It is somewhat debatable whether Art or English is my first language. The earliest piece of art that I still have in my possession is that of a vibrant robin and worm created when I was four years of age. You name the medium and I have had my hands, and sometimes whole body in it, such as the six-foot cloth covered chicken wire nose, I created for the “Follow your nose” Subway sandwich promotion a few years back.
I was blessed to have had exposure to art in the public school system, my home and my community. Dale Shepleigh, a local artist and neighbor took me in for painting lessons when I was ten. My first masterpiece, a beautiful autumn tree fetched $5 at my mother’s garage sale some years later. My other masterpieces were given as gifts, if not thrown away like the pastel of Alice Cooper in full make up and a tarantula crawling on his face.
Art allowed me to express in color, shape and form, without the fear of judgement that often times came when I used words to express from the center of my heart. I was free to make statements that only those with the capacity to hear would receive. Art was a way I could be free. Art is a way I remain free.
One of my favorite works has hung in various places of honor including President Carter’s Collaboration Center in Atlanta, GA and Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, MN. The piece was completed while I was in high school, a year I was out of class over 60 days because of respiratory illness. At the time, I only knew Van Gough as the crazy guy that cut off his ear off. I didn’t fully appreciate who he was at his core, that “few men had a greater capacity to give love, or greater need to receive it” (Wallace, 1969, p.8). It must have been this love that apprehended my soul when I saw one of his works in a book- The Potato Eaters (circa 1885). All I knew at the time was that it resonated so deeply within that I had no choice but to replicate the piece as a statement of synergy, of unity, of solidarity.
The replication process was healing for me. A few years prior to doing the piece, I had been ripped from the comfort of inner city and multi-cultural dwelling and relocated to a white suburb. I had heard for the first time outside of the television, all manner of derogatory and mean spirited words indented for the people whom I considered friends; people, who in other life times I am sure I lead to freedom, funded their education and even personally taught to read and write. The replica of The Potato Eaters was a tribute to the dignity of family, community and resiliency.
After a recent trip to South Africa and the realities of the Dutch participation in the degradation of a people, I found myself reengaged in my work, impassioned to bring honor to a people, who are marginalized daily. Curious about my fellow Dutchman’s intent, I dug a bit more into Van Gough’s history and found that The Potato Eaters was a statement of “at once a vision of sacrament – the communion of those who toil- and an accusation; it is indented to arouse guilt and wrath among, “us civilized people” who tolerate, or profit from, human degradation” (Wallace, 1969, p.38).
Art is the language of my soul.
Wallace, R. (1969). The world of Van Gough: 1855-1890.Chicago, IL: Time Life Books.