Where’s Bearden’s Room?

Writer's tribute to Romare Bearden
“Odyssey Series” by Romare Bearden

“Where is Bearden’s room at a major art institution? Is there any better artist who speaks so eloquently and with such originality about America?” asked Russell Goings, poet, art collector, Bearden caretaker and chief organizer of a month-long tribute to Romare Bearden at the 92nd Street Y.

Writer's tribute to Romare Bearden
“Historic Figures,” by Romare Bearden

“The art of Romare Bearden was the art of a large and generous spirit that defined not only the character of Black American life, but also its conscience. I was looking at myself in ways I hadn’t thought of before and have never ceased to think of since,” said playwright August Wilson. Poet Kwame Dawes quoted the playwright’s words in a preface to his three-movement poem.

Wilson’s play, “The Piano Lesson,” was deeply influenced by Bearden’s work of the same name. So was Dawes’s poetry.  The famous painting was featured prominently on the giant screen display as Dawes opened with these lines: ”Bernice…I don’t play that piano cause I don’t want to wake them spirits. They never be walking around this house.”  Each movement was a collage of feeling, color and action: “Avoiding the Spirits,” “To Tame the Savage Beast,” and “The Lesson.”

writer's tribute to Romare Bearden
“Historic Figures” by Romare Bearden

Dawes is currently editing an anthology of poems with poet Matthew Shenoda about Bearden’s “Odyssey Series,” some of which were on display at the 92Y art gallery during the tribute.

Ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ speech “Pictures and Progress,” was referenced by curator, author, and Yale professor Sarah Lewis in her presentation. As she spoke, several collage paintings were displayed on the stage’s screen.  Bearden’s primary medium was collage— a fusing of old magazine and newspaper photographic clippings, painting and fabric. She discussed the 19th century emergence of photography that had changed the social landscape. Photographs could counter but not always, the caricatured and exaggerated negative Negro images. She mentioned Douglass’ observation that “the sudden abundance of visual sources created a paradox in the new culture of visual awareness.”

“The picture and ballad are alike, if not equally social forces — the one reaching and swaying the heart by the eye, and the other by the ear’…In our country, the picture plays an important part in our politics’…In the making of our presidents, the political gatherings begins the operation, and the picture gallery ends it. The winner, in order to outvote, must out laugh his adversary,” Douglass said in his speech.

writer's tribute to Romare Bearden
“Osceola” by Romare Bearden

Lewis also referenced Bearden’s association with and study of artists, jazz musicians and writers and specially mentioned novelist Ralph Ellison’s friendship with the artist. Displaying Bearden’s “Card Players” next to Cezanne’s “Card Players” series on the stage screen showed Bearden’s magnificent jazzy variation on a theme. The pairing also demonstrated an artist who was always inspired and processing information.

Poet, scholar, teacher, Elizabeth Alexander, who composed and delivered “Praise Song for a Day” for the 2008 President Barack Obama inauguration, spoke of art-making in the Diaspora. She emphasized: “Bearden is America’s preeminent artist—not its best Black artist! And anyone who disagrees, I’m ready to fight them.” To her, art is poetry. She also shared her family connection to Bearden that “goes back for decades.” She described a Christmas gift of a crucifix painting that a young 8-year-old Romare presented to her mother. Her grandfather was the famous artist Charles Alston. Alexander said that they all visited with each other through the years.

John Edgar Wideman, author of several novels and winner of numerous awards including PEN/Faulkner Award and the American Book Award, described Bearden’s work “Farewell to Eugene,” a funeral for his childhood friend. “The genius comes from how and why Bearden worked with what looked like too many pieces to fit into one painting,” Wideman said. Considered his most dense collage, Wideman explained that “Farewell” was Bearden’s way to pay homage, though 50 years later, to his childhood friend who was part of his formative art experience. The crippled White boy lived with his mother above a brothel. The boys used to peek through a hole in the floor and draw “nasty” pictures of what they witnessed below on butcher paper. Bearden’s grandmother discovered them and brought the boy home to live with them. The boy became Bearden’s best friend. Sadly, the boy died a year later. A study of the art shows a dense portrait that brings the whole town of Pittsburgh together to pay their respects at Eugene’s funeral.

