Wednesday, December 19, 2012

On into the Next Generation -VIcki Meek 
December 17, 2012

Sometimes I wonder how the next generation is going to fair given how little we’ve left them to model. This weekend as I sat in NPN Idea Forums, art bursts, showcases and pop-up lunch meetings, I started to realize how remiss my generation has been about passing on the knowledge, struggles, experiences and life lessons we’ve gained. I thought about how diligent and very intentional my parents were about making sure we knew our ancestral struggles and our role in making sure those struggles were not in vain. They did this both by their actions and by including us in those actions (many were the times when we were the youngest demonstrators on the protest line!) I thought about how often I’ve threatened to write about the battles I fought, some won, some not, to make it in the art world and how I somehow never got around to the writing. I remember my father saying to me many times that it was my responsibility to write the history of our art so that the complaints I kept having about the dearth of scholarly material available for my students would no longer be my regular gripe. I also remember admonishing him for not doing the same thing he accused me of, not writing the history of the civil rights struggles he and my mom were forever activist participants in. We’d shake our heads at each other but when he died at 73 (my mom having left us at 53) without ever having penned that so invaluable story, I started thinking how critical it was for me not to miss the opportunity to “pass it on”. My original plan was to retire into my next phase of life when I’d start the writing along with the refocusing of my artmaking practice on filmmaking and art bookmaking. But this weekend made me acutely aware of how pressing the need was for me to begin my writing now, at a time when I am still in the trenches and seeing the repeat of history in the form of the next generation screaming about the same inequities I did more than 40 years ago. I now must plan to write an essay a month on topics as varied as teaching African American Art History in the 1970’s and 2011: a comparative investigation to creating an African-centered art education program for children & youth to artmaking that creates dialog around issues of racial, social and political identity without compromising aesthetic sophistication. So starting January 2013, I will endeavor to write an essay a month on all those topics that I am so passionate about. I’ll worry about organizing them later and how to publish them because first and foremost, I need to get the information I carry in my head out and on paper (or in cyberspace!) I have seen too many of my peers leave this earth prematurely, without having documented their journey for the next generation. I’d like to know that I did all that I could to leave a trail of cultural information crumbs along the path for them to follow as they seek solutions to our collective problems. Later.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

