Charlotte Native Romare Bearden Depicted Black as Beautiful
It was with Romare Bearden’s painting “Brass Section” that Patrick Diamond took the plunge.
Diamond and his wife Judy are now influential Charlotte art collectors, but in 1980 they were only novices visiting a one-man exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. There they discovered the celebrated collages and paintings of Bearden, the Charlotte-born African-American art pioneer, and it changed their lives forever.
“Judy and I both fell in love with Bearden’s work,” Diamond remembers. “We were living in Atlanta at the time, and as soon as we got back [home], we investigated whether any local galleries carried his work.”
After visiting yet another Bearden exhibit, this one at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, the Diamonds walked down the street to a private gallery and found the piece that launched their lifelong devotion to collecting art together. For just under $700, the couple acquired Bearden’s lively depiction of three musicians emerging from a swirling abstract background, a jazz trio comprised of two trumpeters and a trombonist.
“Brass Section” suggests the shifting rhythms and movement of jazz, while simultaneously — and perhaps more importantly — placing African-American experiences within a universal, classical and mythic context. Such attention to context, color and space is part and parcel of Bearden’s work, says Jonell Logan, local artist, entrepreneur and executive director of the nonprofit League of Creative Interventionists.
“An incredible sense of space [is] created — both interior and exterior space,” Logan says. “Whether it’s strictly like you’re looking into a room, or the psychology of space, you’re forced to question this interior kind of thought.”
For Jimi Thompson, better known as multi-disciplinary artist and Camp North End art gallery BlkMrktCLT co-owner Dammit Wesley, Bearden’s greatest strength is that of storyteller.
“He’s a griot in a sense,” Thompson says, referring to the traveling poets, musicians and storytellers who maintain the oral history tradition of West Africa. Indeed, Bearden’s bold paintings and textured collages can be seen as a visual story of a people. The Great Migration of the early 20th century, the mass exodus of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban Northeast, is reflected in Bearden’s restless compositions and in his many depictions of bustling black life in big northern cities like New York.
Yet for all his modernity, Bearden’s work also keeps in touch with the South of his youth. His work focusing on the slower lifestyle of small-town Charlotte and rural Mecklenburg County speaks to Greenville, South Carolina, native Thompson, who grew up attending a black Baptist church.
“A lot of the imagery that he uses, I saw those symbols and iconography in my own life,” Thompson says. “I was able to contextualize [his] stories in a way that was deeply personal to me.”
Originally from Columbia, South Carolina, Patrick Diamond also finds an emotional and aesthetic touchstone in the artwork Bearden executed on rural African-American issues like religion, family and ritual.
“A lot of that Southern imagery, African-American families celebrating certain rituals [like] baptisms, that [is what] is most attractive to me,” Diamond says.
“He’s an artist that captured life for people and they can relate to it,” Logan adds.
Storyteller, innovator and ebullient documenter of African-American life, Bearden was born to Richard Howard and Bessye Bearden in Charlotte in 1911. Though the family moved to New York City in 1914 while Bearden was still a toddler, he returned to the Queen City throughout his life.
Growing up on West 131st Street in Harlem, Bearden was too young to be part of the artistic, intellectual and cultural flowering known as the Harlem Renaissance, though the movement influenced his later work, Diamond says.
“His parents were engaged with many of the extraordinary artists and intellectuals and activists that were part of the Harlem Renaissance,” he says, and figures like W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Fats Waller and Duke Ellington were frequent visitors.
After beginning college at Pittsburgh’s Lincoln University, the nation’s first degree-granting Historically Black College and University, Bearden attended Diamond’s alma mater, Boston University, from 1930 through 1932. While there, he became a star pitcher for the varsity baseball team.
“In 1932 he was offered a contract to play professional baseball, but was asked to pass for white in order to do that,” Diamond says of the light-skinned Bearden. Bearden refused and transferred to New York University.
He graduated with a degree in education from NYU, where he also worked as a lead cartoonist and art editor for the school’s monthly journal The Medley. Bearden decided to become a professional artist after joining a group of African-American artists known as the “306 Group,” named after the street address of Bearden’s studio. The group later became the Harlem Artists Guild.
Concurrently, Bearden began to find inspiration from Western masters like Picasso and Matisse, as well as from African art. From 1935 until 1937 Bearden worked as a weekly editorial cartoonist for a newspaper, the Baltimore Afro-American. In the mid ’30s he also took a position as a social worker with the New York City Department of Social Services, a job he held until 1966. All the while he worked on his art at night and on weekends, finally holding his first solo exhibition in Harlem in 1940. Bearden was subsequently drafted into the U.S. Army and served from 1942 to 1945.
