The Boston area has been a bastion of progressive ideals for centuries. It was the birthplace of revolution, both militant and cultural. It has been at the forefront of education on a global scale. It’s such a rich and attractive place, brimming with progressive thought, that it’s no wonder that visionaries and artist find themselves, at various points their lives, in the city on the Charles.
This February, in conjunction with Black History Month, the reading room in O’Neill hosts “Black Artists in the Boston Area: Cultural Enrichment in the 20th and 21st Centuries.” The exhibit displays a varied collection of works by black artists who lived, worked, and created in the area. The pieces are as varied as the artists themselves, coalescing to form a group that stands as a testament to the diverse thoughts and ideas emanating from the Boston area.
The several books on display, rife with selections of artists’ paintings and drawings, represent the drastically different works of the artists featured in the gallery. Ellen Banks incorporates mixed media in her paintings, using musical notes and their shapes to evoke different feelings. In one such work, Maple Leaf Rag, a grid of colorful right-angled shapes spans a canvas, mimicking the look of a written text or a musical composition. Banks uses this kind of visual mimicry to represent the form of language or music in a less explicit presentation. In this way, the piece is a wonderful illustration of the beauty and intrigue found in visual abstractions.
Another book opens to works of John Wilson. His paintings and sketches highlight on more politicized aspects of life. A graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Wilson captures construction workers at work in two pieces, Construction Workers and Genoa Harbor. Both incorporate sweeping curved lines, broken up by hard, straight lines. The workers, centered in these paintings, join these opposing aspects, bringing unity to the two respective works. Geometric and organic shapes meld together, as if to suggest a notion of integration of the workers and the growing industrial landscape.
Steve Locke’s works show another use of painting as a visual record of encounters and people. Art functions, “as a note to myself,” Locke has said. “They document something about the men I have seen—their strength, beauty, cruelty, cowardice, energy, power, clothing—that I find compelling enough to draw and take back to my studio.” His portraits do not contain specific shapes or forms, attesting to this kind of unique interpretation of ordinary events.
Outside of the books, smaller paintings in the display cases are striking in color and composition. Harlem Renaissance painter Lois Mailou Jones’ Mere Du Senegal and Self Portrait use color to evoke feelings of hot and cold. The gradients of color draw emphasis on the figures they enframe. The pastel painting Brothers by Calvin Burnett and the piece Sunlight and Shadow use light to varying effects, evoking feelings of both anxiety and ease. In a similar way, the transitions from light to dark guide the eyes of the viewers around the painting. The kind of suggestion and visual prompting present in the paintings is a testament to the Jones’ intent and craft.
Together, these works represent the kind of art emanating from the Boston area. These artists all had different predispositions, agendas, and ideas. Though they shared a common thread—their race and time spent in Boston—they were able to express themselves in unique ways and offer up different critiques of society and the self. In this way, art was used as a medium to express the differences of individuals and groups, through experience, in provocative ways.
The “Black Artists in the Boston Area” exhibit offers many compelling pieces to muse over and fascinating excerpts from the artists themselves. The works fit into the larger theme of black artists from Boston, while preserving a sense of individuality and personal craft. These distinct, compassionate works are as compelling as the artists who created them.
Featured Image by Savanna Kiefer / Heights Editor