Monday, August 30, 2010

AAA Monday's - Dr. Leo Twiggs

I'm starting something new on Monday's that from henceforth shall be called 'Triple-A Monday's'. Triple A may stand for 'African American Artist' but I will not confine myself to that narrow scope. The goal is to tell you about artists of all persuasions that I hold personally responsible for turning me into the caustic bastard I have become ;-). Many of them have not only had a tremendous impact on the look and feel of my art, but my approach to it as well. I never went to art school, instead, I've simply picked up what little I know about artists and movements in art from the occasional library book. I scrolled through until I saw something that compelled me to stop and started reading. I've charted many names over the years. Some I have explored thoroughly, others remain on my periphery so I will be educating you while I educate myself as I write about their impact on me and my experiences with them.

Many of the artists I will mention, I am blessed to know personally. Often time there is a tendency to set our gaze upon distant wonders and thus overlook the beauty which surrounds us on a daily basis. I try not to do that. Im not a star-fucker and I certainly don't need art historians and critics to tell me who the badasses are. I know them when I see them. The world is filled with garage artists who have never seen the inside of a New York art gallery or museum, but are nonetheless art studs. My lead off artist doesn't fall into the later category. He's a stud that has not only been around the block, but owns a few condo's on it....
Dr. Leo Twiggs.

Dr. Leo Twiggs

I selected Dr. Twiggs first for two reasons (forgive me, but I revere this man so much I can't bring myself to call him 'Doc' or 'Leo' even in print). 1) He has yet another exhibition opening next week at the Sumter Gallery of Art (along with Tyrone Geter), and 2) It can said that by extension, he discovered me.

Let's quickly put this man in personal perspective. He has had twice the number of one-man exhibits than I have been exhibited! I first met Dr. Twiggs in 1990. He was curating an exhibit at the Halsey Gallery on the campus of the College of Charleston titled 'Diversity and Directions. I was 1 of 5 artists selected to show my work to celebrate the opening of the
Avery Institute for African American Studies. I was so new to art that I didn't even know what an art curator was or what they did (stop laughing!).

The first director of the Avery Institute was a venerable scholar named Dr. Myrtle Glascoe. She wanted to have local representation in the exhibit since the other 4 artists were internationally recognized. She saw my work in a hastily organized show of underground artists (my very first exhibit) and called me into her office. I don't have a picture of her but we all know a Dr. Glascoe. She's the instructor/teacher/professor that wears grace like a tiara and commands so much authority and respect in one look that the most hardened of thugs straighten their backs when she enters the room. She told me that she had selected me to represent Charleston in the exhibit and the curator, some dude named Dr. Twiggs, would be visiting soon to select works to display (so that's what a curator does!).

A week later, Dr. Twiggs knocked on my door and my art life would never be the same. He pulled a chair from my dining room table, drank the only thing I had to offer (a 16oz. can of Schlitz Malt Liquor) and said, "Alright, let's see what you got." I proudly paraded out all of the work that I thought was good (I was into the decorative stuff at that time and after all, this old guy had never seen my heat!), only to be met with tired and disappointed stares. When the work ran out (quickly - I had only been painting a couple years), the only thing I had left to show was a couple pieces that I was playing around with and he immediately brightened. "Now we're talking." (Huh - this crap?) He selected two pieces for the exhibit and offered a hurtful assessment of my other efforts.

"This," he said referencing the work he had just selected, "is the direction you should head in. 
All of this other stuff you've shown me is foolishness. Hopefully, you'll soon grow out of that." And with that, he thanked me for the beer, told me where to deliver my art and left, leaving me to wonder who the hell was this man that he could call my art 'foolishness'?

