During summer, I like to attend the 149th Street Block Association’s annual picnic at Baisley Park, where I grew up in Queens. It reminds me of where I come from, and puts me in contact with the environment that inspired and encouraged me from the beginning. As most can attest, growing up in a predominantly black neighborhood comes with a colorful cast of characters that seem as if they stepped out of a novel.
A woman I met spoke with me about various topics affecting black children. She kept disclaiming some of her more outrageous assertions by declaring, “I’m an artist!” Strange, because she was giving herself license to walk the fine line of being obnoxious. She never once stated what medium of art she worked or performed in; she just made her proclamation followed with even more outrageous statements. Somehow, she determined that any behavior she considered ‘outside of the norm’ made her an “artist.” In this particular case, I think there was a slight mix-up between the terms- artist and strange.
Art is the ultimate expression. It’s the language we use to communicate with angels. We spend enormous amounts of time finding venues or mediums that best presents the world with our authentic self; this is what resonates most with people. Some mistake it as a way of life, but for me, art is that voice deep down in the soul that refuses to be quieted. The only way to find peace is to create. I find those attributes in other people very attractive.
There was a moment in time when I thought I’d become a painter. I like the idea of working in solitude, so painting really appeals to me. I even went so far to apply to City College for a BA in Fine Arts. Since I usually paint in watercolors, I wanted to get formal training in the use of oil paint. I also wanted to develop a more free flowing approach to the canvas; especially, where subject matter is concerned.
There have always been painters in my life. I have a collection that spans from Ethiopia to Rome to Harlem. I’ve even painted in the past, but what stops me dead in my tracks is the difficulty getting started. I knew that if the thoughts didn’t flow readily, that was a clear indication that painting should remain a hobby.
Every year I try to attend Art Basel in Miami. It’s where art and the business of it collide, and in some cases, creates the conditions for emerging artists to be seen on a larger scale. On one hand, Art Basel is the actual ‘business of art’ where you see some of the most well known artists’ works that sell for a hefty price. In that case, all you do is look. I’m more attracted to the art scene in the Design District and the Wynwood Art Walk where emerging artists display their works in pop-up galleries. It’s festive, fun and innovative.
Since I spent so much time in the company of painters, I have a definite point of reference when it comes to art. That is why I collect; therein, resides my painting talent. This talent led me to establishing the Gallery Series for Project Brownstone. We wanted to bring art to the community at a cost that was affordable. We even collaborated with a local artist to create merchandise so that there was something affordable for everyone.
We had the pleasure of working with a local artist named Noel Donaldson. I’ve watched him develop over a period of years. I’m an avid collector of his work. His work is reminiscent of Jean Michel Basquiat. They share a similar color palette as well as a primitive approach to content. Noel on the other hand is constantly evolving. He tries his hand at different formats all with the underlying message of social justice. He paints in vibrant acrylics. He paints with an urgency that reflects the times we live in, both by image and message. His paintings are complex and multilayered.
It’s easy to speak of art in lofty terms. To figure out what it means to me, I try to look at the world with a fresh eye. Every now and then an artist crosses my path that embodies my purview. Right now, I’m all about a young Ethiopian painter named Amanuel Wondwosen. He has the right balance of idealism, skill and taste that makes him a formidable talent. I like that he surrounds himself with a network of equally talented young artists, all in the quest to express their brand of authenticity. They inspire, challenge and feed each other with multitudinous ideas.
What impresses me about Amanuel is his choice of medium – oil. I like it because it has an old world charm that suggests a thought process that defies time and space. He paints portraits that give a glimpse into his world. He’s methodical, pragmatic, and executes with the type of craftsmanship that I associate with the Old Masters.
The late, great African American actor, Ossie Davis once stated, “Any form of art is a form of power.” People find power in expression. Expression is what drives art. So after giving it second thought maybe I’m skewing the meaning of art by negating the lady at the picnic’s assertion of being an artist by terming it as strange. Maybe I had it backwards; the power she was expressing might be based in art. Hence, that makes her an ‘artist.’
Earl Davis is the Executive Director of Project Brownstone. He lives in New York City.