My Little Corner of Black History Month

In celebration of Black History Month, this space would like to share a couple of personal encounters with the Arts and Literary history of African Americana. Just because.

Benny Andrews
Benny Andrews (1930-2006)

Art first. Soon after I arrived in San Francisco, there was a gallery show of the work of Benny Andrews. Benny Andrews was just my #1 all-time favorite African American artist, thanks to having first encountered his work in my undergraduate days (R-MWC 1953, BA, Art.) As we entered the gallery my new husband Bud grabbed my hand and said, “C’mon, I want to introduce you to Benny.” Well, I knew Bud knew everybody, especially every artist alive, but personally? He had gotten hooked on art in one class during his own senior undergraduate year (Albion, 1951, BA Economics & Political Science) and since then had spent every spare moment hanging out at galleries and museums. But Benny Andrews? Could he really know Benny Andrews? And more to the point, could I possibly do anything but gush embarrassingly in front of a famous person who happened to be my #1 all-time African American artist hero? I went into panic mode. There were a LOT of people milling around looking at beautiful paintings; bunches of them were gathered around the artist. I tried to think of something intelligent I might say, but it wasn’t happening.

Benny Andrews drawing
“The Guitar Picker” (With apologies for photographer’s ghost)

Meanwhile, my good husband, all 6’4” of him, was plowing ahead, aiming straight toward Benny Andrews, with me in tow. There was no escape, and my brain was on freeze. In a matter of moments we were standing face to face. Briefly acknowledging Bud, Benny reached out and gave me a giant hug. And said, “Aren’t you darlin’ to come see my pictures!”

Sometime later we were able to buy his utterly beautiful pencil drawing “The Guitar Picker.” It’s now at the National Gallery in D.C. But just thinking about it makes me smile, and remember that gentle, kind, incredibly gifted man saying “Aren’t you darlin’ to come see my pictures.”

My other famous artist story has to do with my #1 all-time favorite living African American artist, Radcliffe Bailey. Met him in real time, after admiring his work at Atlanta’s High Museum (and elsewhere) for years, when he turned up at a milestone birthday party in California for my friend Liz Campbell Moskowitz (no slouch of an artist herself.) She introduced us offhandedly, and I said, with something less than socially acceptable composure, “OMG! You’re Radcliffe Bailey!?! I love your work! That room of your paintings is the first place I go when I’m at the High!” He was polite about my effusion, though.

Fran w Radcliffe Bailey 2.16.19
Radcliffe Bailey & me

This was a couple of years before he married Leslie, daughter of Liz and the renowned photographer Gordon Parks. I think I’m unlikely to top those two encounters any time soon.

As for the Literature area.

In the late 1960s, Bud (whom I would marry in 1992 but with whom I was not then in contact) owned a house at 2777 Pine Street in San Francisco. A graceful Victorian built in the 1870s, it sold a few years ago for three or four million – but in 1968 the neighborhood was not one you’d wander around without risking bodily harm. Bud lived in the ground-floor apartment, and rented the main house to Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver. At the time, Black Panther leader Eldridge was out on bail following an attempted murder charge. He would eventually skip the country and later return, find religion, design provocative menswear, become a Mormon, struggle with cocaine addiction and die at age 62 in 1998. That was 30 years after he’d been Bud’s tenant. “I had no problems with the neighborhood,” my husband used to say of that time; “either the cops or the Black Panthers were there at any given time; usually both.”

Kathleen Cleaver (who had answered the For Rent ad and signed the lease) would go on to earn a J.D. from Yale Law School and eventually become a distinguished lecturer at Yale and at Emory University. But between her tenancy on Pine Street and her later career she joined Eldridge in exile in Algeria, and became the mother of two. On Pine Street, she handled the family finances. Because they were chancy at best, the rent seldom arrived on time. (When the Cleavers skipped town they were two months in arrears. So my husband went to the Black Panther headquarters in Oakland and said he’d like to have his rent. You did what? he was asked. “I said I wanted two months rent. They paid.”)

Cleaver letter
(More apologies for another photographer-ghost)

When cleaning out our safe deposit box recently I found the letter at right. The letterhead is that of Ramparts, a radical publication for which Kathleen Cleaver wrote. I’d known of the letter’s existence; my husband included it in a story he once wrote, and had offered it to several museums but gotten no response. So I mentioned finding it to my daughter and said I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. “Frame it, Mom,” she said. Thus the document shown here. It reads:

Mr. Johns:

Please excuse the delay but I have been so god damned busy with these pigs and courts and chaos that I completely forgot to pay the rent. You are so very sweet to be so unobtrusive and gentle with me. I think you are the perfect landlord and I would just like to warn you that you should prepare yourself for any day now some kind of assault on this house. I think it is beautiful, I love it, I won’t go away, but the local, federal, international, secret and off duty pigs as well as reagon (sic,) rafferty, shelton, wallace, alioto, et al want to do us in, Eldridge first, then me.

