If a reporter were to ask how I ended up returning home with the 19th/20th century French painter Paul Cezanne this past weekend after traveling to downtown Savannah for a very different purpose, that would be a more-than-fair question. I actually made the trip to get some quick photos of the Lafayette Square area for a project related to my book, Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind. The encounter with Cezanne, notwithstanding the fact he physically departed the world in 1906, was not one I could have anticipated.
The first big surprise which greeted me was the discovery #COVID19 had not stopped throngs of tourists from visiting during this cooler more hospitable October time of the year. Many of the events for which a lot of people travel to the city this time of year would, after all, be scaled down to one degree or another if not completely canceled by the pandemic. Clearly, however, the city itself was enough for them. I was awed to see so many, some wearing masks, some not, taking photos of the sites and obviously very happy to be out and about in our coronavirus-challenged world.
Something Unusual and Unexpected
The second big surprise came while I stood at Abercorn Street and East Liberty Street Lane taking my own photographs of the majestic Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist. As I clicked away, something to the left started tugging at my attention. I took quick note that, a short distance down the lane, a number of art canvases appeared to be arranged next to an open door. Then I gave in to the urge to investigate further and started walking down the lane.
The closer I got to the canvases, the more I saw how exceptional they were in terms of the subjects, the artist’s technical skill, and applied individual style. The gleaming lustrous medium of choice appeared to be oil. One portrait struck me as reminiscent of the Mona Lisa and another made me think of the classic busts of Greek gods. If somebody’s throwing these away, I thought, they must be crazy because these are absolutely superb. My astonishment was growing stronger when a man casually appeared in the doorway and said hello. It turned out he was the painter of the artworks speaking to me in their own intensified language of visual style and philosophical concerns, and he certainly was not throwing them away.
Being ever mindful of today’s social-distance protocol, even though I was wearing a mask, when he took a few steps out I took a few steps back. The space behind him looked like a small car port or open driveway beneath a carriage house. A couple of trees were visible just past the far end and air flowed freely through the passageway. With the kind of ingenuity for which artists are well-known, it had been outfitted to function as a studio gallery and was filled with more art pieces. Would it be okay, I asked, to take a closer look? “Sure, come on in.”
I stopped at the entrance this time not because of concerns over coronavirus but because of a large captivating image, perched on an easel, fusing elements of figure painting and abstract art. As I stood before it, the thoughts running through my head started diving off my tongue:
“When I look at this,” I said, “I see a combination of Atlas from Greek mythology holding the world on his shoulders and Rodin’s famous ‘The Thinker’ sculpture. Atlas really stands out for me because almost all of us these days feel like we’re carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders since the pandemic has made us more responsible for each other’s well-being than ever before. It’s not something we can be casual about anymore and have to think about all the time.”
“That is Atlas,” he said, “and also Hercules.”
An Atlas/Hercules mash-up. That made sense.
“One day I hope I can make you a respectable offer for this painting.”
After our shared revelations, my eyes wandered from canvas to canvas in which I thought I detected the influence of classic art masters interpreted through the lens of a sensibility which was both modern and something not-modern. There were genuine (as opposed to forced or artificial) reflections of the brushes of Picasso, Francis Bacon, El Greco maybe, and even da Vinci. Isn’t it just like the universe, I thought, to hide a talent of such immense potential beneath a carriage house in a lane in downtown Savannah. Amid the flashing realizations, an 18x24 portrait painted and etched on wood, and hanging near the end of the wall, caught my eye.
“This one reminds me of a friend I used to have but who’s passed now.”
Looking at it actually made me think of several artist friends who are now deceased. It also reminded me of Walt Whitman. I was only a little surprised when he told me it was the French painter Paul Cezanne. The eyes on the painting seemed to be carefully reading my thoughts. Those parts of the portrait where scratches revealed deeper layers of the wood looked to me like stories from my life, or more likely from Cezanne’s, written in hieroglyphics. Or in coded algorithms.
