One of the top stories of 2015 was when when the internationally-acclaimed artist Luther E. Vann won the Telfair Museum Juneteenth Artist of the Year Award on June 13 at the Jepson Center for the Arts in Savannah, Georgia.
The award was presented as part of the museum’s observation of the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth. The annual event is celebrated in communities throughout the United States in recognition of both the official end of slavery in America upon the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and the date of June 19, 1865, when slaves in Galveston, Texas, learned for the first time that they had been freed two and a half years earlier.
Cultural historian and tour guide Vaughnette Good-Walker, who has been organizing Juneteenth Jubilee celebrations in Savannah for nearly a decade, noted that it is particularly appropriate for residents of the city to participate in the celebrations. Savannah, she pointed out, is where Civil War General William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15 to offer newly-freed African Americans a form of reparation commonly referred to as “40 Acres and a Mule.” Goode-Walker might well have added that just a few blocks east of where she spoke was Wright Square, where sales of slaves used to take place every month in Savannah
A Portrait of the Artist
In her comments on why Vann was chosen as the Telfair Museum’s Juneteenth Artist of Year, Goode-Walker noted his innovative use of unconventional tools (such as chopsticks) to create some of his most striking paintings. “How many of you know artists who could pull that off?” she asked. Goode-Walker also pointed that Vann, who grew up in both Savannah and New York City, is among only a handful of living artists who studied his craft with such renowned Harlem Renaissance talents as Charles Alston and others of the famous period (now approaching its 100th anniversary).
Following her own remarks, Goode-Walker turned the microphone over to members of the audience who wished to share personal stories about the impact of the artist’s work on their lives. Noted radio personality Ike Carter (of Savannah State University’s WHCJ radio station) told how Vann had expressed to him that one of the reasons he felt he could remain in Savannah, after moving back to the city in the early 1990s, was that he had heard Carter play music by the famed jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. Retired educator Julie Rittmeyer spoke of working with Vann on a quilting project for which the artist’s work was chosen for a special exhibition.
While commenters shared stories about Vann, a power-point presentation of his work showed on the screen behind them. Most were from the artist’s book of visual works with ekphrastic poetry titled ELEMENTAL the Power of Illuminated Love. Among these were several canvases currently owned by the Telfair Museum of Art.
In addition to those who spoke about Vann, distinguished audience members included fellow artist Amiri Geuka Farris (who was also on hand for a demonstration of his own notable genius) the celebrated percussionist David Pleasant, artist Suzanne Jackson, artist Jerome Meadows, cultural arts advocate Gwen Glover Starks, and numerous others.
Vann himself, then 77, had been battling a persistent illness for the past two years and was unable to attend the award presentation. Jepson Center officials announced that for this reason they would deliver it after the program to his home in West Savannah. However, they did display the engraved crystal plaque long enough for the audience to view and take photos of it.
The complete Juneteenth celebration at the Jepson Center for the Arts lasted for a solid entertainment-filled three hours. Among the headliners was Mitchell G. Capel, also known as “Gran’Daddy Junebug,” celebrated for his powerful interpretations of poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar and for his original tribute poetry commemorating Barack Obama’s presidency.
Cultural preservationist Queen Quet, acknowledged as the “Chieftess of the Gullah Geechee Nation,” performed a story of Juneteenth liberation in her native Gullah dialect. The director of Geechee Kunda, Jim Bacote, gave a presentation on the Geechee culture in the state of Georgia. And Dr. Amir Jamal Toure, known on stage as “The African Spirit” shared little-known historical facts about African Americans from Savannah who have made substantial contributions to local and national history.
2015 Bright Skylark Literary Productions