teacher’s artwork draws on her South Carolina upbringing


Donna Elmore describes her work as “black art.”

Why? Well, that’s simple.

“Because all of the people in it are black,” she said. 

Ms. Elmore, a fifth-grade teacher at Pulaski Street School, has paintings and handmade dolls displayed at Riverhead Free Library through February as a celebration of Black History Month.

For Ms. Elmore, 55, the pieces signify a past that extends far past Riverhead to where she grew up: Holly Hill, S.C., a town where she said it was “very rare to see white people or any other kind of people.”

The showcased works, which center on Jamaican culture and Ms. Elmore’s upbringing, were created throughout the years, with the first being completed in 1999. However, they were inspired by events that took place as long as 50 years ago.

“Back in those days, coming up in the ’60s, we never wore shoes outside,” she said. “It was poor black people, you know? You play outside, come in dirty, get in the tub and go to bed.”

Ms. Elmore’s younger sister, Cynthia Jackson, echoed those sentiments.

“Growing up in a modest household, we didn’t have a lot of toys,” she said. “We learned to play together. Between jump rope, swinging on the trees and patty-cake, that’s what we did.”

The exhibit came together quite simply. Ms. Elmore, who is of African and Native American descent, noticed an empty display case at the library at the end of January while tutoring students there. She approached the front desk and inquired about showcasing her work. Within days, she was filling three display cases with acrylic paintings of Jamaican-themed musicians and dancers as well as handmade dolls.

Ms. Elmore's painting 'Patty-cake,' one of her favorite pieces in the collection. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)
Ms. Elmore’s painting ‘Patty-cake,’ one of her favorite pieces in the collection. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

The works show young girls with knobby knees playing outside in bare feet and long dresses. They skip jump rope, play patty-cake and swing on swings — just like Ms. Elmore used to do. In the background of many of these scenes is a small wooden house designed to resemble her family’s home on their reservation in Holly Hill.

Ms. Elmore and her family moved to Riverhead when she was 4 years old, and she vividly remembers something about her classmates: Many were white.

“Everything was black and separated still, especially [in South Carolina],” she said. “To come here and see things was very different for me.”

As far as art goes, Ms. Elmore said it’s always been something she’s loved, and she can distinctly remember creating paper dolls and the clothes to go with them beginning at seven years old. These days, she decorates pillows, lamp shades and more, all of which are on display in her Riverhead home. She creates dolls made from sticks and old dance leotards like the ones on display at the library.

In addition, Ms. Elmore designs clothing with her sister. The duo attended a Stony Brook University Hospital function, where Ms. Jackson works, and they both made dresses just days before the event.

“[Donna] was always drawing and sketching and painting all the time,” Ms. Jackson said. “Our family is very hands-on. My mom was a professional seamstress, so we learned really early in life to be crafty and creative.”

Another way Ms. Elmore incorporates art into her day-to-day life is through projects she does with her fifth-graders. She has worked in several Riverhead schools throughout her 34-year-career, and initially hoped to become an art teacher. She now works art into the curriculum by having students draw pictures to accompany book reports, create their own illustrated stories and more.

Now, with a gallery display under her belt, Ms. Elmore feels comfortable and confident enough to make her art more public.

“It’s about time,” her sister said. “I’ve been trying to get her to do this or put her art in a gallery for a long time … I’m so proud of her.”

Photo Caption: Pulaski Street Elementary School teacher Donna Elmore with the display of her acrylic paintings and dolls at Riverhead Free Library. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

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