The entire collection emanated such a powerful sense of human beauty intertwined with cosmic collisions that it might serve as an appropriate illustration of this passage from Andre Malraux’s overlooked survey of classic art, The Metamorphosis of the Gods: “…It is the relationship between the tidal rhythms of human life and a power that governs or transcends it that gives these forms their driving force and accent."
The Painter @YoungPablo1881
Having stayed downtown longer than intended and also feeling I had taken up too much of the artist’s time, I thanked him for indulging me, told him my name, and gave him one of my cards. He in turn told me his name is Rocky and gave me a sheet of paper with an abstract sketch on it. At the bottom of the paper was his Instagram handle: @YoungPablo1881. Beneath this was the name he’d just told me paired with another I could not quite make out: Rocky B________.
I turned to leave and was halfway toward the cars and pedestrians still flowing up and down Abercorn Street on this late Saturday afternoon when, again, I turned around. Would it be okay, I asked the artist known as Rocky, if I took a couple of photographs of him standing among his paintings. While snapping away, I explained that I might use them with a blog or article. He thought that would be great and put up with me taking more than the couple of shots for which I had asked.
Although I had been mesmerized by the painting of Atlas/Hercules shouldering the agony of beauty’s battle against chaos in the world, it was, to my astonishment, the amazing portrait of Paul Cezanne tucked under my arm as I made my way through the glow of early twilight. I called a friend and asked if she felt up to a short social-distance visit so I could show her something fantastic. She said yes.
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
and Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind
This is a continuation of the classic 2010 article excerpted from "5 Notable Women of the Past and Present" first published by AXS Entertainment:
Simone’s composition, "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," written for her friend Lorraine Hansberry, became one of the major anthems of the civil rights struggle and the title of Hansberry’s autobiography. Her “Four Women” is a marvel of minimalist art in which she deftly dramatizes the impact of racism upon the lives of four different women. In all, Nina Simone composed more than 500 songs and recorded more than fifty albums throughout her prolific career.
[If you missed part 1 of this classic article you can click here to check it out.]
The singer’s achievements were celebrated with, among others, awards like the 1966 Jazz at Home Club’s “Woman of the Year,” and the 1967 “Female Jazz Singer of the Year.” As if to help make up for the anguish in her tortured genius soul, the committee for Human Kindness Day in Washington, D.C., selected her as the day’s honoree in 1974.
None of these, however, proved sufficient enough to compensate for the wounds inflicted by racism or the grief experienced over the death of peers who understood her best. Like Josephine Baker, Abbey Lincoln and others before her, she left the United States in 1978 in search of greater artistic and political freedom. Her journey over the next seven years took her to Barbados, Liberia, England, Switzerland, and France, where she eventually settled. Relocation, however, did not solve all of her problems and she sometimes engaged in widely-reported public battles with stress and depression.
She returned to her homeland in 1985 to perform and record for six years before going to the Netherlands, then moving back to South of France.
The great performer revealed in her 1991 autobiography that she once attempted suicide. Since the publication of I Put a Spell on You, at least two biographers have explored the theory that she suffered from a bipolar disorder and depression. Some have taken this as the reason she sometimes appeared combative towards unruly audiences or certain critics and described it as the cause of her “downward spiral.” Others have interpreted the possibility as one of the sources of her phenomenal talent. Moreover, that fact that she evidently won battle after battle against the illness to produce the triumphant award-winning works that she did, make her in the eyes of many that much more heroic.
Before her death in Carry-le-Rouet , France, on April 21, 2003, Nina Simone enjoyed the satisfaction of receiving honorary degrees from the Julliard School and The Curtis Institute (the very school that had previously denied her application) and honorary doctorates from the University of Massachusetts and Malcolm X University. Consequently, she is often referred to as Dr. Simone.
