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There’s a biography about self-taught artist Horace Pippin that my grandchildren and I really love. I’m posting the image from Amazon, but you don’t have to to buy it there. You could support your local independent bookstore, which is what I did.

Recently, friend and artist Meredith Fife Day posted an interesting Hyperallergic link about the Pippin exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

John Yau wrote, “Horace Pippin (1888–1946) was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, less than 25 years after the Civil War ended. He grew up in the village of Goshen, New York, 50 miles northwest of Manhattan, and attended segregated schools. For this reason, the seemingly neutral description of Pippin as a self-taught artist should be seen through the lens of America’s policy of segregation and government-maintained racial discrimination. The chances of Pippin attending a White-run art school were practically nonexistent during his lifetime. He was self-taught out of necessity, as the society in which he lived had shut most of its doors on him.

“Before Pippin enlisted in the segregated Black and Puerto Rican 369th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed by the Germans the ‘Harlem Hellfighters,’ he worked in a coal yard, as a hotel porter, and as a used-clothing peddler. The 369th Infantry Regiment became a distinct unit within the French army because White American army units would not fight alongside them; while in the unit, Pippin was seriously wounded in combat and received France’s Croix de Guerre. Shot in his right arm by a German sniper, he left the army and returned to West Chester, where he took up art as a therapy.

“Due to his injury, Pippin had to move his right arm with his left arm, while holding the brush in his right hand. Through this method, he learned to paint. In 1931, after working in various mediums, including pyrography, he completed his first oil painting. Between 1931 and his death in 1946, he completed around 140 paintings. Many dealt with his experience as a soldier in World War I and the racism and segregation he encountered after returning to America, which — despite the contributions of Black soldiers — did not change.

“Within a short period of time, Pippin’s oil paintings gained attention. Among his fans were the painter and illustrator N. C. Wyeth and the art critic and collector Christian Brinton. In 1939, the Robert Carlen Galleries of Philadelphia began to represent him.

“These are just some of the reasons why you should see the ongoing exhibition Horace Pippin: From War to Peace at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. …

“Pippin was a remarkably inventive artist. ‘The Ending of the War, Starting Home’ (1930-33), is a frontal view of German soldiers behind barriers and barbed wire. One soldier’s arms are raised, as if he is about to surrender. A burning biplane — technically too big in scale but right for this scene — is diving headfirst toward the ground, while a row of aerial explosions hovers just above the horizon. Pippin, who fought in brutal trench warfare, painted the scene from memory.

“What makes this painting into more than a view of war is the artist’s wide handmade frame. The frame is blistered, as if he went over it with a flame that caused the paint to crack and separate. The hand-carved objects protruding, relief-like, from it include various kinds of ordinance (shells and hand grenades, which were nicknamed ‘potato mashers’ and ‘pineapples’ because of their shapes), a tank, rifles, and helmets. There are neither heroes nor leaders in this painting, and the scene is not meant to inspire patriotism. Rather than offering a message, it tries to transport the viewer to the front lines of trench warfare.

“In ‘Mr. Prejudice’ (1943), Pippin groups 13 figures around a giant V, which dominates the upper part of the painting. … A hooded Klansmen stands behind the right side of the V, while just below him is a man in a red shirt, holding a noose. Below the V are various members of the armed figures, segregated into Black and White groups. Pippin has included himself as a soldier with the other Black soldiers, his right arm dangling at his side. …

“At no point in these two works does Pippin present himself as a victim of segregation, and yet he was affected by its strictures throughout his life, even after he gained acceptance as an artist. I thought about this when looking at ‘The Getaway’ (1939), which depicts a fox running through the snow, carrying a black-feathered fowl in its mouth. In the distance are farm buildings, sheds, and a gray, frozen stream or path.

“I kept thinking that Pippin must identify with the fox. As a successful artist, he might have felt he had gotten away with something, because he was a Black man living a White world. What he got away with was survival — being able to live and experience the joy of painting what he knew to be true.

“This is why his last completed painting, ‘The Park Bench’ (1946), is so touching. A Black man is sitting alone on a park bench in front of trees and grass. An white animal, maybe a dog or rabbit, is on the right side, on the grass between the trees. The man does not notice; he is gazing at the ground, but seemingly looking inward. Behind him is part of an empty red bench. A feeling of peace emanates from him. Pippin’s life, all he had to endure and the obstacles he overcame, makes the painting into a testimony to his perseverance and his belief in his audience and, ultimately, in art.”