A New Orleans Send-off for Elizabeth Catlett

This past weekend, we celebrated the life of Elizabeth Catlett in grand style! New Orleans laid it out for a woman who deserved every accolade offered. Stella Jones is to be highly commended for making sure Elizabeth's homegoing celebration was beautiful, thoughtful and inspiring. Of course I had to have my fingers in it too and if I do say so myself, the program was beautifully designed! But on a serious note, I have to comment on several aspects of the weekend. First, it was great to see Dillard, Xavier, and Tulane Universities come together to make the three days a success. The Amistad Research Center at Tulane was our first introduction to Elizabeth's life as it created a substantive exhibition of a representative sampling of her papers, articles written about her and a handsome display of her prints. A mini-lecture provided the audience with some background information about her life, especially her connection to Dillard and the city of New Orleans. She was so in love with New Orleans despite the struggles she had there in its segregated days (some would argue those days are still very present, but I digress!) The following day, at Dillard University's Cook Hall, a stirring memorial tribute was emceed by actor Anthony Mackie who it seems started collecting Catlett's work at the urging of his brother, Dr. Calvin Mackie. He bought from the Stella Jones Gallery which provided another solid tie to the event and his personal acknowledgements of the Jones Family and their role in helping him become a thoughtful collector were appreciated. Drs. Melanie Herzog and Alvia Wardlaw provided the scholarly framework for the audience to better understand the magnitude of Catlett's presence in the world of contemporary art. I read Dr. Samella Lewis' statement because unfortunately she is ailing and could not make the trip. But her words of friendship and gratitude for Elizabeth's mentorship were no less important because of her absence because they provided the passageway to the more personal presentations of Sonia Sanchez and Leah Chase. Sonia, in her inimitable style, delivered an homage poem to Catlett that brought the audience to their feet, most with tears in their eyes! She captured Elizabeth's spirit, energy, and lifestyle in her carefully chosen words, while praising her courage and wisdom as a visionary artist. Granted, I am a self-proclaimed Sonia Sanchez groupie but I am not exaggerating when I say she put it down and raised us all up that afternoon! Equally moving was Francisco Mora Catlett's presentation of those family moments no one but a child could relate so poignantly. The humor and fun along with the horror and pain associated with growing up in a politically progressive household where danger was always at the edges of your life during the McCarthy Witchhunt era were so aptly captured in Francisco's reminisces. All told, the presenters gave us a well-rounded profile of the remarkable Elizabeth Catlett, a woman who in my opinion defies categorization. On Sunday, we gathered in Congo Square where Elizabeth has two monumental sculptures, one in homage to Louis Armstrong and the other celebrating Mahalia Jackson, both New Orleanians and both artists of the highest order. The children in attendance released butterflies after a fitting libation was poured. Then the drums commenced and of course Francisco, master drummer that he is, took a seat at the congas and the dancing began! His wife, the beautiful and multi-talented dancer Danys Perez Prades, gave a brief glimpse of her talent as her husband played traditional Afro-Cuban rhythms. This energizing and uplifting experience was followed by a truly spiritual gathering for a communal meal at the famous Dooky Chase Restaurant with the grande dame herself, Ms. Leah Chase, doing the throw down in the kitchen. She promised us Elizabeth's favorite fried oysters and she didn't disappoint! From the boudin to the bread pudding, all was delicious and a fantastic send off for those of us who were leaving Nawlin's that evening. My only disappointment was that there were so few students in attendance at the various presentations. I can't help thinking that so much of the problem with our artistic community is the disconnect between the next generation and mine. I would never have had the blessing of knowing so many great African American artists had I not understood the need to be in their presence every chance I got. I met Elizabeth as a student as I did Romare Bearden and Samella Lewis. I required my students while teaching at Kentucky State to attend all the gallery talks, visiting artists lectures and to take advantage of any other opportunities that occurred for meeting and chatting with elder artists. They didn't have a choice because I knew they needed to have these experiences even if they wouldn't appreciate them until much later in their lives. My life is certainly so much richer for having met and befriended so many of my artistic heroes and sheroes.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Those Amazing Catlett Hands

Her hands. There were none like them, or at least, I never saw any that were. Elizabeth Catlett's hands were the emblem of strength. Larger than most women's, Elizabeth's hands somehow managed to be feminine and masculine all at the same time. As a sculptor working in such media as wood, marble, and other hard stone, she couldn't make the work without having the amazingly strong hands that she did. I started out as a sculptor so I know of what I speak! One of the reasons I stopped carving is because it was just too damn much work! But somehow Elizabeth managed to not only carve the majority of her masterpieces, but to create more than one a year. I had the privilege of working on one of her pieces while visiting in Cuernavaca in 2000. She was convalescing from a hip injury so Elizabeth was taking a break from sculpting. She instructed me to work on a section of this wood piece, carving out some areas in preparation for her son David to continue defining the form. Although I hadn't carved since undergraduate school (roughly 32 years!) I agreed to tackle this task! I spent the whole day working on this seemingly simple assignment and was exhausted by dinnertime. When I asked Elizabeth how she managed at her age (85 years!) to work that hard, she responded by calling me a whoozie girl! I laughed hard because she was so right. My hands were blistered, my back hurt, my arms were feeling like they were going to fall off, and all because I put in one day's work on a Catlett sculpture, something she did without batting an eye. I realized those Catlett hands were deceiving. They somehow didn't show the extent to which one had to labor to make a piece of wood become a fluid, curvaceous woman. The smoothness of those hands, the gracefulness of those long fingers, even the fact that she had beautiful nails belied the reality of a sculptor's work. I so admired her hands for their strength but envied them their beauty. I never managed to keep mine looking like anything short of a ditch digger's hands and I hadn't carved a day since 1968! Her hands were amazing and thanks to those amazing hands, the art world has some of the most incredible sculptures created by a 20th-21st century artist.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Genius of Jackie McLean: a reminisce

