our ancestral story
The world cares very little what you or I know, but it does care a great deal about what you or I do. – Booker Taliaferro. Washington
Elsz & O is a barrier-breaching
that produces visual and performing arts, research, and design through a people-centered approach towards equitable practices founded by owner, Marlesha S. Woods.
This traveling gallery shares a deeply rooted family tradition spanning over 105 years of innovation, established in 2021 in honor of two storytelling sisters, Elsz & O. The inception date commemorates what would have been Elsz's 95th celebration of birth, and the following month O would have been 105 years young. The two sisters, spanning 10 years apart, were closely stitched together through their various art forms, which influenced Marlesha's current work in advocacy through the arts.
Elszerene T. Smith, Marlesha's grandmother, was a fiber artist specializing in quilts, crocheted fashions, bead weaving, folklore, and poetry while primarily working in the healthcare sector as a RN. She graduated from HBCU, Meharry Medical College.
Olist Taliaferro Roberts, Marlesha's great-aunt, was an award-winning painter working primarily in oil and acrylic. Her works of Southern landscapes, portraits, and still life images were reminiscent of her experiences in a one room schoolhouse, and finding identity within the confines of what is known today as the "Affrilachian" experience. As a longstanding community leader, curator, storyteller, and professor at Tennessee State University with an artistic career that included a plethora of solo and group exhibitions, a university presidential portrait, and collaborations with numerous philanthropic organizations, Olist reimagined a provincial life that traveled outside of it's rural expectations but always seemed to return home.
It was the owner's avid creative writing mother, Marilyn T. Cooper, who also worked in the field of education, that recognized her talents as a youth and charted pathways for her to expand her knowledge of art, its history, and its meaning. Even if that meant there would be times when she was the only Black student in the room, her mother ensured that opportunities were available.
Marlesha now enters rooms on purpose to explore, expand, and enrich both people and place.
As a second generation adoptee her understanding of place, identity, and belonging are keenly aware of the fluidity of family. Her childhood was reared in Southern Indiana in a small township minutes away from her place of birth, metropolitan Louisville, predominantly by her village of caretakers that shared their deep Southern roots, traditions, joys, and traumas of living an enriched Black life on U.S. soil.
Each matriarch's story is rooted in a variety of geographical, cultural, and sociopolitical determinants, which has influenced the works of art that are created in both personhood and production within its time and present day.
Fast forward from the 1916 sharecropping tobacco fields of Tennessee, through over a century of in·sa·tia·ble fortitude, faith, and freedom-seeking, the artistry yet thrives by preserving narratives one work of art and reclaimed space at a time.
Elsz & O is an artist owned Storytelling Gallery that shares a carefully co-curated collection of artistry created by its owner and in collaboration with diverse artists and organizations that synergizes its mission.