More at Hyperallergic, here.

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Photo: DS Shin
The Chicago bookstore called Semicolon is also an art gallery and community space.

The future of independent bookstores will probably be determined by owners who combine selling books with other services — coffee bars, author events, children’s story hours, community meetings, or art galleries. In Chicago, Semicolon is one example of how to do it.

Taylor Moore writes at Chicago magazine, “At Semicolon, creatives of all stripes can find common ground. Located near the Grand Blue Line stop in West Town, the city’s newest bookstore is also a community space and gallery for Chicago’s street art scene.

“But Semicolon is notable for more than just its unique concept. When it officially opened on Tuesday at 515 North Halsted Street with a party and mural unveiling, it became one of just a handful of woman-owned bookstores in Chicago and its only bookstore owned by a black woman.

“An author and editor with a PhD in literary theory, proprietor DL Mullen first explored the world of art curation through her writing business, which landed her gigs penning exhibition copy for museums like LACMA.

“ ‘Explaining art is really [key] to how people understand it and connect to it,’ she says. ‘It became important to me to bridge art and words.’ …

” ‘[Semicolon] represents the point in a sentence where it could stop, but the author decides to proceed,’ Mullen explains.

“As a curator, Mullen brings an aesthetic sensibility to the bookstore’s interior. Semicolon is filled with lots of small personal touches, from author quotes on the walls to colorful furniture bought and carried from the Salvation Army two blocks away.

“But what might be most visually striking about the space is the art itself, like the mural which dominates the shop’s north wall. Street artist Ahmad Lee painted it in one 11-hour stretch, vividly depicting two of Mullen’s favorite artists: Frida Kahlo and Jean-Michel Basquiat. …

“Mullen plans on featuring different Chicago street artists monthly, in addition to hosting author and artist talks every few weeks.

“As for the books, they’re unconventionally arranged on floor-to-ceiling shelves with their covers facing out, not unlike a gallery. Keeping with Semicolon’s curatorial spirit, Mullen hand-picked all 400 titles, grouping them by association rather than genre. In her ‘Books That Make You Think’ category, for example, you can pick up Erik Larson’s Dead Wake, Stephen King’s 11/22/63, a collection of James Baldwin essays, and biographies of Henri Matisse and Georges Seurat.

“Mullen also wanted the store to be an asset to aspiring and self-published authors. For those looking to print manuscripts on the fly, Semicolon houses an Espresso Book Machine, a printer that can print up to 450 pages in minutes.

“Throughout Semicolon’s creation, Mullen has never lost sight of the fact that the store is currently the city’s sole black woman–owned bookstore.

“ ‘It means everything to me. To be able to create something that I love, as a black woman, that other black women and people can love just as much is a huge deal,’ she says. ‘You don’t get into bookselling looking for money; it’s really hard to build up your career to actually open a bookstore. I feel grateful that I’ve been able to do that.’ ” More here.

Still more at “Because of Them We Can,” here, Melville House, here, Chicago Review of Books, here, and the Literary Hub, here.

Photo: The North Star
DL Mullen is the founder of the combined bookstore, art gallery, and community space in Chicago’s West Town.

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Photo: Virginia Arts Festival
The original fire curtain of the Attucks Theatre in Norfolk, Virginia, depicts the Boston Massacre and the death of Crispus Attucks, the first to die in the Revolutionary War. Attucks was part African American and part Native American.

Don’t you love seeing old things restored and given new purpose? It’s not just the sight of a lovingly renewed object or building that’s inspiring, but the sense that anything that once had value can be brought back after years of abandonment.

Nicholas Som writes at CityLab, “Behind the modern walls of the Attucks Theatre in Norfolk, Virginia, century-old murals hide in darkness. Three pastoral scenes, created on the theater’s original 1919 walls, were uncovered in 2004 during the restoration that brought the theater back to life. But because of their age, exposing them to light and air could ruin them.

“ ‘Trying to find ways to create access to them without damaging them has been challenging,’ says Anthony Stockard, artistic director at Norfolk State University. So they’ll remain out of sight, sealed and preserved until a plan to display them safely can be established.

“Much like the murals, the history behind the Attucks itself is not immediately apparent from the brick and white terracotta that form the theater’s facade. But ask around Norfolk, and it won’t be too long before you find a city native with some kind of connection to the building. The place the Attucks holds in the collective memory of Norfolk’s African American community has not disappeared, even after years of vacancy, name changes, and collapsing ceilings.