The next day I delivered my art to the gallery and in one glance at the other work that was already hung, Dr. Twiggs assessment of my work was not only correct, it was prophetic. Staring back at me were monumental oils by Tarleton Blackwell, foundry cast sculptures by Winston Wingo, hand woven and dyed silks by Carol Anderson and multi-colored woodcuts by Maxwell Taylor. On that fateful afternoon the arrogance of youth left me standing at the altar without so much as a note. My work was so bad by comparison that I found a corner to stand in at the opening and remained there all night. To add insult to devastation, my name wasn't even mentioned in the art review! I was embarrassed to the point of tears. For the next week I was so depressed that I destroyed every piece of art I had and eventually quit painting for the next year until I came to grips with what had to be done if I ever wanted to be on that level. It's been an on-going journey since then, but it was Dr. Twiggs who opened the door by slamming my head against it, then pointed the way to the path that has no end.

I have come to know the man better over the years and every time I was in Orangeburg, SC, made it a point to stop by SC State University and sit with him until he retired a decade ago. I try to never miss an opportunity to hear his talks, see him or view his art (I regrettably will not be able to attend his opening in Sumter on September 2nd). Before the year is out, I will make it a point to call and see if I can spend a few hours with him in his studio where he still creates art. There are some artists that you admire and eventually grow to the point that they consider you a 'peer'. I don't care if I live to be 200 years old and have a solo exhibition at the Louvre, Dr. Twiggs will not only remain the brightest of lights on my horizon, but in my minds eyethe distance between us will never close.

A link to his website can be found by clicking on his name under his picture. I urge all to take a look at and study the work of this unique force in art.

BIO: Leo Twiggs, from Orangeburg, is widely seen as the country’s main pioneer of batik as a modern art form. He is among the most important South Carolina artists since the 1960s. His art is about subjects, topics, issues and people close to his Southern upbringing. But through familiar specifics, Twiggs addresses broader themes, including race, black culture, politics and relationships between generations. He does so through modern imagery and narrative scenes that seldom are straightforward snapshots but abstracted, symbolic tableaus dominated by shapes, lines and fields of color. By the 1970s, Twiggs’ national reputation resulted in a several solo shows in the Northeast, including at New York’s Studio Museum in Harlem. He also has been in group shows featuring the country’s most famous African-American artists, including Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden. His career retrospective, organized by the Georgia Museum of Art, from 2004 to 2006 traveled to several venues, including the South Carolina State Museum. Twiggs’ work is in all prominent South Carolina museums, including the Greenville County Museum of Art. He was the first person to receive as an individual South Carolina’s highest art award, the Elizabeth O’Neil Verner Governor’s Award for the Arts. 

13 1/2"  x 10 1/2"

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Huffington Post

Woo-hoo! The review of 'Service' by Frank Martin that ran on the Daily Serving website has been picked up by the Huffington Post. It appeared today in the 'Arts' section and links to Daily Serving.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Critique of Service

Service: Colin Quashie’s Mural cum Art Installation for the
 School of Government at The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
a review­­­­­
Frank Martin

Artist Colin Quashie’s recently completed mural, entitled Service, focuses on the intricacy of interactions between art and politics in a complex, expressive artwork commissioned by the University of North Carolina’s School of Government.

Noted as a controversial artist, Quashie, based in Charleston, South Carolina, undertook the completion of this project sustained by the patronage of the Local Government Federal Credit Union. The painting commemorates the contributions of African Americans to North Carolina’s local history, and addresses omissions from popular cultural memory. The circumstances of this image, and its commission offer a rich opportunity for social commentary and a dialogue on culture, race, reasoning, community, and the aesthetics of public memorials in America.

Although Service is presented as a traditional mural painting, its placement, combined with the artist’s contrived design motifs and the mural’s contextual cultural inferences, morphs the work’s significance away from being a “history painting” into a nexus of relevant political issues. Approximately 5’ high and 50’ long, the figures represented are rendered in thin, translucent oil glazes. Despite its concessions to the conventions of naturalistic figurative art, this work’s conceptual richness and informative, amusing, complexity make it more than a simple mural; it is a “conversation piece” in the very best sense of that term.

The ideas suggested in this work obliquely confront visitors to the ground floor dining room of the Knapp-Sanders Building on the Chapel Hill campus. Operating more like a satirically conceived performative installation/sculpture rather than the simple mural it coyly seeks to delude us it could be, its complex ideas correspond with the socially critical and ironic implications associated with other works by Quashie, whose rambunctious contentions with our American culture often simultaneously entertain while interrogating the presumed motivations and assumptions of his audiences. Quashie seduces us into believing that this image is “safe” and the mural seems initially to offer few surprises: that is to say, it does the work that it was expected to do by representing a series of figures of historic significance. Service, however deals with more than simple appearances.

