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Born in 1936, in New Orleans Louisiana on the 18th day of December, I was the first in a family of two boys and a girl. For most of my childhood, I was led to believe that Christmas, the holiest of holidays, was my birthday. Consequently, I always received Christmas presents in lieu of birthday presents. Somehow, now that I look back, I was never the recipient of a birthday party. My family, like many southern black families of the era, especially in Louisiana, was descendants of a multitude of ethnic diversities. My mother was a Creole domestic servant and my father was a Mississippi laborer of color. However, as they struggled to keep pace with a changing society, I witnessed a change in relationships in the wake of World War II and its aftermath. New Orleans, un-contested as the river city of hospitality and opportunity, was transformed into a utopia of patriotism. While other families migrated our family for the most part did little, if any, relocation. The Laffite Housing Project, built in the late 1930’s, served as a permanent place of residence for most of my young life.
As a boy on the threshold of puberty, I sought to gain recognition within my social group as an athlete. I failed. Then as a storyteller of tall tales. I failed. Even as an aggressor, my efforts were fruitless. Although most boys my age displayed a talent for sports, I spent many hours building model airplanes, boats and kites. I remember suddenly becoming very celebrated with the introduction of a school art contest that was to repeat itself many times in my life. Somewhere around 1944, Mr. Magee, a male teacher at McDonough 17 Elementary School, asked our third grade class to draw a picture from the textbook of St. George and the Dragon. This small act of artistic competition was to plot the course of my life forever. It seems as if it were only yesterday, when we boys, in a burst of energy, ran to the window to trace the picture of St George on the window pane. Needless to say, the finish product was a mixture of dislocated road maps and ambiguous pie charts. While on the other hand, one, just one, which was constructed by that little fat boy with the big grin and over anxious behavior, seemed closest to resembling the subject of St. George riding into battle; or so I was told. However, I do remember, I was an overnight success. From that brief experience, the technique of allowing my subconscious to see lines that were nonexistent proved successful. I had, so to speak, accomplished the impossible. In a segregated society, plagued by abuse and overcrowding, poor lighting, dull classrooms, and void of artistic inspiration, I had, beyond my wildest dreams, exposed an artistic calling.
Later, in grammar school- 1947, at Joseph A. Craig Elementary School, I joined the band at my mother’s insistence. Needing to be heard, I played the drums. Commencing with my seven-year schooling, Craig school extended to the eighth grade. Education, in a bold stroke, suddenly thrust forward to engulf my small neighborhood school like a storm. It came in the form of a young and dynamic teacher, Ms. Gloria Patin Jefferson. While there were many teachers of my elementary school years, Ms. Jefferson, young, naïve, and beautiful, stepped into our classroom to change my world and the world of my classmates forever. Not only did she introduce new methods of learning through phonics, prefixes and suffixes, I was the first recipient of a watercolor set. Through her guidance and tolerance, Ms. Jefferson, an accomplished artist herself, helped to infuse the world of colors to my line drawings and perception. Good old St. George had now taken on colors.
Then there was the high school period 1949-50, I enrolled in Booker T. Washington High School on the uptown side of New Orleans. I entered as a band member with the intention of following the bricklayer’s profession. Somehow, as faith would have it, I accidently discovered the Art Department. Without being too dramatic, it could be said I was traumatized. My band participation as a drummer went first, which was closely followed by my promising career as a bricklayer. Other students went to Physical Education; I went to Art. Some students went to English; I went to Art. Others pursued Math and Science; I, in turn, went to Art. It was at this stage that I was introduced to oil painting. Before, where there were just lines that turned to colors, now with oil, came texture. Believing I was an artist would be an understatement. Soon, I was producing stage setting for my high school’s annual operetta. However, with the approach of my senior year, I flunked Math, English, and Physical Education- not necessarily in that order.
Depressed by the ordeal in which I found myself, I remember my instructor saying “summer school.” My parents, believing in hard work, said, “Get a Job.” As I remember it, confusion was my constant companion. Some classmates, disillusioned by a segregated society, became the victims of crime, while others joined the military, in 1955, I chose the latter.
At the induction center, I first tried joining the Army. Unfortunately due to the lack of a quality education, I was rejected. Not to be disappointed, I walked out of the Army recruiting office and into the waiting arms of the Navy, all to no avail. There too, I was rejected. Still, undaunted by this eye-opening experience, I told myself that anything was better than the alternative of returning to school. Without showing any outward signs of anxiety, I entered the last office at the end of the hallway. Using the past two experiences in testing, I met success with the U.S. Air Force. Why I would think anything would have changed is beyond me. The only test I remember passing was the mechanical test: To mentally visualize parts consisting of graphic shapes and configurations proved easy. The diagnostic test results came back indicating I was an absolute mechanical genius. Regrettably, I failed to mention that I was an artist.
