Embracing Art’s Healing Power

Life experiences are a mixed bag at best!  As we continue to live each of us will have our share of “life” and there’s no way of getting around it.  I think the reality of having to deal with emotions that arise from these experiences is what is most troubling.

You’ve heard the saying time is a great healer—well the pen and paper, easel, clay, sketchpad, etc., can be too.  This year provided much fodder for creativity as well as any other year that’s come and gone before it.  On both inter- and intrapersonal level I, like you have had my share of the good, the bad, and the ugly.  In addition, the events that have happened around us—the things that come from without and which we have no control over—continue to impact our present and future outlook as we respond to life experiences.  As an optimistic realist I have had both growth and decline in my emotional, social, and spiritual life this year.

Gratefully, we artists have a way to vent and express our joy and sorrows.

One of the ‘without’ experiences that has affected my life forever was the outcome of the Trayvon Martin case.  Looking at it from strictly a human level—

a person’s life was taken

             by another

without vindication…period

From this outcome a sobering reality was once again brought home to bear along with far-reaching historical and present-day ramifications for the Black community.  A deep-seated inconsolable pain emerged which threatened to overtake and turn me toward a dark path.  And since the legal system in our society failed miserably to bring to justice a person responsible for the crime could it be that a person didn’t do it?  If no one did it, then it had to be Skittles.  That’s right Skittles killed Trayvon!  Thus my series “Death by Skittles” was born.

Death by Skittles--confrontation

Death by Skittles–confrontation

Without going through the litany of whys; what could be and what is, I simply know that for me the ability to release my sorrow and pain through the use of media is what is bringing healing from this tragedy.  By God’s grace I’m moving on and in my small way I will continue to address the societal problems and issues; the inequities and poor influences that affect, plague, and short-circuit our children’s paths towards a healthy future.

Death by Skittles--He's Gone

Death by Skittles–He’s Gone

From the time I started, a number of paintings, collages, writings, etc., have emerged.  I have shared a few with you.  And yes, I create art that communicates the good as well as bad.  Today someone needed to know about the ugly.

Death by Skittles-You Feelin the Rainbow?

Death by Skittles-You Feelin the Rainbow?

“The Human Touch” and Willie Birch at Redline Gallery

The “Human Touch” an exhibit focusing on people and diversity recently opened at Redline Gallery in Milwaukee.  The exhibit, which runs from October 18 through December 23, includes over 40 works from a variety of media—ranging from serious to whimsical.  This is definitely my kind of exhibit!  The works exhibited are from the corporate collection of over 400 pieces owned by RBC Wealth Management, one of the nation’s largest full-service securities firm headquartered in Minneapolis.  Redline is definitely privileged to have these works on loan from this 20-year old collection.

As a resource artist at Redline, I was invited to the opening day gallery talk with curator Don McNeill.  Don gave great insight into how the collection begun and has grown over the years.  The exhibition is a traveling one and Don has been curating the show since 2000.  Some of the works included are from artists early in their career before they became well known.  One of the pieces from Kehinde Wiley is of his early work when he used baroque fabric for the background of his urban men—today he paints the backgrounds.  Other artists whose work is included are:  Carrie Mae Weems, Dawoud Bey, Radcliffe Bailey, Roy Lichtenstein, and Claudette Schreuders.

As part of the opening week Redline invited Willie Birch, New Orleans-based artist.  I believe this was Willie’s first time being in Milwaukee as he commented on the coolness of the weather more than once!  I first encountered Willie’s work in person when it was displayed at the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University.  The exhibit was borne to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Willie’s work was very striking and I will never forget the huge canvasses in black and white using primarily acrylic and charcoal.  His matter-of-fact themes are based on the everyday lives of people Willie knows personally, has met on occasion, or happened upon in his daily travels; and the surroundings in which they live.  McNeill mentioned how Willie uses a simple camera to take photographs of his subjects before returning to his studio to paint them.  There is a lot of historical significance to Willie’s work.  He has done paintings of people who were most likely victims of the horrific Katrina that occurred in 2005.  Some of the communities that are part of his work are probably no longer in existence.

