When Kevin Cole, 56, was a child in segregated Pine Bluff, the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas, he said, was a place where black and white came together. “It was the one place where you could go and feel like you were as good and as important as anybody else.”
He already knew he wanted to be an artist, and it dawned on him that it was possible that one day his work would hang on the walls there.
And it has. Cole’s work is part of the permanent collection of the Arts & Science Center, a collection put together with gifts to the institution, including a spectacular group of works on paper by some of the biggest names in African-American art of the 20th century.
That collection is on exhibition now, in a show called “Here. African American Art from the Permanent Collection of the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas.”
The show is called “Here.” because of Pine Bluff’s place in the history of contemporary African-American art, spinning off major artists from the art department at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. It is called “Here.” because now it is Pine Bluff that struggles to feel important. Its Main Street is closed to traffic because its old brick buildings have literally fallen down and bricks litter the street. The old Hotel Pines, once a Southern showcase, is crumbling. But people in Pine Bluff can go to the Arts & Science Center and feel, as Cole did, “as good as anybody else.” That is the power of art: to transcend.
Here is the fruit of the UAPB family tree, headed up by John Miller Howard, a student of muralist and painter Hale Woodruff, himself a student of Diego Rivera. Howard came to Pine Bluff in 1939 after studying in New York and at UAPB taught such important African-American artists as Jeff Donaldson, the first African American to earn a doctorate in art history and the founder of the Organization of Black African Culture. Howard recruited Henri Linton, who came to UAPB in 1969 from Boston and went on to head the department from 1980 to 2015 (he is now director of the University Museum and Cultural Center). Linton brought to UAPB his graduate school colleague Terrance Corbin, who stayed for 14 years and gained statewide fame before joining the faculty of University of Cincinnati and becoming a national figure in contemporary art. Corbin and UAPB sculptor/ceramist Earnest Davidson taught Kevin Cole, who carried on the mural tradition with work in Pine Bluff. Cole, who now teaches in Atlanta and who uses a necktie form in his art to symbolize lynching, said going to UAPB to study art “was the best decision I ever made in my life.” The latest twig on the tree is Danny Campbell, now the art department chair and whose artistic genome carries the highly saturated bands of color inherited from Cole and Corbin.
Also “Here”: works by Elizabeth Catlett, Benny Andrews, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden — famous talents known to most gallery-going folks. Linocuts by Margaret Burroughs, co-founder of the Chicago Arts and Crafts Guild; a silkscreen by artist and art historian Samella Lewis, who founded the Museum of African American Arts in Los Angeles; surrealist etchings by Camille Billops, who created a vast archive of African-American visual and recorded performing arts; an etching by Rutgers professor Vivian Browne, who founded SoHo 20.
The works by African Americans are the “treasure” of the Arts and Science Center’s permanent collection, exhibit curator Courtney Taylor said. She and Arts & Science Center Director Lenore Shoults started work on the “Here.” exhibition in 2014. The year 2015 was the “full tilt boogie” year, Shoults said, as Taylor traveled to Emory University in Atlanta to study in its archives and began interviews with several of the artists in the show.
Shoults, who came to the arts center five years ago, was working toward the reaccreditation of the center when she dove into the inventory and came up wowed, first by a collection of silkscreens from New York’s famed Printmaking Workshop, headed up by Robert Blackburn, who produced work by Helen Frankenthaler, Jasper Johns and other top New York School artists. Before Shoults saw the works, she heard them described as “just posters.” What she found were original silkscreens from the 1970s by Chicago printmaker and filmmaker Barbara Jones Hogu (“Unite”) and Nelson Stevens (“Homer de Brave”), a member of the Chicago artists collective AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists). Shoults immediately understood the importance of the images, created at the height of the Black Power movement, the artists “declaring everyone to have a place in the world.” Some of those posters still have a price written on them: $10. The artists wanted the work to be accessible to all.
“I think the thing that resonated with me,” Shoults said, “was growing up and understanding how important those protest movements were. How important it is that everyone has a voice. And if we could do this research and the book and bring it to the public — which is our job — more people would understand how important the voices are that are represented there in that exhibition.”
The book Shoults referred to is a catalog that accompanies the exhibition, which includes an essay by Taylor based on her research in the letters and diaries of Benny Andrews, an essay by art historian Lisa Farrington on the women artists in the show, Blackburn’s Printmaking Workshop and a Q&A with Cole and Nelson Stevens on AfriCOBRA.
Taylor, who holds a master’s degree in museum studies and is now museum curator at Louisiana State University, said her thinking when she saw the collection was, “I may not have been the most qualified [curator] to do the show. But how long are we going to wait?” How long should Pine Bluff, a city that is 80 percent African-American, whose history includes the tragedy of slavery, the terror of lynchings, the sufferings of Jim Crow and post-civil-rights-movement bias, wait to see that it has a gem of an art collection celebrating the talent and vision of African-American artists?
“Here.” is not the arts center’s first show to spotlight African-American artists. In the past couple of years, it’s held solo shows for Alonzo Ford, Delita Martin and Danny Campbell. Taylor said it was important that the exhibitions reflect Pine Bluff’s demographics and promote “pride of place. It’s a beautiful museum, a cultural strength, part of a national scene — and no one knows it.”