The Legacy from 2010–2020
One of the greatest confirmations of the value of a musician’s work is the passion with which peers and following generations embrace it. From 2010–2020, Nina Simone has become one of the most covered, remixed, frequently rediscovered, reinterpreted, and generally honored musicians in music history. The sheer diversity of artists––ranging from hip hop and rock stars to Broadway and jazz divas–– who have either “sampled” her work or recorded versions of it, prove her contention that she was an accomplished artist of multiple genres. Among those who have linked their creative visions to that of Simone’s are: hip hop artists Common, Lil Wayne, Timbaland, and Kanye West; the groups Faithless , Walkabouts, and the Animals; and European cabaret singer Barb Jungr as well as American jazz diva Randy Crawford, in addition to many more.
The music icon was also a favored subject of photographers while she lived and is a treasured focus of fine artists now. Sculptor Zenos Frudakis worked with the Eunice Waymon-Nina Simone Memorial Project to create a life-sized bronze statue of the singer. A dedication ceremony was held for it February 21, 2010, in Simone’s hometown of Tryon.
This Mother’s Daughter
Nina Simone was married to her manager and business partner Andy Stroud when she gave birth to her daughter and only child, Lisa Celeste Stroud in 1962. Like her mother, Stroud also developed into an exceptional entertainer. Known simply as Simone, she has starred in such major Broadway productions as Rent and Aida. She made her recording debut in 2008 with Simone on Simone, a CD of covers of her mother’s music. A second album reportedly is set for release in spring 2010.
Following Nina Simone’s death, Simone the Second (more recently listed under credits as Lisa Simone Kelly) established the Nina Simone Foundation (NSF) as s a non-profit organization dedicated both to preserving the performer/composer’s legacy and to spearheading initiatives to establish various education opportunities and cultural resources. From April 16-25 in Atlanta, Georgia, the Foundation will present The Nina Simone Experience. In addition to performances and a fashion show, the event will feature a fine arts exhibition of works depicting images of Nina Simone and visual interpretations of her music.
In an interview with Jet Magazine in 2008, Simone pointed out, “I am keeping my mother’s name out there in a positive light, which she deserves because she sacrificed a lot and she stood for a lot. She deserves to be recognized and honored for that.” She accomplished that mission to critical acclaim as executive producer of the 2015 Netflix biopic on her mother titled: What Happened, Miss Simone?
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
Harlem Renaissance Centennial 1919-2029
Few things can rearrange the priorities of individuals or nations like a full-blown pandemic. Its impact is felt no less by cultural arts workers than by anyone else. In some cases it is felt even more keenly through creatives’ attempts to convert the overwhelming collective and personal shock to meaningful works in different disciplines.
Responding to events of an historic magnitude with visual and text creations has become very natural for me over the past couple of years so that is how my response to the COVID-19/Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 started. I’m stressing the word ‘started’ here because, like everyone else, I have had to adapt to the new social distance norms imposed by the crisis before I could begin converting the experience into a creative format. What resulting forms will look like in the weeks, months, and years to come remain to be seen. For right now, the new “Battle against the COVID-19 Curve” and “Angels of Music Revisited” artwork posted with commentaries on Fine Art American and Pixels.com represent the beginning of a series of creative counter-measures.
From the Postered Chromatics C19 Art Gallery
Spread of the coronavirus known as COVID-19 has become one of the most dominating forces, if not the single most dominating, in modern times. Populations around the world are confronting it in their own professional and creative ways to the best of their abilities. We see doctors, nurses, grocery store workers, and public transportation workers putting themselves at risk to help others. With famous singers streaming concerts from their living rooms and families gathered outside the homes of loved ones, standing several feet apart while singing them happy birthday or sharing wishes for a happy new married life together. The images in this gallery along with writings about the impact of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic are my way of standing in solidarity with humanity as we overcome the crisis.
Battle Against the COVID-19 Curve
The race to beat what scientists describe as the COVID-19 curve, meaning the highest likely impact levels of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, began back in January after people in China had already suffered its deadly fury. The goal since then has been to reduce major devastation while the pandemic continued its death march across the globe.
We nevertheless have seen within individual cities, countries, and the international community, scenes which have been terrifyingly heartbreaking and others which have been amazingly inspiring. It is my hope that the Silk-Featherbrush painting titled THE BATTLE AGAINST THE COVID-19 CURVE, captures some of the mixture of extreme emotions and behaviors which have characterized our responses to the ordeal so far.