I first met Jackie McLean in 1977 after taking my first arts administrative position at the Connecticut Commission on the Arts. So it seems almost uncanny that I should be presenting the Jackie McLean Quintet's former pianist, Alan Jay Palmer, in what is surely going to be my last arts administrative job. When Alan Jay Palmer came into my life it was like deja vĂș for me and for him. You see we both got our indoctrination into the world of community arts at The Artists Collective, an organization founded by Jackie and Dollie McLean in North Hartford designed to bring excellent African centered arts instruction & performances to that low income community. Jackie had by this point in his jazz career, been on the faculty of Hartt School of Music at The University of Hartford for a number of years and was responsible for developing its jazz education program. He dedicated countless hours to teaching both on the college campus and at The Collective. I don't know how many of his young charges at The Collective knew how fortunate they were to have someone the caliber of Jackie McLean sharing his vast music knowledge with them, but I certainly did! I was thrilled to be associated with the McLeans, Jackie in particular, because I knew of his music long before I moved to Hartford. I owned several McLean LPs and respected his musicianship which was easily on the level of the greats like John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and their peers. The idea that this exceptional musician was giving back to his community in such a significant way impressed me immensely. Jackie was a genius, both as a musician and as a teacher. His music was always innovative and powerful. His instruction was always comprehensive and incomparable. The institution he and his wife built is now over 40 years old and remains a major cultural force in New England. When I took over the South Dallas Cultural Center over 15 years ago, I modeled its program after The Artists Collective. My goal, like the McLeans', was to provide excellent arts instruction and presentations that reflect the extensive contributions of the African Diaspora to world culture. Like The Collective, SDCC sees jazz as being one of the most significant one of these contributions in that it is an art form that has literally touched the entire world. In the documentary "Jackie McLean on Mars" by Ken Levis, Jackie remarks on how differently jazz artists are received in Europe and Asia from how they are received in its birthplace, America. He lamented the fact that jazz never receives the same level of respect European classical music does in this country and how frustrating that is. Sadly, Jackie's observations remain true today. It is for this reason that I jumped at the chance to have Alan Jay Palmer join our faculty at SDCC to teach jazz piano and so I secured a partnershi
p with Big Thought's Thriving Minds Program to realize this desire. I want our students to know this music and its originators. I want them to know its history and respect its place in the musical spectrum. Jackie McLean instilled in Alan Jay Palmer the obligation to give back and to teach the history of jazz along with its performance techniques. Each Saturday when I peek into the music studio at Alan's young students, enthusiastically, albeit tentatively, finding their way around the keyboard, clumsily plunking out a Duke Ellington tune, I know Jackie McLean would be proud to know that his dedication to the preservation of classical jazz is alive and well at the South Dallas Cultural Center. For more information on the genius of Jackie McLean, join us on Sunday, April 22 at 4 pm when the Alan Jay Palmer Quintet will be joined by another former Jackie McLean Quintet band member Raymond Williams for an evening of jazz music. In addition, there will be a screening of "Jackie McLean on Mars" and a Q & A following the concert. Check out the Art & Seek D’JAM calendar for more jazz events in April.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Elizabeth Catlett: a treasured friend, a remarkable artist