The image’s controversy begins with where it has been situated. Instead of placing the mural in the upstairs atrium, beside earlier historical murals, Quashie has positioned it downstairs on the ground floor. The mural is intended to celebrate images of African-Americans omitted in the past from the official historical record. Its location by the cafeteria underscores the reality that for many years past, in North Carolina’s history (and throughout the South), the only possibility for African-Americans to be employed in such a space as this School of Government Building would have been as workers in the kitchen or in some form of menial labor.

Acknowledging historic exclusion of African-Americans, Quashie, places the “Greensboro Four,” Joseph McNeil, David Richmond, Jibreel Khazan (formely known as Ezell Blair, Jr.), and Franklin McCain, at eye level with the audience, shown larger than life, emphasizing their importance in acting as catalytic agents, fighting for desegregation, having initiated the historic Greensboro sit-in. They are represented as chefs or “fry-cooks” working literally in the fire of the alchemical kitchen of social change. Moreover, as personifications of forces for change, they are closest to the modern audience in the fictive space, and closest to the actual kitchen of the real-space restaurant. The “Greensboro Four” shape our experience in the metaphorical restaurant, and have helped “cook up” what we are being offered as a transformative experience (our contemporarily enhanced equality and inclusion).

The power of this presentation is the fact that Quashie has now chosen to segregate the images of blacks even as they are gradually being included in the official canons of history. This separation is itself politically interesting and significant. Quashie has elliptically attacked the racial context of the commission for the mural, despite or because it is intended as an homage to Civil Rights and "black" history. He instinctively rejected the idea of placing this mural with the earlier historical murals and offers instead something unique and unexpected. In place of what could have been a repetitive, pointless gesture, we have a dynamic, politicized conversation; witty, amusing, and not entirely pleasant. No solutions to the confusions of racial conversations can be achieved by a pretense that the past never happened. Understanding this (for both artist and patron) is the difference between generating interesting, meaningful art, as contrasted with stale, empty or meaningless gestures.

The representations of the Civil Rights workers who staged the lunch counter sit-ins at Greensboro’s Woolworths Department Store anchors the image as a visual metaphor, thus, we may sweep into the matrix of a contrived environment to locate a history painting in the realist tradition.  With the main protagonists shown in fry-cook's outfits, the visual pun is established, a wry tease upon which the mural’s title, Service, can now play continually. The work raises several variations on this theme simultaneously: first, the fact that African-Americans were refused service at segregated establishments (until the 1960s); second, the service to our country that these courageous students and their fore-bearers and counterparts provided in risking their lives to enhance our understanding of the inequities of the time; third, how these Civil Rights workers are serving the general public in helping to create a more equitable American society based on their risky venture; and finally, the fact that most often Africa-Americans were and perhaps still are associated with service or domestic positions in our American popular conscience.

Is this by the artist’s intention? Yes and no. Some is “happy accident,” some is clever and careful contrivance. However, this representation of a group meal invites comparison with another art historical representation, bringing to mind Leonardo's, (yes, as in da Vinci’s), Last Supper. Not only does the lunch motif position this work squarely in some kind of comparative contention with Western tradition, but its contextual shift to “secular” and “legal” as opposed to a “religious” and “spiritual” cultural impact says something about a significant, modern human shift as well.

The main point is this image is a conceptual work being presented deceptively as  a straight-forward painting. The grouping of figures in the lunchroom setting is a pretext for why such a diverse collection of individuals may be arranged in a relational association, and use of this metaphor benefits the work’s overall conceptual structure. The allegorical luncheonette offers a fitting setting for the work’s historical theme. The image’s messages are transmitted as much by its concept, location and context, as by who or what has been represented.

