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.