As I was weepily reminiscing with someone about Elizabeth Catlett, she asked me when did I meet Elizabeth Catlett and I told her that I first met her on the pages of James Porter's 1943 book Modern Negro Art. My parents gave me this groundbreaking book when I was 8 years old and had announced my intention to be a sculptor when I grew up. They wanted me to know that there were indeed Black women who were sculptors so that I would know my aspiration was realizable. I thumbed through my first art book with intense interest and found myself transfixed on Elizabeth's marble "Negro Mother and Child". Since I had recently been introduced to carving by my instructor at Fleischer Memorial Art School, I immediately grativated to this magnificent work. My young mind didn't appreciate all of the technical aspects of this piece but I can remember thinking what emotion the artist captured both in the pose and the faces of her subjects. Two years later, my parents gifted me with Cedric Dover's American Negro Art and once again I found Elizabeth's work mesmerizing. This new "Mother and Child" had a different, albeit equally powerful affect on me. The mother had her feet firmly planted on the earth, almost in defiance, with the child nestled in her lap but appearing just at firmly self-aware as its mother. Whereas the "Negro Mother and Child" baby hid itself in its mother's torso, "Mother and Child"'s baby faces us with only its head tilted inwards. Both figures seemed very strong to my ten year-old mind, a quality I rather liked. It helped immensely that Elizabeth Catlett's politics matched that of my parents. Like her, they were "blacklisted", making their lives a living hell for the better part of the late forties into the mid-fifties. As I think back on the intentionality with which my parents introduced us to artists, I now am clear that they chose Elizabeth Catlett over, say, a Selma Burke, because they agreed with her political stances as much as they did her aesthetic choices. They were making it clear to me from the start that one could be political and still be a damn good artist! The art in our house reflected the conviction my parents had regarding us kids seeing ourselves reflected on our walls so the offset prints of W.E.B. Dubois or the beautifully rendered elder Black woman by Charles White made us know that Black people were worthy subjects for works of art, as worthy as the white subjects we encountered on our frequent visits to the Philadelphia Art Museum. Fast forward to 1971 and my tenure in graduate school at University of Wisconsin Madison. As horrific as that experience was (no Black art faculty, just about as many students, and no love, trust me, no love!) I had several wonderful things happen in that cold, cold town. The first was that I elected to take a course in African American Art History from an instructor who wasn't much older than me. That began a lifelong friendship with the now fully tenured professor, Dr. Freida High Tesfagiorgious (she was just Freida High then!) I took this course because I simply wanted to have an opportunity to converse about artists I knew with other people who were interested. I needed to know that I wasn't crazy for wanting to seek inspiration for my work from within my own cultural experience and I thought a class on the history of my predeceesors would affirm my ideas. It turned out that Freida needed me in the class as much as I needed the class since she was newly aware of this history and had not done that much in-depth research on the topic. In a sense, she was learning as the class learned! But it was a perfect class for me because we always had discussions rather than lectures, and lord knows I love to discuss! As a part of the class requirement, we had to attend the National Conference of Artists which proved to be the second wonderful thing that happened to me while a graduate student for it was at the DC conference that I met my idol, later to become my mentor, Elizabeth Catlett. I can remember like it was yesterday the moment I found out that Elizabeth was going to attend this conference and how excited I was at the prospect of seeing her. She was to receive an award as one of the elders who helped shape the organization. The banquet planned for the award ceremony was much too expensive for any of us students so we knew we'd have to be satisfied with possibly catching a glimpse of the notables going into the banquet hall. Never one for star-gazing, I decided I'd just sit outside with some of the other "rebel artists" and debate the merits of awards and the capitalist structure that mandated favoring one artist over another. So there I was engrossed in conversation with who, I don't even remember, when I heard someone say "so what's going on with you young people?" I looked up and there she was! Elizabeth Catlett had decided it was more important for her to spend some of her limited time stateside checking out the next generation of Black artists. She, like us, didn't place a lot of stock in awards, especially those swapped between friends. I am pretty sure I let out a small gasp when I realized I was sitting next to my sho nuff idol but she didn't seem to notice. I asked her if she'd tell us about her work and I swear to God she said "forget about my work, tell me about yours". So I did. We discussed my struggle to maintain my identity in a school that had no interest in it. She reassured me that I'd make it through grad school with my identity intact as long as I didn't allow it to be compromised. Her warning stuck with me and indeed I did get through the experience with somce scars but a stronger sense of commitment to my aesthetic. As time passed, I had numerous visits with my idol and indeed we became friends. My visits to her residences, both in Mexico and New York were always productive. Her advice held me in good stead as a Black woman navigating the typically hostile art world sea, and her common sense suggestions about
being an artist mother were as helpful as her art critiques. Elizabeth Catlett was one of the most practical women I've ever met and therefore having a conversation with her never left you confused. Whether I was asking how I could possibly be a mother and an artist only to have her respond "what are you crazy? Of course you can. You just have to put the work on hold for a little while!" or wondering about marrying (her answer: marry a feminist and you'll be ok!) Elizabeth always shot straight with me. I will sorely miss this incredibly dynamic woman whose life epitomized the ideal Black woman artist for me. I shudder to think what my life would be like had I not had her in it, helping me understand how possible it is to be an artist/activist without either role overshadowing the other. Elizabeth Catlett-Mora changed lives; I know she changed mine.