Fact Friday 57 – Romare Bearden’s Impact, Today


 Happy Friday everyone!

 

I have to be honest with everyone. This week, I say ‘Happy Friday’ with a bit of reluctance. I’m certainly happy and thankful for many things, such as family, friends, and to be a part of such an awesome team here at 704 Shop. But the truth is it’s been a tough past seven days in our country. While many of the issues surrounding African Americans and their interactions with law enforcement are not new, and while frustrations and demands for equal treatment in the eyes of the law have been espoused for decades, the recent killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, LA and Philando Castile in Minneapolis, MN, both black males in their low-to-mid 30s, at the hands of police officers and the subsequent retaliatory sniper targeting of police officers in Dallas, TX, leaving 5 officers dead and many more officers and civilians injured, puts this age-old uncomfortable topic front and center for mainstream America. No longer can we simply hear or read about situations like this and go about our way, retreating to the comforts of our own corners of isolation and expect that things will change on their own. They won’t. Many of us get up everyday and go to work where we spend the majority of our day around people that are very different from us, and with whom we are friends, yet we don’t feel comfortable talking to each other about this topic because its rooted in racial injustice. Our minds are made up on how we feel about these topics and because our heels are dug in, we don’t care to discuss them with others who might offer a difference of opinion. Instead, we only want to hear what reinforces our own opinions. But by not doing so, by keeping these proverbial “walls” between us, we each become active participants to the problem, even when we have the best of intentions. Excluding politics, ask yourself how you would feel if just 1 of these killings hit closer to home and directly affected your family, your circle of friends, or your neighborhood. What would you do? We each have to ask ourselves what it’s going to take in order for the situation to improve. Each one of us has something to contribute, even if it’s just performing conscious self-reflection of our own internal biases and the impact those biases have when left unchecked and we go on to interact with people who look different from us, think different from us, come from somewhere other than where we come from, practice a different religion, or express a different sexual orientation. Positive interactions and successful long-term solutions cannot be predicated on misinformation, misunderstanding, and miscommunication. Things can get better. But we must demand better, firstly of ourselves.

 

I spent the 4th of July in Uptown with my family at Romare Bearden Park. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I saw that much diversity in such close proximity, all talking, eating, playing, and ultimately celebrating our nation’s birthday over a magnificent fireworks show…together. Romare Bearden was a Charlotte native whose talent touched and brought the world together through brilliant and often groundbreaking artwork. The Mint Museum of Art owns one of his pieces and has regularly celebrated his works through exhibits, as have other local museums, such as the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. I have been fortunate to attend events on separate occasions at both locations where Bearden’s works were being celebrated and was able to obtain a book put together by the Mint Museum called Recollections of Charlotte’s Own Romare Bearden. It’s largely a collection of interviews of those that knew Bearden and interacted with him. And while the interviews are deeply insightful, the introduction gives a great overview of Bearden and his accomplishments, and the impact his totality could have today. I thought I would share it with you all.

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Recollections. The word resonates throughout the life, career, and art of Romare Bearden. He acknowledged, on numerous occasions, how life’s memories were vital to his art. For it was within his art that he recorded a unique perspective and social awareness of the African American experience. Bearden incorporated into his images early memories of his birthplace, Charlotte, North Carolina, and his later, but still youthful, recollections of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania along with those of Harlem in New York City where he spent so much of his life. His art is a rich amalgamation of diverse recollections, experiences and influences. From southern traditions and experiences to the urban rhythms of Harlem to the brilliant Caribbean tropics, Bearden’s life yielded forth a wealth of recollections that inspired his art. His memories joined with influences he discovered in classical mythology, the work of European modern masters, Chinese aesthetics, and American jazz, among others, to form fascinating, and often recurrent, themes for his collages, paintings, and prints. His art has been aptly described as universal in its illustration of life’s lessons and the human experience.

 

Although Bearden was born in Charlotte in 1912, his family settled in New York City when Bearden was only a few years old. His parents’ West 140th Street apartment became a popular meeting place for artists, intellectuals and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1030s. Youthful encounters with such notables left lasting impressions that later commingled with Bearden’s passion for life, learning, music and art. Add to these experiences Bearden’s brief stay in Pittsburgh, where he lived with his maternal grandparents in the early 1920s. There, he witnessed first-hand the industrial hum of the city’s factories and steel mills. It was during this period that he met Eugene, a childhood friend whom Bearden credits as being his first art teacher as the two boys passed many hours making drawings. In his teens, Bearden returned to Pittsburgh to complete his high school education and afterwards pursued his college education in New York City.