Stanley Crouch, author of several books and writings especially about jazz said that “all visual art is about freeing the line.” He discussed influences of Picasso and Flaubert and saw in Bearden’s work “the creation of emotional epics by re-imagining the vitality of his people through the influences of music from Louis Armstrong to other jazz greats.”

Khalil Gibran Muhammad, professor and author, spoke of his mission as Black history caretaker in his role as executive director of Harlem’s famed Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture Center. He promised to stay true to his cause by celebrating African American art. He shared a personal story about his first Bearden art purchase, a poster of “The Lamp.” It shined brightly on the stage screen. He chronicled purchasing it with his then partner, who later became his wife. He said that “together we hung the painting in our children’s bedroom and we only moved it once — when I took office at the Schomburg.”

Ton Morrison sent a note: “Romare Bearden was among the first African American visual artists to move painting away from the nostalgic and sentimental work that preceded him. His use of high modern technique and sensibility in order to re-imagine Black history produced amazing work still unsurpassed. Two of his paintings hang on my walls: one, a large watercolor of jazz musicians; the second, a dedicated print of a character in Song of Solomon. Each is profoundly different from the other; both reveal the depth of his talent and intelligence. All of which was vividly on display the last time I visited him in his studio. His body of work is for the ages.”

Co-sponsors were the Romare Bearden Foundation, the Schomburg Center and the West Chester Poetry Center—and in particular to Johanne Bryant-Reid and especially to Russell Goings.

Photos below by Nancy Crampton.

writer's tribute to Bearden
Stanley Crouch speaking at Writer’s Tribute to Bearden at 92Y.



writer's tribute to Bearden
Sarah Lewis discussed Frederick Douglass in her talk about Bearden’s art.


writer's tribute to Bearden
Sarah Lewis showed ‘Card Players’ series by Bearden and Cezanne.


writer's tribute to Bearden
Elizabeth Alexander speaks about Bearden at 92Y.


writer's tribute to Bearden
John Edgar Wideman discussed Bearden’s ‘Farewell to Eugene’ at 92Y.


writer's tribute to Bearden
Russell Goings speaking about Bearden at 92Y.



James Denmark: Artist Vibes from Low Country

Artist James Denmark celebrates Black History month the old-fashioned way—everyday! If Romare Bearden is the ‘Griot for a Global Village,’according to a New York Times article by the same title, then Denmark is his chief disciple. Denmark said that he thrives on being a Black artist. At seventy-plus years old he said that he never struggles with whether he is an artist first or an African American. His art is consistently sought after by galleries worldwide most notably the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Stockholm’s Absolut collection.

'By The Window,' James Denmark, 2009, acrylic, collage

Artistic Narratives: During a recent conversation, Denmark said embracing his heritage, music, language and spiritualty is very freeing. He believes that his artistic narratives have no borders calling his approach improvisational. Like jazz, his collages and paintings speak a universal language. Denmark incorporates hand-colored paper and found materials. He captures sounds, sights, flavors and aromas: “I am driven, guided and directed by the spirits.”  

Generations: Denmark is currently being recognized along with his artist grandson Demetric Denmark in a show entitled ‘Generations’ at Beaufort Arts Council Gallery through 2/29.  Go to www.beaufortcountyarts.com/gallery.htm

“That should be our purpose in life– to pass on the knowledge about our culture and history to the next generation. I am so proud that my grandson is following in my footsteps.”

Mentors: “Romey was my mentor as were all of the giants of the Black art scene—Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, Hale Woodruff. I knew all of the artists from the Harlem Renaissance– Ernest Crichlow, among others. There were very few galleries open to them but they forged ahead anyway. They felt dedicated to our narrative. Romey said that it was our job to tell our story. We could not get off course. I always felt that if I could create art—painting, ceramic, glass or collage and you looked at it and could feel like you were in that church, witnessing that event, in that city or out in those marshes, then I had done my job as an artist. That is still my goal.”

