When I think about where I come from, I return to the first house I ever lived in. It was pale pink, or peach as my dad liked to argue, with olive green shutters. The inside was just as tacky — reminiscent of the 70’s, there were green tiled floors and wood paneled walls. The living room was where I spent most of my time sitting on our white, spongy couch watching Free Willy with my older sister, Alice. She was my role model and I would do everything with her, even if it annoyed her. Over the years I continue to love this house because it holds my most intimate memories. This is where I come from; the place where I identify, where my personal history and experience reside.
In my opinion, there is no better artist that creates a sense of history, personal identity and experience than Romare Bearden. At the Greenhill until June 22nd is Select Collection: Romare Bearden, containing 87 lithographs, etchings and screenprints by Bearden. This collection has prints from different parts of his career — Mecklenburg County, Pittsburgh and Harlem. A North Carolina native, Bearden makes work that have memories of personal history embedded in them. He was an active member of the Civil Rights art group, the Spiral, during the 60s and 70s. In this group, Bearden began (re)constructing experiences by using photo collage. In doing so, he was one of the first artists to start a dialogue about life as an African American in the United States.
So according to Bearden’s artwork, our history constructs us within communities and as individuals. For example, in Bearden’s The Train he creates a scene on the street of Harlem. He shows us the faces that exist there, dilapidated buildings, industry and the hustle and bustle of the neighborhood. This image was not created en plein air, rather it was created conceptually. Bearden used information that he had gathered from his experience being an African American in Harlem. Living in poor conditions was something very relatable to many African Americans throughout United States history. His art is radical because he takes ideas that exclusively speak to the African American experience from the past and makes it present.
I feel like Romare Bearden is telling me a story when I look at his work. It is one that on many levels I cannot relate to, but I don’t think relating to it is the point. He made his art to tell his story about his life as an African American living in the south during the Civil Rights movement. He owns that story in every way possible because it is his experience.
In Modern Art History, taught by Kathryn Shields during the spring of 2012, Kathryn asked us to do research on an artist from this period and create an artwork inspired by our chosen artist. I chose, you guessed it, Romare Bearden. I thought about how I would tell my story and what images, textures, colors and people I would use to do so.
My artist copy of Bearden is not representative of anyone or anything; it’s just about my and my personal narrative. I didn’t try to create a radical piece of work like Bearden did. I did, however, take his idea of reconstructing memories. The effect of doing so is that these memories are now made present.I chose an image of Alice and myself reading books with each other, sitting on that spongy couch that sat in front of our wood paneled wall. While creating this, I felt myself returning to this space. I felt the couch again, the blankets, my attachment to my sister and how it felt to be in this moment again.How do you combine your story with art?
To get an idea of the collection of Bearden prints at the Greenhill Gallery, located at the Greensboro Cultural Arts Center, check out the online catalog.