 

In 1935, Bearden earned a mathematics degree from New York University while working part-time as a political cartoonist. His cartoons appeared in the university’s magazine, the Saturday Evening Post and other publications. A year later, he studied painting with the German Expressionist George Grosz at the Art Student’s League in New York City and was included in exhibitions at the Harlem Artists Guild. It was during the early 1930s that Bearden became friends with artist Stuart Davis. Bearden acknowledged Davis as an influential source with his approach to color and rhythm within his art. Davis, like Bearden, was an ardent jazz enthusiast.

 

In 1938, Bearden became a caseworker for the New York City Welfare Department; yet continued to paint in his spare hours He worked in the manner of the social realists with genre scenes illustrating the American experience. His first one-man show was held at Addison Bates’ workshop in 1940 and a year later he was included in the major exhibition of black artists at the Downtown Gallery. It was during the same year that Bearden took a studio at 33 West 125th Street, the same building in which Jacob Lawrence and Claude McKay maintained their studios. During the early 1940s, Bearden moved from social realism as his paintings became filled with bold, vibrant colors and stylized, geometric figures. He derived his subjects from sources such as Homer’s Iliad and the Bible. His paintings of New Testament scenes were well received by critics and public.

 

A consummate jazz devotee, Bearden found himself an active participant of the vibrant rhythms and nightlife of Harlem’s jazz clubs prior to World War II. During the war years, Bearden served 3 years, from 1942-1945, in the United States Army. His military service and the post-war GI Bill enabled Bearden to travel to Europe in 1950 where he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. During his nine months in France, he came to know Constantine Brancusi, George Braque, and Pablo Picasso, among other modern masters. It so happened, Bearden did not paint the entire time he was in Europe. After a brief trip to Italy, he returned to Harlem in 1951 and worked briefly as a songwriter and, together with composer Dave Ellis, founded the Bluebird Music Company. Twenty of Bearden’s musical compositions were published and recorded.

 

During the next year, Bearden returned to his former job with the New York City Welfare Department. In 1954, he married Nanette Rohan, an artist dancer, who encouraged him to return to painting. He continued his study of the old masters and the art of panting. He joined forces with Carl Holty, and together they began to author The Painter’s Mind that explored the structure and relationship of space within paintings. Bearden devoted himself to painting and resigned his position with the Welfare Department. His paintings of the late 1950s were almost exclusively non-figurative and increasingly abstract.

 

In the early 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement brought about a conscious awareness of black social issues in America and affected Bearden as he reassessed his artistic direction. Within this decade, his work became more figurative with a prevalence of images based upon personal recollections. In seeking to identity the very soul of African American consciousness, Bearden and others formed the Spiral Group in 1963, as a forum for black artists to address social and aesthetic issues specific to their culture. It was during this year that Bearden created his first collage, reportedly in response to a proposal that the Spiral Group explore collage as a collaborative effort. Although the group declined, Bearden ventured into collage alone. The art of pasting and assembling elements of cut paper upon a surface suited Bearden quite well. From this point onward, collage would be an important part of Bearden’s artistic life. In time, his name would become synonymous with collage as he brought new attention and vigor to the technique.

 

Bearden’s first exhibition of his collages, Romare Bearden Projections, was presented at the Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery in the nation’s capital. His collages combined print images clipped from magazines, books and photographs with ink, paint, and watercolor. His subjects explored familiar and recurring themes – jazz musicians, family life, Harlem and Pittsburgh memories, and the African Diaspora. His work was critically acknowledged and presented a unique view of the African American experience. By extension, Bearden’s voice and actions served to guide others. In 1967, and assisted by Carroll Greene, Bearden organized the retrospective exhibition, The Evolution of Afro-American Art 1850-1950 at the City College of New York. Bearden has long been acknowledged as a mentor to other artists, as he constantly encouraged them to pursue their own artistic voice.

 

Bearden continued his explorations with collage and, in 1971, the Museum of Modern Art presented a retrospective exhibition of his work. The exhibition was a triumphant success and brought enthusiastic acclaim for Bearden’s collages. He was acknowledged as a major talent of contemporary art. Within the decade of the 1970s, he was awarded 5 honorary doctorates from institutions of higher learning across the nation [including Pratt Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, Davidson College and Atlanta University]. His work entered the permanent collection of numerous American museums and was the subject of several solo exhibitions. It was in 1976 that the Mint Museum of Art acquired Carolina Shout, a large collage depicting a southern baptism scene.

