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If you walk east from 14th Street on Kennedy Street NW, you’ll pass the recently shuttered restaurant Swampoodle and the grandiose pink tower of Simon’s Wok and Grill before making it to Culture Coffee, an adorable little shop that really does live up to its name. Besides holding open mics, creative writing workshops, and jam sessions, the coffee shop also features a different art exhibit each month.
The subject of March’s show is thematically close to home. In Kennedy Street, Cathy Abramson’s oil paintings depict life along the very street that Culture Coffee sits on. Her subjects range from Swampoodle, Simon’s Wok and Grill, and other businesses to intimate portraits of the people in the neighborhood. Those who live in the area might recognize themselves or their friends in Abramson’s paintings, but even a visitor from another neighborhood will notice that the exhibit’s grandest portrait is of the woman serving them tea—she is Culture Coffee’s owner, Ms. V.
Abramson first captured the images in her oil paintings with a camera. For over a year, she walked around the neighborhood taking pictures and talking to residents about their stories and the area’s history. Abramson doesn’t live near Kennedy Street, but she spends a lot of time with her son’s family, who does. Both her son and daughter-in-law are involved with the Kennedy Street Development Association, and Abramson will donate a portion of her show’s proceeds to the organization.
In her paintings, Abramson skillfully plays with color, shadow, and geometric structure. “Chrome”emphasizes the beautiful, golden-yellow hues behind a cafe counter, and “White Door, Red Door”highlights the colorfully eclectic aesthetic of the area’s houses. Paintings of street fairs and children playing with dogs evoke a strong sense of community. And a painting of a group of young people sitting in front of portraits of Marion Barry and Chuck Brown references the city’s past and hints at its possible future.
Those paintings are bright and lively, but Abramson also has some pieces that are more understated. A particularly moving painting shows an interior decorated with zebra-striped chairs, fresh flowers, and floral carpeting. Despite the bold furnishings, the painting’s colors are more muted than in some of the other pieces, and the effect is to make the room look mysterious, and a little melancholy. Another painting, titled “Sweet Dreams,” shows a man leaning over mattresses in what looks like a storage room. He’s bent in a posture that suggests either fatigue, familiarity with the woman photographing him, or both. Part of the piece’s power comes from the fact that, by virtue of its placement in this show, the viewer knows that the man in the painting with the compelling gaze is someone who lives or works nearby.
In fact, the most interesting thing about the show is that everyone you see in the paintings is someone you might know or run into on the street (and if you do go to the show, you probably will meet Ms. V). The paintings are best viewed while sitting in one of Culture Coffee’s armchairs, sipping something hot. There, you can get a good view of Abramson’s paintings about local people and places while overhearing conversations about businesses, real estate, gentrification, and poetry. It’s all happening right there, on the street where you are.
At Culture Coffee through March. 709 Kennedy Street NW. Free (but don’t be an ass—buy some coffee). (202) 507-8349. culturecoffeedc.com.