“Appreciation for the Attucks is especially perceptible this year, the centennial of the theater’s construction. A steady stream of stars — from Leslie Jones of Saturday Night Live to basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — is lined up to speak or perform, complementing the typical artists the Attucks welcomes every year. Ticket sales have accordingly skyrocketed. …

“ ‘The Apollo of the South.’ That was the nickname the Attucks garnered, referencing the famed Big Apple music hall. With national sensations like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, and Ella Fitzgerald frequenting the stage, the Attucks was more than worthy of the designation. …

“Perhaps the Apollo Theater should be known as ‘The Attucks of the North.’ Because unlike the Apollo, the Attucks was funded and designed exclusively by African Americans, an extremely rare occurrence at the time. Twin City Amusement Corporation, the original developer, was formed by a group of black business owners. They approached local architect Harvey Johnson, who went on to help found what became Norfolk State University, to draw up the plans.

“Johnson always intended for the Attucks to be more than just a performance venue; in addition, it doubled as a silent movie house and contained 21 upstairs offices for African American businesses (Johnson himself set up shop there after its completion). They named the theater in honor of Crispus Attucks, a man of African and Native American descent who was the first person to die in the Revolutionary War, and depicted his death on its fire curtain. …

“The end of World War II brought changes that even the Attucks could not survive—at least, not in the same way. Young soldiers with money to spend returned to the city, and as Norfolk began to desegregate, the once-vibrant Church Street declined.

“Eventually, the curtain fell on the building’s time as a theater in 1953. … Denise Christian, project manager for the Attucks’ restoration, helped devise a three-phase approach. The first stage addressed the most pressing concerns: the blighted roof and the preservation of the historic curtain.

“Once pieces of the ceiling were no longer falling and the curtain had been cleaned and stored, the team moved on to the reconstruction of the auditorium seats, which had all been removed during the room’s years as a storage space. They decided to build around 700 new seats for comfort’s sake, though the theater originally squeezed in many more. Significant repairs also had to be made to the balcony and box seats.

“Finally, the Attucks was equipped with the modern trappings necessary for a multipurpose theater to succeed in the 21st century. A new three-story wing behind the building provides banquet rooms, dressing rooms, a green room, and a loading dock, transforming the Attucks into a place for events and arts classes, not just entertainment. …

“For Stockard, personally, being selected to co-chair Attucks100 by Norfolk mayor Kenny Alexander has felt like the culmination of a career-long dream, a ‘bucket-list moment. …

” ‘There was sort of a sense of nostalgia, of realizing these bricks were laid for and organized by African Americans,’ he says. ‘It was revolutionary for them to invest in the arts and entertainment that way—not just being the act, but being the producer and provider, and being able to control the place they had in the community.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: Timothy Duffy
The album Black Cowboys, by Dom Flemons, retells the settling of America’s West through a new lens. It was nominated in the Best Folk Album category for a 2019 Grammy.

I’m not a big traveler. I’ve liked seeing whatever I’ve seen in distant parts of the world, but I can’t get over the idea that I’m missing a lot of interesting stuff in my own backyard — in my neighborhood, in my country.

Here is a story about a singer who was determined to use music to rescue an important swath of our country’s history from obscurity.

Ryan Heinsius writes at National Public Radio [NPR], “Dom Flemons’ latest album, Black Cowboys, is a collection of seldom-heard stories about the roles African-Americans played in settling the West after America’s Civil War. The album’s inspiration came during a road trip back home where the fifth generation Arizonan became enamored with an obscure collection of stories.

” ‘I came across a book called The Negro Cowboys that talked about how one in four cowboys who helped settle the West were African-American cowboys,’ Flemons, a co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, says. ‘And being an African-American person that’s half-African-American, half-Mexican-American from the Southwest, I just found that to be a fascinating story.’

“Now, the album has earned Flemons a 2019 Grammy nomination in the category of best folk album. …

” ‘You have people coming from slavery and emancipation and then, through their hard work and perseverance, in spite of the obstacles they had, they were able to create a new social order that still influences us to this day,’ Flemons explains.

“The former slaves-turned-settlers Flemons sings about were able to transcend segregation in the Western states. For example, Bass Reeves, the first African-American deputy U.S. Marshal in the West was likely the towering inspiration for the Lone Ranger.