 

 

Carolina Shout, 1974 by Romare Bearden

 

It was in the early 1970s, and thereafter, that Bearden’s fascination with printmaking came to fore. Together with the technical talents of Bob Blackburn, Bearden created The Train that was described by Arts Magazine as one of the ten most important prints of the times. Bearden manipulated black and white photographic images of portions of his collages combined with photo engraved etching plates and aquatint plates to create this print. Bearden and Blackburn were credited with inventing new printmaking procedures and methods. New ground was being explored and Bearden found a new outlet for his creative energies. Throughout the rest of his career, Bearden would continue to bring new vigor to the art of collage and to investigate new approaches within his prints.

 

 

The Train, 1975 by Romare Bearden

 

In 1980, the Mint Museum of Art presented a special exhibition, Romare Bearden: 1970-1980, that showcased a decade of Bearden’s collage productivity. The exhibition was the first national tour of the artist’s collages, 56 in total. It was well received and Paul Richards of the Washington Post wrote of Bearden, “He is usually referred to as one of America’s best black artists. One of America’s best artists is closer to the mark.” Richards continued to elaborate upon the integration of numerous sources in Bearden’s art. “So layered are its messages, so numerous its sources, that his 10-year retrospective… in the end affirms the irrelevance of race. The finest of his pictures – most of them are small, and the best of them are masterful – easily acknowledge a dozen art traditions.”

 

Bearden was acknowledged repeatedly as an artist of national importance. His creativity, originality and contributions were the subjects of numerous critical reviews that spoke highly of his accomplishments. Bearden had secured his place in the annals of 20th century contemporary art. Since his death in 1988, Romare Bearden has been the subject of numerous publications, articles, exhibitions and websites that document his life, career, and art.

 

As is to be expected within the life of one whose work and existence touched the lives of so many, Romare Bearden is held in high regard. His genuine concern for his fellow beings made him a friend to be cherished and garnered accolades for his sharing so freely of himself. Expressions of praise are consistently high from those who knew the man. To introduce insights of the man and the artist, the Mint Museum of Art has approached four individuals – David C. Driskell, Herb Jackson and Laura Grosch, and Jerald L. Melberg – to share their recollections of Romare Bearden. All have distinctive memories of the man, yet within each, there are parallel bonds of deep respect and an enduring friendship. Positive and highly complimentary traits are woven throughout their recollections as they recall the man they knew as “Romy”. Each kindly agreed to be interviewed and discuss their memories of Romare Bearden. Their words join in a special celebration of the man as artist, mentor, and friend as the Mint Museum of Art presents the exhibition Charlotte’s Own - Romare Bearden. The exhibition is a selection of Bearden’s work from Charlotte community art collections and is but a sampling of the volume of the artist’s work held by individual, corporate and public collections within the area. The community’s pride and recognition of Bearden’s artistic accomplishments extend beyond his lifetime and reflect its appreciation for his creativity and art, with its special recollections, that speak to all.

 

Charles L. Mo

Vice President of Collections & Exhibitions

Mint Museum of Art

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Bearden represents the best that Charlotte has to offer. A Foundation was created in his name and its website has more information on his legacy. His life story is one of transition, progression, internal and external influence, determination, success, love, and compassion. He used his artistic voice to speak on and influence challenging and undoubtedly controversial issues and he did so in a way that brought people together and brought about mutual understanding. I asked myself how he would have reacted to the Black Lives Matter movement. History tells me that he would have embraced it and at the same time reiterated that all injustice is wrong, all voices need to be heard, and that all lives matter. After all, saying black lives matter and that all lives matter are not mutually exclusive or opposed to one another. We should all follow his example and challenge ourselves to do the same. For as unique as we all are as individuals, we have more in common than we often realize. There are more things that bind and bridge us together than divide and separate us. Let’s get out of our comfort zones and start having conversations. How can we even be comfortable in this environment?

 

I recently came across a book that I’ll be purchasing on this very topic, Under Our Skin: Getting Real About Race – And Getting Free from the Fears and Frustrations That Divide Us, written by New Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Watson. Click here to watch an interesting interview on why he decided to write it. If anyone one has read it or decides to purchase it and cares to share their thoughts, feel free to email me. I’d love to hear from you!

 

Until next week!

 

Chris.

 

Email me at chris@704Shop.com if you have interesting Charlotte facts you’d like to share or just to provide feedback!

 

Find all previous Fact Friday blog posts by clicking here.

 

Information taken from:

 

Recollections of Charlotte’s Own Romare Bearden (Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, NC 2002)

 

The Romare Bearden Foundation

 

Wikipedia.org

 

Additional commentary added.

 

 

“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass