From Espi Frazier’s “Church Lady” series.

For career artist Espi Frazier, making art is more than a profession; it’s a long-term relationship.

“It’s been my life. It’s been the thing that has really kept me on the planet,” she says. “When life takes you up and down… I can always count on this and what I gave and got back.”

Starting this Friday, an array of nearly two dozen works by Frazier will be on display at Gallery CA in Greenmount West, in a retrospective show dubbed “Married to Art.” The exhibition will showcase Frazier’s woodworking, drawing, painting, crocheting and other media, and in the process reflect on the role of gender in the art world from Frazier’s standpoint.

When she arrived in Baltimore in 1993 to earn her master’s degree at MICA, Frazier was one of just a handful of women in a male-dominated class in the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting. Beyond being a gender minority, she also stood out because of her craft. She was a trained woodworker in a highly selective program for painters.

As her intricate craft incorporated drawing, painting and a great deal of noisy wood carving, Frazier negotiated with her quieter counterparts for studio time in the evenings, when she could use her power tools at her leisure. “The guys, they liked me,” she reflects. “I had a good relationship with all of them.”

Before arriving in Baltimore, Frazier was a professional artist in Chicago for 12 years. There, as a member of an also-mostly male black artists guild, she learned to hold her work to the same high standards as any of her male counterparts. They also taught her she could copyright her work, which has since done for her wood-carving process and a Black Lives Matter series depicting angels.

“I’m telling you, if it had not been for them, I might not have known how to get out here and really present myself as an artist,” she says.

Frazier’s work often incorporates two key themes: the watermelon, a fruit often derogatorily attributed to African-American tastes, and the figure of the female body. Frazier has flipped the former into a symbol of a “life-giving substance,” and uses the latter as a show of strength – the “woman as goddess, the ongoing symbol of life.”

These motifs run through Frazier’s body of work and will be on display in several series in this show, including her “Church Lady Hats” drawings and “Josephine Baker” and “Painted Body” collections of painted wooden carvings.

Kirk Shannon-Butts, curator of the show, first met Frazier during an artists’ panel at Gallery CA in 2014. He said he was impressed by her ability to connect with a diverse array of guests, artists and non-artists, women and men, whites and minorities.

For this show, Frazier said she told him he could go through her collection and pick whichever pieces he felt would work best. “For me, it went back to the idea of picking pieces that would speak to specifically the journey of women in art” and “be vibrant in the space and tell a story,” Shannon-Butts says.

In the 24 years since Frazier first came to Baltimore, she says female artists have made strides in banding together and finding venues to showcase their work. One recent example of a show dedicated to this premise was “XXChange,” a showcase of female makers’ work that ran at Area 405 this past November and December.

Still, barriers remain, Shannon-Butts and Frazier both say.

“It’s 2017, what do we have to do? There’s a lot of talented women artists out here producing very strong, powerful work. And you know, it’s still a man’s world,” Frazier says.

From her standpoint, Frazier describes the concept of a marriage to art as applicable to non-married and married creatives alike.

“I think even if you were with a spouse, that connection and amount of time that you have to spend to produce work is a real investment,” she says. “And you have to be with the right kind of person who can understand that. That’s not easy.”

For her, art has been a worthy companion. “I’m not ready to divorce it, and it hasn’t divorced me. It’s a marriage, and it’s been a good one.”

The opening reception for “Married to Art” is set for Friday, March 17. The show runs through Friday, April 14, at Gallery CA, located at 440 E. Oliver Street. Gallery CA will also host a “Meet the Artist” talk with Frazier and Shannon-Butts on April 14.

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...