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Posts Tagged ‘self-taught’

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: Andrew Edlin Gallery
Part-time gravedigger John Byam’s carvings of hands, as seen in a New York gallery.

Artists often have to support themselves with non-art jobs. Gone are the wealthy arts patrons of past centuries, and maybe that’s not all bad, considering the Medicis. In any case, it’s interesting to see what kinds of jobs contemporary artists hold down. You may recall this post about Brando’s gardener’s art, for example.

Now at Hypoallergic, Allison Meier describes the recent gallery showing of a self-taught artist who dug graves in his spare time.

“Dusted with sawdust, John Byam’s sculptures appear as if they’ve just been carved, the shavings attached with glue binder giving a rawness to the miniature spacecrafts, airplanes, houses, helicopters, cameras, and coffins. Andrew Edlin Gallery in Manhattan [displayed] an assembly of these pocket-sized pieces by the late Byam in Unearthed. …

“Born in 1929 in Oneonta, New York, Byam mostly lived a local life, working at his family’s trailer court, with a two-year stint in the military taking him to Japan during the Korean War.

“Later, he had odd jobs with the Delaware and Hudson Railway and as a gravedigger at the local cemetery. The wood carvings, arranged by theme at Andrew Edlin with no label text, have traces of this autobiographical narrative, with a platoon of tanks and heavy artillery, or an open coffin, colored black, on a rolling gurney.

“Yet others, like spaceships and rockets, one with ‘”Moon or Bust’ scrawled in red, herald dreams of exploration. Recognizable pop culture forms, including the U.S.S. Enterprise from Star Trek, suggest these ambitions were limited to vicarious experiences through television, magazines, and movies.

“While that gives the toy-like objects a melancholy edge, they have a lot of joy in their detailed shapes. Byam seemed to delight in making even a simple chair on such a small-scale, with annotations in pencil indicating details like ‘door front’ on a tiny house. An array of human hands chiseled into various poses, one holding a coin, another with the words ‘2 close hands’ folded in prayer, shows a similar enchantment with the shape of things. …

“Byam was a deft craftsman in the tradition of American vernacular woodcarving, and his roughly hewn art is haunted by 20th-century culture, both its wars and fantasies.”

Hyperallergic has some great pictures of Byam’s art here.

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