During his visit, Redline took Willie on a small tour of Milwaukee.  At the Gallery he performed gallery visits for several of the artist.  I was extremely blessed to not only have a studio visit but to spend an evening at dinner alone with Willie!  Willie is a polite gentleman, a very experienced artist, and a man with no shortage of conversation.  The man will talk you under the table—but is very engaging—you’ll wonder where the time went.  Seriously, if it hadn’t been for Beans and Barley closing on a Wednesday night—we’d probably still be there—him talking and me listening (lol)!

Me and Willie Birch

Me and Willie Birch

I really appreciated his “down home” manner; Willie is a highly successful artist, well represented, collected, and all that but he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve!  He shared his journeys and experiences with different galleries and a new direction he is going in with his work—public art and sculpture.  He recently designed “Crawfish Mounds” a sculpture that captures the essence of the New Orleans culture and its people.  For years Willie has had an interest in the fragility of grass, flowers, and crawfish mounds as he relates their survival to human beings’ struggle to survive.  Anyone that is native of New Orleans readily identifies with crawfish mounds.  Recently Willie had begun converting crawfish mounds into sculptural forms—from paper mâché to large-scale bronze.

As an artist, activist, historian, devoted father, and so much more Willie has already made significant contributions to the art world and beyond.  At 70 years he’s nowhere close to being done.

A Piece for the Tourist by Willie Birch

A Piece for the Tourist – W. Birch

Color Courage

As a visual artist I continue to challenge my courage for color.  I love color, period.  Well, is there such thing as too much color?  Is it ever more appropriate to use color than not?

I truly love to dance with color whereas color field artists conduct an orchestra with it.  Perhaps how color is used is solely dependent on the composition and emphasis of the piece—even though the artist may never voice this.  How many artists exist that do not know what colors they will choose at first—but decide along the way?  Others know from the start that it will be all about color and plan the piece based on the colors they want to use.  One color field artist friend of mine loves ‘playing’ with paint and is always reworking and changing colors.  Still some experiment—the first colors chosen are for swapped out for different ones—adopting a ‘devil-may-care’ attitude (hey, why not you can always gesso over mud).  Based on my current work (Children at Play) which uses color contrasts as part of the composition, I already know what colors I’ll use and how they will work to communicate what I’m trying to say.  The background colors I choose are just as important as the foreground or subjects’ colors. To avoid stagnation I strive to vary the intensity and effect making sure I have a good balance between dark and light tones with other elements of the piece.

The courage for me comes in being true to the piece and not letting my rampant color desires take over and disrupt what I’m trying to get to say to the viewer.  BUT, what about the unquenchable love for color that I told you I have?  Taking a “break” from my primary theme is a must for me.  This has been especially true of my recent Death by Skittles series—it can be too emotionally draining.  So I use printmaking, collage, mixed media, and fiber to get off on color.  Here’s one called Birds in Flight (mixed media) and Musing at Lake Serene (mixed media).

Birds in Flight

Birds in Flight

Musing at lake serene

Musing at Lake Serene

Um yes, it is possible to have color overload in a painting.  Just because you have access to every paint color variation in the rainbow doesn’t mean you have to use them all.  The eye can only take so much.  If many variations can be created from a few colors, why use 25 different ones.  I am sure—less is more.

30 Americans Exhibit Closes

On Saturday, September 7, I spent several hours on what would be my last visit to the 30 Americans exhibit on display at the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM). While I do not have official numbers of visitors that day, it was wall-to-wall. I personally knew several people who were going this weekend to see it just one last time—the exhibit closed today, September 8. As one of the Wisconsin 30, I have gone often to participate in the related events, listen to speakers, et cetera—but it’s been so much more than this privilege afforded me. Like many others I was drawn back to it over and over again—each time attempting to absorb the magnitude and wealth of knowledge and information it had to offer. It’s hard to believe that it is over.

Even before the thought of the exhibition’s last showing loomed into view I was aware of what would soon take place. The reality slap came when I received the email from MAM staff giving instructions for the retrieval of my artwork. Many emotions have begun to manifest and I find myself asking, “Is this exhibit the beginning of many things to come (meaning, will similar provocative work find its way to MAM’s doors)? “Was this just another ‘one-of-a-kind’ event that comes once in your lifetime similar to Halley’s Comet?” “Will the timeless historical, cultural, societal, and political relevancy of this exhibit continue to reverberate throughout the hearts, minds, and souls of those who experienced it first-hand?” “Will it just remain ‘colorful eye candy’ to the shallow and simple-minded who wonder how did they (a particular ’30 American’ artist they admired) make it (the piece they were particularly drawn to)? “Is the significance and timing of 30 Americans coming to Milwaukee meant to be esoteric?” “What effect will it have on me and my work?” “What will the youth that visited the exhibit learn from it?”

As I ponder possible answers to these questions my belief that whether you have taken a panoramic or microscopic view of 30 Americans you will admit you are not the same you were before attending. Will you allow that changed person to move you to do something more—to be something more?

Most artists attempt to communicate to the viewer in their work—that’s what we do. It might sound crude, but whether you get it doesn’t really matter—we still has to get it out. The 30 Americans artists were not just speaking loudly—they were shouting!! Did you get it?

The Rubells–Owners of the “30 Americans”

Mera and Don Rubell

Mera and Don Rubell

On Thursday, August 15, Don and Mera Rubell, the owners of the 30 Americans exhibit visited the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM).  The Rubell Family Collection (RFC), which includes the 30 Americans, comprises thousands of works and is probably one of the largest privately-owned art collections in the world.  Juan Roselione-Valadez, the director of the RFC facilitated the down-to-earth, impromptu lecture.  The Lubar Auditorium was near capacity as the Rubells shared the beginnings of their journey which began shortly after their marriage in 1964.

Mera, the primary spokesperson, shared how making a “connection” with the artists, their work, and inspiration is just as important (if not more) as purchasing art.  The Rubells shared stories of the intimate relationships they fostered with well-known artists Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Jeff Koons, and others.  Surprisingly, conversations they had with contemporary artists (many of whom happened to be African American) and their influences revealed artists whose works they had been acquiring for the past 30 years—Robert Colescott, Carrie Mae Weems, Barkley Hendricks, and Kara Walker—to name a few.  The idea of 30 Americans exhibit was born from a desire to marry the works of both emerging artists and those who inspired them.  Again, they happened to be African American artists.

I enjoyed the Rubells’ candor and humor as they shared the pact they made early on to discuss the “validity of collecting potential artworks” with each other before purchasing them.  Both state they have held true to this collaborative spirit—not always easy when one’s passion over acquiring a new work overrules the logic of such a purchase!  The talk was informative, entertaining, and authentic—I could have listened to them for hours.

Nina Chanel Abney Lecture at MAM

On Thursday, August 1, Nina Chanel Abney, one of the 30 Americans artists’ gave a lecture at the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM). Abney, originally from Harvey, a Chicago suburb, currently lives and works in New York. Although she is known as the “youngest artist of the 30 Americans;” the evolutions of her works over the past few years have undeniably “experienced” her. Below is one of her pieces currently on display at the MAM:

Khaaliqua and Jeff

Khaaliqua and Jeff

The rubber gloves are used in her work to signify those who may be involved in some type of dirty work they don’t want to be made liable for or, for those who are trying to protect themselves from something harmful.  Nina’s boldly colorful acrylic paintings began to grow in size at the encouragement of a college professor who suggested that she work large-scale.  A picture of her studio showed the walls covered with enormous canvasses of works in progress.  She also creates smaller watercolors as a relief from her primary work.

Nina’s work brings together influences from political, social, and cultural issues while purposely distorting their original focus or meaning.  At times Nina forces us to face typical societal  stereotypes, offering a playful view that though surreal is painfully all too real.  I adore her senior class thesis painting “Class of 2007” in which she painted her classmates black while she, the only African-American in her class is displayed as white.

Class of 2007

Class of 2007

I do identify as I recall my college days of often being the only “one.”  When creating, she has a definite path of where the painting is going—yet there is no point of assuming you have a handle.  According to Nina the work flows better when she creates intuitively at the canvas never really planning ahead what she is going to do.  However, once she gets started she does gather information from research, newspapers, the Internet, etc., for reference.  It seems Nina may continue to work in a state of flux to keep the viewer ever wondering.  I dig that about her!

