By Anya Shukla
This week, I checked out Tacoma Art Museum's (TAM) “Black Artists” collection. According to the TAM website, pieces by Black artists only make up 1.76% of the museum’s 5000 art pieces. Therefore, the organization is working to critically engage with and remedy this inequality; this collection is one of the ways it is doing so.
While I liked the collection as a whole, I especially enjoyed the following three pieces by Black artists, all of whom produced work in either the 19th or 20th century. And to flex my writing muscles, I thought it would be fun to create mini-reviews—each approximately 250 words—of the paintings I admired. (Because I am kinda scared of copyright infringement, I haven’t provided pictures of the art pieces I’ve reviewed. Instead, I’d encourage you to click on the links to see each one for yourself.)
Grafton Tyler Brown: "A Canyon River with Pines and Figures (Yellowstone)"
Born in 1841, Grafton Tyler Brown was the first Black painter to depict the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest.
This fact actually came as quite a shock to me: sad to say, I had never known there were successful Black painters during the 19th century. Our curricula need a serious update, people! We need to know that artists of color exist—and have been trailblazing and creating work for a long time. We have to recognize their contributions!
Okay: rant over.
I was instantly drawn to the small patch of white-blue river in this painting’s center, which serves as a stark contrast to the surrounding browns and greens. The painted sunlight also illuminates the cliffs receding into the distance, which highlights the canyon’s size and scope and fully depicts the grandeur of the Yellowstone landscape.
This piece becomes especially impressive when considering that Brown was a self-taught artist. As a mixed-race, lighter-skinned man, Brown was initially listed as “colored” in Sacramento’s directories. When he moved to San Francisco, his race was listed as “white,” which, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, assisted him professionally amidst the racism of the late 1800s. (Although Brown is multiracial, art history scholars characterize him as African-American.) He began creating lithographs for companies such as Ghirardelli’s and Levi’s, becoming California’s first African-American contractor (although he was not publically listed as such), before moving to landscape painting in 1882.
Although the Tacoma Art Museum website does note that, because of Brown’s lack of formal training, “there occasionally can be areas where the painting feels less traditionally polished,” I just want to say this: Bob Ross has nothing on Grafton Tyler Brown.
Link to painting: http://tacoma.emuseum.com/emuseum/objects/9077/a-canyon-river-with-pines-and-figures-yellowstone?ctx=e0821c7a-2654-4e46-bccd-815d92f979de&idx=0
Jacob Lawrence: "Street Orator’s Audience"
Jacob Lawrence is best known for his Migration series, which consists of 60 panels depicting the Great Migration of Black people from Southern America to the North. However, "Street Orator’s Audience" is an earlier piece, made in 1936; additionally, in creating this painting, Lawrence drew inspiration from his hometown, Harlem. And fun fact: Lawrence created this painting when he was only 19 years old!
During the 1930s in Harlem, one could often find Black speakers standing on soapboxes and advocating for the betterment of their living conditions. With the advent of warm weather, as many as thousands of people flocked to these street orators, who, for example, urged white shop owners to hire Black workers.
As the title suggests, this piece really isn’t about the street orator at all, but the audience. Seven Black people watch someone wearing black-and-white pinstriped pants—the orator, presumably—climb a brown ladder. One man, who’s wearing sunglasses, has a yellow sign that reads “blind” on his forehead; the sign and the rims of his glasses both contrast sharply with the dull blacks, browns, and whites throughout the rest of the painting. Even though he cannot see, he, too, is compelled to listen to this oration.
Although one may not understand the historical context that surrounds this painting, through this piece, Lawrence memorializes these Black orators and their powerful effects on their audience. In this way, his art serves almost like a history textbook: future generations can use his work to learn more about Black people during this time period.
Link to painting: http://tacoma.emuseum.com/emuseum/objects/3431/street-orators-audience?ctx=4900ec5f-337d-48f8-876e-1f1f2e215733&idx=0
Milt Simons: "Introspection"
Although, as an online viewer, I obviously cannot view the piece in its entirety, in real life, Milt Simons’ "Introspection" stands over five feet tall. What I did notice from the small thumbnail on my screen, however, is how the painting seems almost otherworldly: in the background, a mass of trees connect organically, leaving cell-shaped patches of sky between them. At first glance, my eyes were drawn to the flute-playing giant facing one of these sky-patches; the figure stands on tiptoe, almost as if he is moving towards the back of the painting. At the bottom of the piece, I could barely make out a miniature Seattle landscape; the giant’s calm dreaminess easily overshadows the city’s tiny industrialism.
Born in 1923, Simons grew up in Seattle, where he went to Garfield High School. A largely self-taught artist, as a teen, he was awarded an art scholarship from Disney. Upon discovering Simons was Black, however, Disney rescinded the scholarship with no explanation. Throughout his later years, Simons also faced discrimination from employers and other artists.
In "Introspection," the fact that the giant plays an instrument connects to Simons’ own artistic pursuits. Along with visual art, Simons also started a band, Jasis, an African-Indian-jazz ensemble still highly regarded today. Perhaps he viewed music as an escape, a way to authentically express himself. Just as the giant in "Introspection" moves towards the sky and away from the city, Simons may have used music—and all art, for that matter—to escape from the discrimination he faced in Seattle.