Here’s the rent.

Peace, Mrs. Cleaver  

Art can still save us. Believe.

Ward show 2018 BrennanWard Schumaker is an artist who creates striking paintings, makes beautiful books and speaks truth to power. His show TRUMP PAPERS (Hoisted by his own petard) recently opened at the Jack Fischer Gallery, 1275 Minnesota Street in San Francisco. It consists of works recently done that immortalize the immortal words of our president — words we try to ignore but should never forget. And a few words about him, including the ones spoken by former CIA Director John Brennan that I’m leading off with (left) because they express the beliefs of the majority of Americans, those of us who did not vote for Mr. Trump.

The paintings speak for themselves. So I’m pasting a few of them in here:

Ward show 2018 Feminism

Ward show 2018 McCain

Ward show 2018 EPA RulesWard show 2018 Russia

Words matter. Policies also matter. It’s very hard for some of us who are grandparents to see the planet our grandchildren will inherit being destroyed while the denier-in-chief looks only at profit margins.Ward show 2018 Charlottesvl And his adoring base. It’s also hard to watch what’s happening to other people’s grandchildren at our borders. Or the disappearance of decency and civility that we wish for our grandchildren’s world.

Fran & Ward 10.20.18
Artist & Writer

 

 

 

 

 

But back to the words. In TRUMP PAPERS, Ward Schumaker emblazons them into our psyches, just in case we might forget. His earlier show of paintings memorializing Mr. Trump’s sayings, Hate Is What We Need, led to an eponymous book now in its second printing (also available at Jack Fischer Gallery, Minnesota St or 311 Potrero Ave.) I gave copies to several friends, precipitating some interesting conversations. Do I want this book on my coffee table? Could we give it another title? Do we need to immortalize these stupidities? Questions worth pondering. But if it’s true that those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it, as Santayana reminded us, Schumaker’s paintings will definitely help guard against repetition in years to come.

Ward show 2018 Kinds-CagesThere was, also, a note of very good news at the opening of the TRUMP PAPERS show. A soft-spoken young girl, about 10, was quietly creating her own art work on a ledge at the back of the gallery. A note lying among her drawings informed the curious that they were for sale for $1 (four or five digits less than most of the works available at the Jack Fischer Galleries) and that all proceeds were for immigrant children. Her name was Mila. I paid double the asking price for my selection, which is shown below. Maybe her words will eventually drown out all these others. Go see the show if you can.

ward-show-2018-kid.jpg

 

 

 

 

Art & the Protection of Democracy

Ward show w Fran
Schumaker with the writer

Ward Schumaker and Vivienne Flesher, two San Francisco-based, nationally recognized artists whom this writer is proud to call friends, have been fighting depression – to put it mildly – since last November. It is of course political – everything’s political these days – but for Schumaker and Flesher (who are in fact married to each other,) it’s about much more than politics. It’s about  human rights, the future of the planet their 9-year-old grandson will inherit, and protection of our democracy.

I met Schumaker shortly before the closing of his latest show at San Francisco’s Jack Fischer Gallery, for a brief talk about art and activism. (Sorry if you missed the show. You can still see his work at Fischer’s Potrero Street Gallery.) Does creating art help them deal with depression, I wondered?

Ward show 1“No. It’s just hard. But it’s what we do: get up in the morning, every day, and go to work at 8 AM.” Some extraordinary examples of Schumaker’s work were assembled for the latest show – creating them took about a year and a half, not all of which time was clouded in depression. My personal favorite is a piece titled “The cloud of unknowing.” Schumaker conceived the piece as a meditation, referencing the ancient (late 14th century) work of mysticism which suggests that contemplative prayer might lead to an understanding of the nature of God.

To mitigate their depression, however, Schumaker and Flesher are doing a little more than painting. They have created an assortment of postcards, some with messages on the front and some just featuring their original artwork. After printing out a stack of cards, they also printed out the names and addresses of every member of Congress, both Senate and House. (You can do the same, by following the links.) They keep these, along with a supply of 34-cent stamps, on their breakfast table, where every morning they enjoy coffee and The New York Times. When they find someone in Congress has done something positive, they send a thank-you postcard. Others get a card expressing disapproval.