Nick Cave Visit

Nick Cave in his apartment

Nick Cave in his apartment

Last Saturday, July 27 I went on a day trip to Chicago with the Contemporary Art Society and African American Art Alliance to visit the home of 30 Americans artist, Nick Cave.  His pieces, “Soundsuit,” are currently on display at the Milwaukee Art Museum in the 30 Americans exhibit.  Nick is very personable, friendly, and passionately serious about his work.  If you haven’t gotten a chance to visit the exhibit here’s one of his pieces.  It is a combination of fabric, fiberglass, and metal.



He recently completed new work for his newest exhibition, “Sojourn” at the Denver Art Museum, in Denver, CO.  So, with a break in the action, Nick allowed us to come into his art studios and personal living space.  The first studio we entered had materials laid out on tables that were part of his unfinished commissioned pieces.  Nick, and his graphic designer/creative director Bob Faust, are shopaholics!  They regularly visit tons of resale shops far and wide to find the treasures he uses in his creations.  He is very particular about what he is looking for and knows what he intends to use it for.  We saw many rooms containing bins of buttons, mannequin forms, and several sewing machines.  The second studio we entered contained more “works in progress” and more sewing machines.  There was so much raw material and we all laughed afterwards remembering earlier that Bob told us the studio was “quiet” because it had been recently emptied in preparation for the Denver show.

Next we went into his apartment.  “Speechless,” “WOW!” and “Amazing,” are some of the adjectives used to describe what we saw.  It was eye candy overload because Nick is a serious art collector and says he has a hard time not buying art when he visits an exhibition.  In every room (and there were many) we found art on the walls, floors, doors—just about everywhere!  Interestingly the number of art pieces didn’t make his space overly busy or crowded.  Every piece had its place and fit well with other art, furniture, and everything else in the room.

Nick with visitor

Nick with visitor

I fell in love with his personable spirit right away.  Nick joked that he is ok if you’re ok.  His students at the Chicago Art Institute are both challenged and enthusiastic when he is in the classroom.  He expressed the same thing many artists already know—hard work ethic and determination are a must in order to succeed.

As an artist I am always inspired and excited when I meet new artists and listen as they share their vision.  Meeting Nick Cave was for me a delightful high that will last for quite a while.

Me and Nick Cave

Me and Nick Cave

“Why Here?”

On July 11, the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) held a panel discussion with Wisconsin 30 artists to respond to the question, “Why Here?” Reginald Baylor, Sonji Hunt, Anwar Floyd-Pruitt, Mikal Floyd-Pruitt, Evelyn Patricia Terry, and via video Tyanna Blue discussed the question in reference to their choice to live and work in Wisconsin.

I asked friend and fellow artist, Evelyn Patricia Terry, to share her thoughts. Here’s a summary of what she said…

“For the panel, “Why Here?” I had only one sentence that I was committed to, “Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.” With a 40-year stash of something to say about art and 67 years of something to say about living in Milwaukee, “Why here” is a piece of cake. I echoed another panelist, Tyanna Buie with, “Why not here?” After traveling as much as I could…because one can work from anywhere as an artist…I decided to stop wasting time on that aspect of my life and do what I really wanted to do. I am an artist. At this time, I can do art here. My goal to accomplish my art being everywhere began years ago and continues.

I have traveled as much as I needed to get information about finding a better place to live. I went to Russia and when I arrived they told me to stand in the corner as the other passengers went in. I went to Brazil (with an artists’ group) and the women were disregarded terribly. I went to California and did not care for the earthquakes. I visited New York and, of course, did not care for it. I live on 18th and Wright and the streets are cleaner.

My exhibited artwork, “Magic is Dream Stacking” reflects my propensity to stack dreams/goals and work toward their achievement. Another goal is to get my artwork into the right collection.”

I agree with Evelyn. Where I live doesn’t limit where my art is exhibited or sold. When my artwork finds itself in a place where I am not, I admit I do have mixed feelings—my art is an extension of me since it has come from me and sometimes it’s hard to let go. At the same time, though, I’m sharing my passion; what I need to say.

Art, Poets, Bronzeville

Sankofa is an Akan word that means,
“We must go back and reclaim our past so we can move forward;
to understand why and how we came to be who we are today.”

Mutope J. Johnson, is one of the distinguished artists included in the Wisconsin 30.  The “thirty” make up the complementary exhibition being held in conjunction with 30 Americans–the nationally-acclaimed documentary of works that address issues of racial, sexual, and identity–and its powerful influence on contemporary culture.