Inspired The orange-and-rust colored arch in the foreground of the image represents a visual metaphor symbolizing two things. One is the narrow window of opportunity countries outside of China had time-wise to prepare for the invasion of the virus. Secondly, it symbolizes an entry-point to a new collective reality which shows why embracing practices of co-existence and cooperation are much more beneficial to everyone than maintaining belief in conflicts and domination.
The surrounding surging colors are waves of a diverse but unified humanity moving persistently against whatever holds us back from being our best selves. The shadows of dark red in the background can be interpreted a number of ways. I like to think the overall image implies that somehow hope will emerge victorious.
NEXT: Confronting COVID-19 With Inspired Art Part 2: Return of the Angels of Music
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
That the story of two chroniclers of the Harlem Renaissance should have had its beginning in Savannah, Georgia, in the early 1990s, might seem unlikely but it did. Sandra and I met as writers often do: in a bookstore. I was the manager at a now defunct Waldenbooks store interviewing for a part-time worker and she was interested. The interview turned into a two-person literary salon as, somehow, we started talking about writers of the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts Movement, and contemporary art.
Scheduling requirements would not allow me to hire her but neither did it bring our dialogue to an end. Long before either of us would consider working on Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, within a year she would suggest I consider writing poetry for a book of her then husband Luther E. Vann's art. We would for a time work together on the Savannah Literary Journal, and in her role as an assistant editor for the weekly Savannah Tribune, one of the oldest African-American newspapers in the country, she would publish a feature story on me. We would also team up for different literary programs, so when the time did come to tackle the encyclopedia we were ready, as a team, to answer history's call to duty.
Worthy of Our Ancestors' Legacy
Although we moaned, groaned, and outright blubbered over difficulties encountered completing Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, the hardcore truth was we were two lit-geeks who would have been disappointed had there not been any major hurdles to overcome and thereby prove ourselves worthy of our ancestors' legacy. If ever any book was worth burning candles at ends we did not even have, it was the encyclopedia. Sandra trusted that I would pull through because I was somewhat younger and had energy enough to carry my multiple loads. I trusted she would pull through because she had one of the finest literary minds and most committed dispositions toward African-American literary culture I had ever encountered. Moreover, it was she who had invited me to join the project.
This is a framed news article titled "A legend’s place" written by Sandra L. West about Georgia civil rights icon W.W. Law. It hangs on the wall of the W.W. Law Center in Savannah, GA. The photo in the lower right corner is of West. The article was published in the Savannah Morning News Black History Month 1996.
The really big surprise was one that often stuns first-time authors. It was learning how much promotional work remained to be done after the writing was accomplished. That was also the fun part with Sandra taking on book signings and interviews up north while I did the same down south. Still, she emailed to remind me it was not enough that we had completed the history-making volume itself. We needed to record the history we were continuing to make through related activities:
"Aberjhani, we need to keep a running list of what we have done thus far. Especially since we have done a ton of public relations stuff ... I know you have been busy on your end and I would like to have at least one major list of things done ... because, you never know. Please plug in what you did... radio interview for Michael Porter and WBAI, the Gusby TV interview, signings, etc. We also need to plug in print reviews, and all those newspaper interviews of you.
By "line of defense" she meant irrefutable proof the success of the encyclopedia warranted additional printings and a revised, maybe expanded, second edition. The follow-up eventually would come in the form of InfoBase’s eBook of the title and its addition to publisher Facts On File's history database. Any plans on an updated edition to correspond with the current Harlem Renaissance centennial never surfaced. Given the significance of the 100th anniversary of the renaissance and the way numerous institutions are observing it around the globe, many thought an updated reissue was going to happen automatically. But the world of publishing in 2019 as impacted by social media and various Internet influencers is a far cry from what it once was. So in 2003 my co-author assigned herself the role of Team Encyclopedia scorekeeper and started recording notes like the following:
SEPTEMBER 2003, BOOK SIGNING. Aberjhani & Sandra L. West host Book
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.