“Working on the album over the course of two years became deeply personal for Flemons. His grandfather was a sawmill worker, preacher and World War II army veteran from East Texas and the musician says he sees his own family’s history in these cowboy stories. He also sees the societal legacy in these stories. ‘Steel Pony Blues’ chronicles Nat Love, who was born into slavery worked on an Arizona ranch and then became a railroad porter. That legacy, Flemons says, would eventually influence the early leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.” More at NPR, here.

And there’s a nice interview by Ja’han Jones at the Huffington Post, here, in which Flemons says, “one of the things I did for this album was visit the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. They approached me around the time I started to develop the project, so when I went there, being one of a few black people there, everybody at the event was so excited that I was doing a something about black cowboys. They knew all of these stories, but no one had ever touched this in the way I was doing. So I was given a lot of great information.”

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800px-Augusta_Savage2C_H-HNE-20-87Augusta Savage, 1892-1962, American sculptor, an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

Last night I watched a fascinating documentary about a glamorous movie star who would have preferred to be recognized as the brilliant inventor that she actually was: Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story. And I realized that lately I seem to be learning about many women whose achievements failed to garner the fame of their male contemporaries.

No time like the present to start honoring them. Here is the story of an African-American sculptor of the Harlem Renaissance.

Wikipedia has a good entry. “Augusta Christine Fells was born in Green Cove Springs (near Jacksonville), Florida on February 29, 1892, to Edward Fells, a Methodist minister, and Cornelia Murphy. Augusta began making figures as a child, mostly small animals out of the natural red clay of her hometown, Green Cove Springs Florida.

“Her father was a poor Methodist minister who strongly opposed his daughter’s early interest in art. ‘My father kicked me four or five times a week,’ Savage once recalled. … She persevered, and the principal of her new high school in West Palm Beach, where her family relocated in 1915, encouraged her talent and allowed her to teach a clay modeling class. This began a lifelong commitment to teaching as well as to creating art.

“In 1907 Augusta Fells married John T. Moore. Her only child, Irene Connie Moore, was born the following year. John died shortly thereafter. In 1915, she married James Savage; she kept the name of Savage throughout her life. …

“In 1919 [she] was granted a booth at the Palm Beach County Fair where she was awarded a $25 prize and ribbon for most original exhibit. Following this success, she sought commissions for work in Jacksonville, Florida, before departing for New York City in 1921. She arrived with a letter of recommendation from the Palm Beach County Fair official George Graham Currie for sculptor Solon Borglum and $4.60. Borglum declined to take her as a student, but encouraged her to apply to Cooper Union in New York City where she was admitted in October 1921.

“She was selected before 142 other men on the waiting list. Her talent and ability so impressed the Cooper Union Advisory Council that she was awarded additional funds for room and board when she lost the financial support of her job as an apartment caretaker. …

“In 1923 Savage applied for a Summer art program sponsored by the French government; although being more than qualified, she was turned down by the international judging committee solely because she was a black person. … The incident got press coverage on both sides of the Atlantic, and eventually, the sole supportive committee member sculptor Hermon Atkins MacNeil – who at one time had shared a studio with Henry Ossawa Tanner – invited her to study with him. She later cited him as one of her teachers.

“After completing studies at Cooper Union, Savage worked in Manhattan steam laundries to support herself and her family. … During this time she obtained her first commission for a bust of W. E. B. Du Bois for the Harlem Library. Her outstanding sculpture brought more commissions, including one for a bust of Marcus Garvey. Her bust of William Pickens Sr., a key figure in the NAACP, earned praise for depicting an African American in a more humane, neutral way as opposed to stereotypes of the time. …

“Knowledge of Savage’s talent and struggles became widespread in the African-American community; fundraising parties were held in Harlem and Greenwich Village, and African-American women’s groups and teachers from Florida A&M all sent her money for studies abroad. …

“Savage received a commission from the 1939 New York World’s Fair; she created Lift Every Voice and Sing (also known as ‘The Harp’), inspired by the song by James Weldon and Rosamond Johnson. The 16-foot-tall plaster sculpture was the most popular and most photographed work at the fair; small metal souvenir copies were sold, and many postcards of the piece were purchased. … Savage did not have funds to have it cast in bronze or to move and store it. Like other temporary installations, the sculpture was destroyed at the close of the fair. …

“In 1945 Savage moved to Saugerties, New York. … While she was all but forgotten at the time of her death, Savage is remembered today as a great artist, activist, and arts educator; serving as an inspiration to the many that she taught, helped, and encouraged.”

More at Wikipedia, here. I love all the random details at Wikipedia — like her cultivating a garden at her Saugerties home and selling pigeons, chickens and eggs. Check it out.