After basic training and technical school, my first assignment was Dreux Air Force Base in Paris, France. For me, a young African American youth from the Lafitte Housing Project of New Orleans, a high school drop-out, an artist elect, the exposure of Europe, an especially Paris, was awesome. I spent my first full leave exploring the basement of the Louvre Museum. I remember walking for what seemed like miles, viewing, looking, and gazing at the miracles of mankind. Art was everywhere. Most of the time, I looked at masterpieces and was ignorant of their historical significance. All around Paris, I was astonished at the richness and freedom of spirit that permeated the air. In the Air Force, my life followed the same pattern, as did my grammar school days. The Military spent thousands of dollars sending me to engineering school and one dollar to have me paint pictures of airplanes in the enlisted men’s dining room hall.
I n 1959, after a brief assignment in Athens, Greece, I returned to the United States for an honorable discharge. It was at this point that I promised myself I would continue my education. The Impact of Europe with its colorful history y greatly influenced my expectations of the arts as a means of communication.
After returning home and graduating from Booker T. Washington High School, I enrolled at Xavier Catholic University, New Orleans. Experiencing a curriculum in classical art under the tutelage of Professor Noma Roosevelt, I painted art with a religious furor. Two years later, I married my childhood sweetheart, Lula Mae Sullivan. Following that, I transferred my art education to a city college that I was later to graduate from, Southern University at New Orleans.
However, while at Xavier, the accent on art focused on the beauty of life through God’s grace. All properties had a place in their respective order. All things were beautiful. Under God’s grace there was no sickness, no suffering.
Whereas, the program at Southern University, a city college, took on a different façade. Under the influence of the nationally recognized Professor Jack Jordan, the mood and emphasis in art shifted drastically. To paraphrase him: “Beauty is a perception. Life in its entirety was a struggle between black and white, rich and poor, and to be black and poor was to protest and participate in the struggle through art.”
1968, after exhausting my G.I. Bill in education, I applied and was accepted for employment as a mail clerk with the U.S. Postal Service. On many occasions, while processing the U.S. Mail at night, I would sketch brief line drawings of abbreviated ideas on the back of weight slips. These drawings were nothing out of the ordinary, just thoughts of happier days. When time permitted, I would work out the composition and paint at home. Again, following the faith of my destiny, it seems that it came in pairs: “me, myself, and a paint brush.” Soon after I began my employment with the Postal Services, an art contest was organized by a Federal Agency quartered in the postal facility. I submitted two oil paintings and was honored with a second place trophy in oils. Here, too, like always, I was asked to be the best that I could be. Which to me left no doubt that I was a better artist than a mail distribution clerk.
It was during this time that I was approached to produce settings for carnival balls. While working at night in the Post Office and going to college in the day as a full time student, I somehow managed to produce fifteen carnival ball settings and dancing school recitals a year. At age fifty, I sought new directions and retired from decorating. With the introduction of computers, I diverted some of my artistic talents to writing. With this newfound artistic expression, I hope to record my life’s work as an African American artist who witnessed the rise and fall of Jim Crow.
In retrospect, my art has followed the path of most artists I have read about. Like them, I too started as an amateur copying other artists’ works. Moving alone, I gained confidence in my own ability to master my craft, I sought to break free from the shadows of the past and from those artists who painted at a different time and place and whose goals and aspirations took a somewhat different path. With new materials such as fast drying acrylic aided by the invention of the electronic color copying machine and the computer, I endeavor to bring my artwork into the 21st century.
Loosely put, I want to effectively record through paintings my existence in the last half of the 20th century. I want the world of tomorrow to see the world of today as seen through the eyes of an African American Artist. After all, as a black artist in America, there is no doubt that I suffered emotional and artistic depravation during the reign of segregation. The questions now facing me are: After spending half of my life suppressed in a mixing bowl of apathy, can I make use of new materials and inventions and overcome my decapitating past and rise like a phoenix to capture the moment? Will I, with limited resources, be able to find that magical formula to communicate my experiences to the world of tomorrow?
To my thinking, to say I existed and left no records as an artist is to denounce all those ancestors who survived the holes of the slave ship to pass the magnificent gift of art on to me. It should be as obvious to everyone as it is to me that artistic ability, like a genius, is bestowed upon only a few, And it is on those few that the burden of responsibility to create exists. I know of no other species that can make this claim. So it appears I am here like an animal of the forest marking its territory. I’ve come a long way to finally make my mark.