Upon his discharge, he held his first one-man exhibition in New York at the Samuel M. Kootz Gallery. In 1950, Bearden attended the Sorbonne in Paris to study philosophy on the G.I. Bill. When Bearden returned to New York a year later, he abandoned painting to concentrate on songwriting. He co-wrote the jazz standard “Sea Breeze,” later recorded by Billy Eckstine and Dizzy Gillespie.
Recharged, Bearden returned to making art with renewed vigor. In 1954, he married dancer Nanette Rohan, who later became an artist and critic. Frequent trips to St. Martin, his wife’s ancestral home, encouraged Bearden and his wife to buy a second home on the island in the 1970s.
Perhaps reflecting his Caribbean surroundings, Bearden’s work from that decade displays renewed color and vibrancy. Eventually Bearden’s work was exhibited throughout the United States and Europe, with renown coming during his lifetime. In addition to being prolific, Bearden was innovative, says Logan, particularly in his approach to collage.
“What I enjoy about his process is that form, the surface that is being used [for] the clipping or the tearing, doesn’t necessarily always relate to what it originally was for,” she elaborates. “There is this level of play and re-contextualizing going on.”
For Diamond, Bearden’s legacy is cemented by his body of work alone, but there was so much more to the man than making art.
“He was a mentor,” Diamond says. “He encouraged other artists, primarily African-American artists, to continue their work.”
In 1963, when African-American artists were limited in their representation at commercial galleries, Bearden and other black artists launched the Spiral Gallery in New York, to provide an opportunity for African-American artists to get gallery exposure and representation.
The Spiral group also discussed how they could contribute to the civil rights movement. As Bearden reached out to other artists about the movement, he reconnected to memories about life within the black community in the South. He subsequently ramped up efforts to increase the visibility of African-American culture through his work.
“It was not my aim to paint about the Negro in America in terms of propaganda,” Bearden said. “It is to depict the life of my people as I know it, passionately and dispassionately as [Flemish Renaissance painter] Brueghel.”
Bearden was also an author. He co-wrote his first book, The Painter’s Mind, with artist Carl Holty in 1969. Six Black Masters in American Art, a collaboration with Harry Henderson, followed in 1972. At the time of his death in 1988, Bearden was working on a second book with Henderson, A History of African American Artists.
“He was an intellectual as well as an outstanding artist,” Diamond maintains. “He influenced quite a number of his contemporaries, artists that are still working today.”
One of Diamond’s fondest memories is meeting Bearden during the revered artist’s last visit to Charlotte in 1985. Charlotte’s Melberg Gallery was hosting an exhibit of Bearden’s work and the artist had arrived for an interview. The Charlotte Observer reporter scheduled to do the interview was running late so gallery owner Jerald Melberg granted Diamond and his wife 90 uninterrupted minutes with Bearden.
“Bearden invited Judy and me on a guided tour of the show. As we walked through the gallery, Bearden briefly discussed each of the collages that made up the show,” Diamond remembers.
The Diamonds informed Bearden that shortly after seeing the Brooklyn Museum exhibition of his work they had bought “Brass Section,” and that it was their very first purchase of an original work by an African-American artist. Bearden was pleased to learn that they owned one of his prints, Diamond recalls. The conversation concluded with Bearden encouraging the Diamonds to support African-American artists by visiting gallery and museum exhibitions, reading as much as they could about African-American art and by purchasing black artists’ work.
Diamond says he devotes an entire chapter to the relationship Judy and he had with Bearden in his forthcoming memoir The Incredible Joy of Collecting African American Art: My Journey from Frogtown South Carolina to the National Gallery. The book is scheduled for publication in February.
As for Thompson, Bearden has inspired him through example.
“For me personally, just seeing somebody that looks like me achieve things and make history is enough for me to feel vindicated enough to pursue those same things,” Thompson says.
For Logan, Bearden represents an entry point into a conversation about black artists and the creative processes.
“He becomes the springboard for looking at other artists and the processes by which they work.”
She is particularly encouraged that despite his world travels and international accolades, Bearden is still closely associated with Charlotte, with his namesake park opening in a central location in Uptown’s Third Ward in August 2013.
“He’s from the South and then goes north. His story is really interesting. It highlights that artists can come from different spaces,” she says. “[Bearden] brings attention to the creative energies that are happening within the city and the region, and encourages people to look at other artists.”
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