Since the opening of “Here.” “people have just been overwhelmed,” Taylor said. She’s been hugged repeatedly by visitors. “Most are like, ‘I can’t believe this is here.’ That is another impetus for the title. Here. A simple declarative fact, and underlying that is that everyone deserves great art; it shouldn’t be a question.”
While Andrews and others are artists of renown, there are those who will come as wonderful surprises to the more unlettered of us, including this writer. Manuel Hughes, for example, a native of Arkansas (though he left as a child), is represented by two graphite drawings that are surpassingly fine and a bit funny; Hughes’ deliberate and delicate pencil merge figures with machine parts. There is nothing inherently “African-American” about Hughes’ work, a point that needs to be made. African-American artists define themselves: They are artists who happen to be African American and they are artists whose imagery refers particularly to the African-American experience. Intent varies. The late abstractionist Corbin may have used a palette he intended as code for an African-American aesthetic, but the work is abstract and otherwise devoid of content.
In her research into the archives of Benny Andrews — who himself passed as white, which caused him some consternation — Taylor found he was of two minds about the African-American characterization. She writes in the catalog that, “When asked whether Black artists should direct their efforts at the Black community in 1968, Andrews asserted that the Black artist is ‘as American as everybody else, and so definitely has something to say,’ ” and that he sought to make “a statement that is as much American as anything else.” And yet, Taylor also found among his writings something that suggested that “African Americans would find meaning in his work that whites might not readily see”: “When I paint a tin cup or a bar, wood top table, I’m recording not for white people. This is something. They’d never know what I’m painting. They only see the surface, but the Negroes know this.”
Cole said it is hard not to be an “African-American artist.”
“We can’t forget that when you look at the bigger world. America would not let you forget you were African American.” He noted the surprise on his students’ faces before he became known: They’d never had African-American art teachers before. So art, they discovered, is art.
Elizabeth Catlett, one of the greatest artists in the Western world, is only one of several women artists in the show. The problem of categorization holds for women artists, as well; you might ask, are the African-American women in this show expressing the feminine experience, or the feminine black experience, both or something else? The answer is all of the above. Camille Billops’ surreal etchings — “I am Black, I am Black, I am Dangerously Black” and “Had I Known” fill many bills. Barbara Jones Hogu’s poster “Unite” is a masterful composition of raised fists in a palette of hot red, royal blue, gold and black. Margaret Burroughs’ linocuts are the ancestors of former Little Rock artist Delita Martin’s high-impact, deeply personal and large-scale portraits of African-American faces.
Among the living artists whose work has found its way into the Arts and Science Center’s collection are Aj Smith, one of Arkansas’s most well-known and widely admired artists; artist Alonzo Ford, a master of stylized, drawn imagery; UAPB’s Campbell, represented in “Here.” by a wall sculpture that can be read as a painting in three dimensions; and watercolorist Justin Bryant of Stuttgart, who is studying at Louisiana State University and is destined for fame. Bryant is represented in “Here.” by “All the King’s Men,” a triptych of large portraits of men who wear buildings on their heads as crowns. They represent those who labor to provide others’ shelter, including places they could not enter.
How the Arts Center came to have much of the fine work in the collection is a story in itself. In 1982, the owner of a storage facility offered the museum work that had been abandoned in one of the units. According to Henri Linton, the work had been left behind by J. Brooks Dendy, who was a theater instructor and artist at UAPB. He went on to direct the Createadrama Laboratory for the Creative Arts in Philadelphia; the Arts & Science Center collection has a work by Dendy in its collection. It’s not known why he might have left the artwork, which includes the works from Blackburn’s Printmaking Workshop. Linton said Dendy, who came to UAPB from New York and knew many artists, probably acquired the works found in the storage unit by trading his own artwork for them.
Among the works was the silkscreen by Samella Lewis. It survived the 1986 fire at the previous location of the collection, in the civic center, but records indicated it was lost. Taylor, however, knew what she was seeing when she discovered it in the vault.
The Lewis silkscreen and several other works in the 1982 acquisition, including Burroughs’ stunning green-inked linocut “Birth Place, St. Rose, La.,” needed conservation work, so Shoults brought in a conservator from the Gilcrease Museum. The Arts and Science Center does not have a big budget, but for this show it pulled out all the stops.
Its records of the 1982 acquisition are incomplete. The works were acquired before the fire; it’s not known what might have been lost.
The science portion of the Arts & Science Center, though not focused on here, is something that Shoults and the staff are equally proud of; its technology programs include a STEAM studio and a tinkering camp. The lobby shows off some of this work: There’s a trompe l’oeil light box students created with the help of the local EAST lab.
Student artwork is also on exhibit: In a gallery down the hall from “Here.” is the Pine Bluff High School Annual Exhibition, where works by students who studied the collection painted in the style of their favorite artists. One painting, in daring swaths of pink and yellow, shows a man with a house on his head.
Exposure to art is transformative, Shoults said. “Do they realize they are in the presence of the Harlem Renaissance?” she asked. Perhaps not, but they do know “they are surrounded by art of real importance, work predominately from the African-American community and art of international importance.” When students see works by their own teachers on the wall, they gain a new respect for the person and understand that they, too, could become artists. “What could be better?” Shoults asked. “That’s our job.”