Beyond the contextual politics, the individuals who are shown in the image, were suggested by a committee established specifically for that purpose. Quashie has blogged his research into the lives of the diverse figures, including: pamphleteer, David Walker (born in 1785), author of an early anti-slavery document urging the enslaved populace to rebel against their captors; writer Charles Chesnutt (born 1858); the amazing Pea Island Life Savers under the command of Richard Etheridge; civil rights activist, Ella Jo Baker (born 1903); concluding with historian John Hope Franklin (born 1915). Many of the details from the historical record as well as the artist’s thoughts on his process are included at

As a final nod to his own connection to the legacy of institutionalized slavery, Quashie indicates his own ancestry as a product of the African diaspora by showing an anonymous slave couple in panel number seven, using as his models an image of his own mother, shown in profile looking upward and to the viewer’s right, and an interpolated image of his father. This element of personal history in an image about exclusion, courage in the face of discrimination, and the search for equality, a struggle for a “seat at the table,” is itself a powerful statement regarding the impact of constructs of race on contemporary society, as it were, up to the very creation of the artwork itself. This dialectical approach to artistic representation is full of intrigue and interest. To our collective benefit, I suggest that we have been “quashied,” a verb, meaning here to cause us to consider, even against our will, the complexities of America's legacy of law, race, and our ever-curious modes of reasoning.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Post and Courier article

Provocative Charleston artist unveils UNC mural that features state's black figures

by Adam Parker
The Post and Courier
Sunday - August 15, 2010

Local artist Colin Quashie embraced the opportunity to set the record straight. A self-proclaimed provocateur and social critic, he is the painter the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's School of Government turned to when it needed to solve a festering problem. The school claimed to represent all the citizens of the state, but its series of historical murals commissioned in 1954 became noteworthy for what it was missing: black people.

Charleston painter Colin Quashie, who specializes in provocative conceptual art that challenges social conventions and stereotypes, has created a mural for the School of Government at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. The commission was meant to correct historical omissions at the school. Quashie's 50-foot-long mural features the Greensboro Four in the inside of the counter, dressing them in chef's clothing to convey the idea that they are serving history to the viewer. On the other side of the counter is an array of noted African-Americans who contributed in various ways to North Carolina's history.
The remedy? A new commission for the renovated Knapp-Sanders Building.

And last month, Quashie unveiled his 5-foot-high, 50-foot-long mural called "Service," the first milestone of the Missing History project, which was mounted in a long hallway opposite the school's cafeteria.

The mural is unlike much of the artist's work that came before it and could be a watershed moment for an artist who has cultivated a reputation for challenging conventions and stereotypes, his colleagues said.

History reclaimed

Ann Simpson, associate dean for development at the North Carolina school, said the idea for new artwork took hold in the late 1990s, when the renovation project got under way. 

The series of 14 murals painted by Frances Vandeveer Kughler failed to include the historical contributions of minority populations in the state. 

"Over time, this became controversial, both internally and outside the school," Simpson said. 

By 2007, school officials decided to commission two artists to paint murals depicting black and Native American history. 

Quashie, his reputation preceding him, made the short list. 

"His past work created quite a bit of discussion," Simpson said. But long discussions with the controversial artist put the selection committee at ease. 

Money was raised in a capital campaign, Simpson said, but the Great Recession left the project in limbo. That's when the Local Government Federal Credit Union and its president, Maurice Smith, came to the rescue, ponying up the $50,000 needed to fund Quashie's part of the project.

The concept for the mural was Quashie's. It was the Greensboro Four, students at North Carolina A&T College, who on Feb. 1, 1960, triggered a movement of nonviolent civil resistance to institutionalized segregation when they sat down at the Woolworth counter. It seemed only fitting to base the painting on the idea of "service."

In the picture, the four students -- Joseph McNeill, David Richmond, Jibreel Khazan (formerly Ezell Blair Jr.) and Franklin McCain -- are dressed as chefs and stand in front of a long, well-populated lunch counter, which is divided into eight sections according to historical theme. The counter is a gathering place, Quashie explained. The Greensboro Four, who in 1960 demanded lunch service, were serving a much greater cause, the cause of an entire country.