Ward show 2Postcards take a little more time than a phone call or email, but are a powerful way to make one’s voice heard. Especially if one is worried about human rights, the future of the planet one’s grandchildren will inherit, and the protection of our democracy.

Plus: this is how democracy is protected.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poets, Writers & Inspiration

poets-writers-1-16-17

Quick: name the current Poet Laureate of the United States. Stumped? Read on.

Poets & Writers, one of my all-time favorite magazines, websites, databases and causes, threw a two-day event in San Francisco recently under the theme, Inspiration. It took place on the scenic grounds of historic San Francisco Art Institute. What’s not to love about all of this? I signed up at the first invitation.

(For one thing, if you’re hanging out at the Art Institute you can snatch any spare moment to gaze at the WPA mural The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City by Diego Rivera. So you could think of this as poetry/literature/art immersion.)

diego-rivera-murals-sfai

The event featured a list of favorite poets & writers: Jane Hirshfield, Benjamin Percy (way more favorite after hearing his lively, entertaining talk,) Susan Orlean, Ishmael Reed and Jonathan Franzen to name a few. But for sheer inspiration, it would be hard to beat the Poet Laureate of the United States, Juan Felipe Hererra.

Born in California to Mexican migrant farm workers shortly after the end of World War II, Hererra is far more than an award-winning poet and Laureate. He has produced short stories, children’s books, essays, young adult novels – 21 books total in the last decade, according to his Wikipedia page. After growing up in trailers and tents following the harvests, he picked up a BA, MA, MFA and – last June from Oregon State University – an honorary Doctorate. By his own account he also has “a PhD in window-shopping,” from his childhood days of being “always on the outside looking in.”

hererra-1-16-17

Hererra’s poems are not the casual, uplifting sort that poetry lightweights such as yours truly generally favor, but they have a marvelous power. One, for instance In Search of an Umbrella in NYC, starts with the line

You were having a stroke – i

did not grasp what was going on . . .

 

and ends with

 

i was a man
running for cover from the waters
i could not lift your suffering
it was too late the current pulled
i was floating away (i noticed it)
you
were rising

Imagine being able to write things like that.

But it is Hererra the unpretentious man who was worth the price of admission for the entire event. Billed as the keynote speaker, he didn’t as much “keynote speak” as ramble through thoughts and reminiscences. Amidst today’s talk about wall-building, immigrant-excluding and rights-removing, listening to the Poet Laureate was more than refreshing. It was, in a word:

Inspiration.

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One Bright New Voice for Justice

Migrant Crisis

My money is on today’s young people.

Faced with problems local, national and global that earlier generations could barely have imagined they remain undaunted. They take on mountainous debt to get good educations despite bleak job prospects, they resist any attempt to be told how to act or think or vote, and they expose themselves to the world on social media to an extent utterly frightening to their grandparents.

As one grandparent, this writer can only applaud.

This is a snapshot of one college student whom I applaud. I have never met emerging artist Brennen French; I was introduced to his art because despite the thousands of miles and several generations that separate us it speaks my language.

French, the son of a college professor and a retirement home administrator, grew up in one of the many American small towns that saw the economy tank and opportunities vanish in the last half of the 20th century, when plants closed and jobs went overseas. Though his own family was comfortably middle class, he learned firsthand about poverty, racism and injustice – and seems determined to confront those issues in the best way he can. As his website explains, he “found his voice for justice in his art.”

Two works illustrate how that goal is playing out, as French pursues an art degree at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. “The Rise of Feminism (Break the Chains, Rise Up, Be Free)” (below) is an homage to women from around the world who have made significant contributions to women’s rights through their accomplishments in a variety of fields. With a powerfully drawn female figure centering the piece (while breaking her chains,) French has created a design with multiple interpretations, using profiles of some of the women he references. He includes initials just in case, but viewers could recognize many of them without clues: Virginia Woolf, Susan B. Anthony, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, nearly two dozen profiles rising from silhouetted crowds of anonymous others.

In “America’s Response to the Syrian Migrant Crisis,” (above) French uses somber tones to portray an endless line of refugees, fronted by a garishly contrasting image of an American TV talking head, a red Starbucks cup on the screen behind her. “I created this in the winter of 2015,” French explains, “to raise awareness of the current migrant crisis. At the time, American news feeds were flooded with the Starbucks Red Cup ‘scandal.’ I was shocked that news organizations felt this story was important enough to dedicate two weeks’ worth of airtime, time that could have been given to discussing the Migrant Crisis.”

Voices for justice may be around for a long time yet.

The Rise of Feminism