“Romey said when you can work or create art to express what you experienced, the viewer will be drawn in to hear or see what you heard in your unharnessed artistic expression of ideas of the music, prayer or your surroundings as it was put to you—that’s what an artist’s job is about.”

Loving Yemassee: “Moving to Yemassee, SC, 11 years ago from Brooklyn has been tremendous. A lot of us are not exposed to the staying power of African culture in America. The warm and welcoming Gullah people definitely made an impact on me. They are now my people. I love it here. They have an accent and language that you don’t hear anyway but here. Their culture in these marshes has existed intact for generations from their basket weaving traditions to their cooking ways.

New York Love: Of course we all miss Jimmy, as family call him, here in New York. Actually, I claim him as a cousin because he is my childhood friend Deidra Perry Titus’ cousin; her brother Nicky is my play brother. Jimmy and wife Ethel hang out with their mother Helen also living in Yemassee who was my mother’s dear friend. So when word got out that the Winter Haven, Florida native would be featured in a solo show at Mount Vernon’s Mackey Twins Art  (www.mackeytwinsart.com), we were there. (Mackey Twins Art Gallery was founded in 2005 by twin sisters Karen and Sharon Mackey who are dedicated to supporting artists of color who are not sufficiently represented in larger art venues.) On view were his urban, jazzy collages, scenes, watercolors, and acrylics, including his newer Low Country works so bright and colorful.  Rumor has it that all of the 65 paintings sold out as fans and admirers streamed to this home-based gallery for three days. Now that’s a lot of love!

James Denmark in solo exhibit at Mackey Twins Art, Mt.Vernon, NY

Family Background: Denmark credits his grandparents as his first inspiration. His grandmother was a quilting artist and wire sculptor. His grandfather, a bricklayer, was famous for his custom design molds. His mother was also an interior designer with an eye for detail. African-American women are a central theme in his art even though he credits his male-oriented family of over 30 male first cousins with giving him a solid foundation. “As boys, we were held to a task in the Southern tradition where manhood was stressed. When you reached 12, you were considered a man. Each of us had to mind our manners, excel in school, be responsible, develop skills and talents in a lot of things.”

Education: Reared in racially segregated Florida, Denmark believes that he received a superior education compared to what kids receive today. “I was mentored by Black professors at FAMU (Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University, Tallahassee, Fla.) where I was admitted on a sports scholarship. I became an apprentice to noted art historian Dr. Samuel Lewis.  FAMU at that time had the best, brightest and largest number of Black art faculty in the world. All of them had PhDs and advanced degrees in fine arts, architectural, engineering. As I was an honor student, they each mentored me by making me their apprentice — in drawing, painting, design, graphics, sculpture, ceramics and most importantly the African-American art movement. I taught classes as their assistant while still an undergrad student.”

‘A Miracle’: While working on his MFA at Pratt Institute, living and teaching in NYC, Denmark was nurtured by abstract artists Jackson Pollack, Clifford Still and William DeKooning“Coming to Pratt expanded my vision and it was a miracle to find Jacob Lawrence already teaching there. He introduced me to those expressionists and the Harlem Renaissance artists. I leap-frogged from the classroom to running with the lions of the real art world. It’s still a dream that I am living today. I could not have planned my life. I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time. “

Teacher, Art Therapist: “I believe that art education affirms your inner core and personality. Sadly, many young people don’t know their inner being. They have replaced it with electronics, phones and computers.”  Denmark double-majored in Fine Arts and Art Therapy at Pratt, which earned him Special Education credentials. ‘I had a lot of fun teaching all kinds of students. I saw some real talent and creations that were grotesque. I encouraged my handicapped and mentally challenged students in artistic self-expression and left it up to the psychiatrists to interpret.

In the Studio: “I always worked at my studios at night and on weekends. I worked at 15 Green Street, Soho when the rents were cheap. I lived on Jay Street and my Brooklyn studio was on Washington Avenue near Brooklyn Navy Yard.”  After retiring from 34 years in the NYC public school system and setting up shop at his Yemassee studio, Denmark’s art spirits are soaring.

collage by James Denmark from solo exhibit at Mackey Twins Art, Mt.Vernon.