I wonder if Romare Bearden knew how much children loved him. And teachers too! Ask any museum or art teacher! They will tell you that children laughed, giggled, squealed, stared and were genuinely enthralled by his art. Recently, while working as a consultant with a media & arts literacy project in Newark, the teachers told me that they naturally turned to Bearden. They said it was standard practice to use Bearden to help children, especially in under-served communities. They said that Bearden’s art had an uncanny way to reach these children to help them read, speak, write and express themselves. Non-speakers suddenly spoke. Slow-learners were discovered to be very intelligent, teachers reported.
I accompanied a 3rd grade class on a trip to a Newark gallery to see a Bearden exhibit. After a guided tour by special art educators, the children were taken to a classroom and given supplies that included old color magazines, colored papers, pens, paint, scissors and glue sticks. The kids were given one simple instruction: ‘Tell a story. Any story. Feel free to express yourself using Bearden’s art as inspiration. “
I wonder if Romare knew that so many poor children emulated his lyrical lines and assemblage. They used his art to escape their troubles. Many of the kids that I met that day lived in homeless shelters or were in foster care. The children framed their masterpieces that told hopeful and amazing stories about their little lives. After the program concluded, when asked to stand up and explain their art and tell everyone why they liked to read, a little Black boy, 8, said: ”I love to read because I can travel and go anywhere I want to go in my mind.”
Care about Bearden
“It’s beyond love. It’s about caring. Over time I became caretaker of Romare and his art. They were one. We had already been friends for many years. When he became ill, I cooked for him, bathed him. We talked and listened to music until his last day. He adopted me as his younger brother. He had no children of his own,” said Russell L. Goings, collector, friend, and caretaker.
Back when Goings and a group of colleagues started the Studio Museum of Harlem, with Romare among them, he began purchasing Romare’s work. Some purchases were for the museum, some for himself, some with his partner. Romare also gave him art. So many friends from those early days speak about that. How Romare gave his art away—as gifts, to settle debts, as a favor. Art was never about the money. It was always about art!
“No, I don’t love one painting more than the other. And he didn’t either. Each painting or artwork, story, conversation was nuanced. Romare worked in a historical context. His work had historical characteristics. What he was putting down was about history, which means it was about race, color, culture!”
“Look at the names of the titles of his work— from ‘Conjure Woman’ to Odyssey.’ We talked about many topics inside of a historical context i.e. Diaspora, migration, music, food, travel, slavery, racial segregation. Yes, we talked about White-Black relationships and Jewish-Black connection but inside of an artistic context. That’s what it was like to live with over 800 masterpieces by Romare Bearden,” said Goings about the preeminent late American artist.
Another way to love Bearden is to celebrate his work.
Romare Bearden: The Paper of Truth (through Dec. 9) at 92nd Street Y Gallery, features rare and never-before-seen works by America’s preeminent 20th century artist. This exhibit celebrates Bearden and also kicks off literary tributes to the late artist (Dec.3, 8 pm) by Toni Morrison, Elizabeth Alexander, Sarah Lewis, John Edgar Wideman, Henry Louis Gates, Stanley Crouch, Kwame Dawes, and Russell Goings.
Russell Goings was the braintrust behind this exhibit featuring the Odyssey Series and The Historical Figures. The 22-piece Odyssey series has not been shown in its entirety in NYC in over 30 years, according to gallery officials. Goings said that he has lived with these art works for many years in his home. He said that while all of the works have broad appeal, he liked the pairing of these particular works for a parallel narrative seen in Black and Jewish culture.
“The lines of Homer’s Odyssey are a metaphor for us,” said Goings. The African American diaspora and Bearden’s own family migration to Harlem from North Carolina are imbued with spirituality, music and culture, Goings explained. Visitors will see familiar faces among the historic figures i.e. John Brown, Crispus Attucks, Oceola, and Harriet Tubman. These were drawn with felt pens that showed Bearden’s lyrical lines and skills as a draftsman, he said.
”I believe these bold works build bridges and resonate as an echo. Both the Jewish people and Black Americans experienced profound grief and are journeying on a unique odyssey,” Goings said. “The same is heard in Bearden’s portrait of Rosa Parks in Jail. Look at that piece. It is saying, ’I will not be moved.’ But, it’s also saying ’How do I get out of this war called Jim Crow,” he said. Homer’s Odyssey themes depicted in this show — the hero, the quest, temptation, honor, and longing— are universally shared by all, he added.
Goings believes that the 92Y, known for its innovative community programs, was a perfect place to show some of his vast Bearden collection. With his life partner, Evelyn Boulware, Goings owns the world’s largest Bearden collection, estimated at 800 pieces. A serendipitous meeting between Goings and a 92Y director Bob Gilson began a conversation that planted the seed for the exhibit. “Russell has been tremendous resource for us on this project, sharing his artwork, memories, and expertise. He made it possible for us to create this tribute to Romare Bearden and to share his work, his life and his legacy with our audiences and with the next generation of admirers,” said Gilson, 92Y School of Arts director.
Goings, 80, a robust Renaissance man, who joked in Japanese and French during the interview, was a Black pioneer on Wall street, First Harlem Securities founder, a linebacker in the Canadian Football League, and a published poet. He was one of the founders of the Studio Museum of Harlem, having served as its first Board Chairman. He credits the intervention of Jewish therapists and teachers with his success. They helped him as a child struggling with stuttering and dyslexia in Stamford, Ct. He said a Jewish firm hired him on Wall Street when no one else would. “Every time I engaged in life, I was given avenues and presented bridges by my Jewish brothers,” Goings said in a NY Times article.
Bearden fans and newcomers will be moved and inspired by the mixed media and watercolors on display. The powerful self-portrait done only days before the artist’s death, at 75, in 1988, was drawn on a page taken from Jewish mysticism. It has never been seen in public before. It was drawn with his left hand because bone cancer had taken its toll on Bearden’s right hand, Goings said. The Romare Bearden Foundation and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture are co-sponsors. Open and free to public, appointment recommended, 212-415-5563 or www.92Y.org/Bearden.