I have been blessed to work with Mutope over the last several years.  He is an exceptional artist, my great mentor, and friend.   I have included excerpts from his artist statement here because it provides insight on the “what” and “why” of his current works and also serves as an introduction to my upcoming poetry page.

Poet Blanche by Mutope

Poet Blanche, by Mutope

“The current narrative centered around my work focuses on the contributions of the poet and how collaborations with literary artists can help to inform art work in a more interesting way.  The works in progress feature drawings, paintings and relief print studies predominately including the use of the color Indigo. The investigation of the color blue not only allows me the opportunity to respond to the issues around pigment as metaphor, it also becomes an artistic strategy for presenting painting and drawings in a format that promotes the conversation of history and culture.”

“Many of these memories have been revisited because of recent conversations about an area of Milwaukee known as The Bronzeville District, a North side neighborhood where I grew up as a youth. The neighborhood was labeled blighted property where it was targeted and destroyed through the city government’s eminent domain policies. This once vibrant cultural district was replaced with the I-43 freeway which cut right through the heart of Bronzeville, tearing down homes and businesses and displacing families.”

“I understand that my paintings and drawings may not solve any problems long or short term, and what I advocate through my work only represent a small part of a much larger conversation. However, through collaboration and helping to amplify the voice of the poet through visual art, I may be able to contribute to the debate in a positive way, and in the process, grow personally as an artist and strengthen my own creative commentary on subjects like the Bronzeville District controversy through my work as an artist.”  Mutope Johnson

30 Americans / Wisconsin 30

In June, the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) opened a spectacular survey of contemporary art: 30 Americans (www.rfc.museum/past-exhibitions/3-30-americans). This exhibition taken from the Rubell Foundation, is one of the finest private collections of contemporary art in the country. All of the artists in the exhibition are African American.  Donald and Mera Rubell spent about four decades working with these artists to create an exhibition that is powerful and relevant today. Here are the artists in the exhibition:

Nina Chanel Abney
John Bankston
Jean-Michel Basquiat
Mark Bradford
Iona Rozeal Brown
Nick Cave
Robert Colescott
Noah Davis
Leonardo Drew
Renée Green
David Hammons
Barkley L. Hendricks
Rashid Johnson
Glenn Ligon
Kalup Linzy
Kerry James Marshall
Rodney McMillian
Wangechi Mutu
William Pope.L
Gary Simmons
Xaviera Simmons
Lorna Simpson
Shinique Smith
Jeff Sonhouse
Henry Taylor
Hank Willis Thomas
Mickalene Thomas
Kara Walker
Carrie Mae Weems
Kehinde Wiley
Purvis Young

In conjunction with this exhibition, the Milwaukee Art Museum presents Wisconsin 30, a parallel exhibition featuring paintings, photographs, prints, drawings, and sculpture by thirty Wisconsin African American artists. This exhibition presents a complementary overview of the themes of race and identity explored in 30 Americans, focusing on Wisconsin. I have been chosen to be part of the Wisconsin 30!!  Here’s my piece that is part of the show:

Ringin' Round the Rosie

Ringin’ Round the Rosie

The other artists included in Wisconsin 30 are:  Dave Anderson, Marlon Banks, Kevin Boatright, Reggie Baylor, Trenton Baylor, Brad Anthony Bernard, Tyanna Buie, Larry Chatman, Portia Cobb, Jamal Currie, Paul Davis, Anwar Floyd-Pruitt, Mikal Floyd-Pruitt, Freida High-Tesfagiorgis, Vedale Hill, Sonji Hunt, Mutope Johnson, Sharon Kerry-Harlan, Richard Lewis, Charly Palmer, Christopher McIntyre, Ras Ammar Nsaroma, Sherman Pitts, Leslie Smith, Evelyn Patricia Terry, Babette Wainright, Della Wells, Iverson White, George Williams.


Wisconsin 30 is organized by the MAM, in coordination with Sande Robinson, president, Milwaukee Art Museum’s African American Art Alliance (Quad A), and Lynne Shumow, curator of education, Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University.  Kudos and more kudos go to these women for a stellar job in bringing it all together!

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