Photo: Andrew Herman
Augusta Savage posing with her sculpture
Realization, 1938, created as part of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project.

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Photo: Via Flickr / Imgur

It’s always fun to find a “new” book by a deceased author whose published work you’ve enjoyed. One such book is by Zora Neale Hurston, who before her death in 1960 had completed a study about the last survivor of the Atlantic slave trade.

As Daniel Johnson reports at the Black Youth Project, “Barracoon tells the story of the last known person to survive the transatlantic slave trade, a man named Cudjo Lewis. Many know that Hurston was an acclaimed fiction writer, but here it is her work as an anthropologist that shines. Hurston was able to sit down in the Black community of Plateau, Alabama, which was founded by Cudjo Lewis and other ex-slaves from the ship that brought them to America, and talk with the then 95-year-old Lewis about his life in 1931.

“Barracoon takes its title from the kind of ship that Lewis and company were held in. … Hurston talks with Lewis about memories and experiences from his childhood in Africa up until the end of the American Civil War. …

“Pre-order is available at both Harper Collins and Amazon … Barracoon is available for purchase from retailers on May 8, 2018.” More on the book here.

The Black Youth Project, where Daniel Johnson reports, came into being about 14 years ago. According to the website, it was “a national research project launched in 2004 that examined the attitudes, resources, and culture of African American youth ages 15 to 25, exploring how these factors and others influence the decision-making, norms, and behavior of black youth.

“Understanding the need to make this data available to a wider constituency beyond the academy, Professor Cathy Cohen, the Black Youth Project’s principle investigator, decided to create an online hub. …

“The Black Youth Project’s website is a cyber-resource center for black youth and all those who are committed to enriching the lives of black youth. Within the pages of this website, visitors can access research summaries, read blogs about and by black youth, search an extensive rap database, access black youth social justice organizations, and download social justice curricula to teach.”

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If you live anywhere near Worcester, Mass., try to get to a unique photography exhibit at the Worcester Art Museum by February 25.

Asakiyume and I meet up about once a year, often in a museum, and we saw three interesting shows at the Worcester Art Museum over the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday.

First, we checked out a small exhibit on antique Japanese metalwork from the Higgins Armory collection. I thought Asakiyume would be interested because of her many ties to Japan. We especially liked a tiny metal dragon and a lifelike lobster — beautiful.

We appreciated the museum’s main event, too, a show featuring art Winslow Homer created while living in England. Related work by J.M.W. Turner and other artists who influenced Homer filled out the exhibit, here.

But it was the collection of William Bullard‘s recently discovered photos of an early 20th century mixed-race Worcester community that had us riveted. Asakiyume wrote about it on her own blog, here.

What was the most remarkable aspect? That there was a mixed-race community at all in Massachusetts at that time? That the photographer whose photos were mostly of African Americans was white? That his subjects looked so relaxed, as opposed to the stiff people seen in most portrait photography of the time? That the works were lost for decades? That they were recovered in the form of glass slides and were printed for the first time for the show?

No, I think what touched us the most were quotations in certain wall texts. Amazingly, the photographer kept detailed notes on who everyone was, so stunned descendants of many subjects got to see their ancestors for the first time or to learn that a family legend was true.

The photographer was poor and couldn’t afford handsome settings. Some subjects had to pose in front of a worn sheet. Bullard lived with his mother and earned little money or recognition from his avocation. He died by his own hand.

How I wish he could have seen what his art meant to people! It wasn’t until the purchaser of the slides remembered he had also bought Bullard’s logs that two and two made four.

Reports the Daily Mail, “In January 2014 [purchaser Frank J. Morrill] and Clark University history professor Janette Thomas Greenwood and her class began researching the stories behind Bullard’s subjects, constructing rich individual narratives and community history. ” (Asakiyume found the Daily Mail article. Read it here and enjoy the array of pictures.)

The Worcester Art Museum adds, “A comprehensive website hosted by Clark University (www.bullardphotos.org) offers teaching resources for educators, all of the photographs and sitters featured in Rediscovering an American Community of Color, a map of the Beaver Brook neighborhood (circa 1911), and additional research written by the Clark students who participated in a seminar related to the exhibition.”

Asakiyume took this photo of Bullard’s photo because she loved sweet-faced Luvenia Ward (right), shown here with her sisters. The photo was printed in 2016 from recently discovered glass slides of Worcester, Mass., photographer William Bullard (1876-1918).

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