Quashie portrays them "serving" history to the onlooker. The primary figures in the mural number 29 and include a slave couple, prominent educators, activists, businessmen, lawyers, writers and community leaders. Information about each person and scene is available by the mural and on a special project website.

The figures and details were painted from photographs, he said. He went to a local Waffle House to record images of eggs, soup, salad, crumbs on the plate, drinks, fruit and emptied half-and-half containers.

The painting took six and a half months to finish and involved extensive research, Quashie said.

He said he learned about the deeds, large and small, of many citizens fighting for a better world.

"You live with them so long they become part of you," he said. "They come alive." 

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Latest Review of mural

The Charleston City Paper has weighed in on the mural:

August 04, 2010

Local artist paints an important reminder of N.C.'s black history 
Missing History
by Nick Smith

Fifty years ago, four young African-American men sat at a lunch counter and helped spark a civil rights revolution.

Ezell Blair, Jr., David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain took seats reserved exclusively for whites. They were supposed to stand and eat. They didn't get served, but they were soon watched over by police who had been called by the manager. The next day, they returned with 27 other protesters. The resistance spread even further, with similar actions taking place across the South. It wasn't the first sit-in of its kind, but it was an important link in the chain of events that led to desegregation.

That Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., recently became the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. The sit-in is the inspiration for Charleston artist Colin Quashie's enormous new painting, "Service," which was unveiled last week at the University of North Carolina's School of Government at Chapel Hill in an event that coincided with the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of the Greensboro Woolworth's.Quashie is best known for art that questions the cross-cultural status quo. His collection includes the "O.J. Simpson Coloring & Activity Book," with a police pursuit maze and cut-out bloody gloves; a Black American Gothic Series with Oprah remarketed as Aunt Jemima; and the hanging sculpture "Black People Love Pork Because Africa is Shaped Like a Pork Chop." His new painting includes none of his trademark biting criticism, but its development was not without challenges.

The painting itself is a bold attempt to address an inequity at the School of Government. When the establishment was built in the 1950s, 12 large pieces of art were hung to celebrate North Carolinian history, and the series had a conspicuous absence of non-white people. In 2007, a commission was created to find new art, a modest mea culpa half a century too late. One of the selecting artists was Juan Logan, best known here for last year's Prop Master show at the Gibbes. Logan has known Quashie for 15 years, thought he'd be a perfect fit, and added his name to the hat.

According to Associate Dean for Development Ann Simpson, out of the 13 artists who sent proposals, the field was narrowed to three, including Quashie. When he heard he was in the top three, the artist's initial reaction was, "Oh shit, what am I going to do now?" Quashie never pursues commissions, preferring to do his own thing unhindered by corporate hand-wringing. Yet the idea of filling in this "missing history" intrigued him. The school had only one major concern about his concept — they didn't want to see lynchings or other scenes that would cause discomfort. Quashie agreed, becoming increasingly passionate about the subject as he learned more about the Greensboro Four and their fellow North Carolinians.

"I thought I'd get bored, but the subject matter sucked me in. It was stunning what they'd done," says Quashie of the Four and the dozens of other figures he's included in his artwork. "It was inspiring. I feel like I've led a wasted life compared to the circumstances in which these people achieved what they did."
Quashie had to make it clear to the committee that he wouldn't be lampooning his subject. Simpson says that his contentious rep made the committee nervous. "We talked quite a bit with him about the spirit of this work," she says, "and what we hoped it would convey. He understood that."

The artist's reply was direct: "I know the work you've seen is controversial, but I understand what this piece needs to do — show people how far we've come and hopefully get people interested in learning more about others who contributed to African-American history."

That was enough to satisfy the committee, but they had another concern: Quashie's choice of venue. Instead of hanging the painting beside the 50-year-old art in the school's high-profile atrium, he wanted it tucked away in a first floor hallway.

"A lot of people asked about that," says Simpson. "It's not a well-traveled hallway at first glance." The school didn't want to be accused of hiding their $45,000 African-American painting off the beaten path.

"They were disappointed," says the artist. "I had to convince them of the location." He told them he'd "take the hit" if there was any criticism, arguing that he hadn't chosen the space lightly. The long, white wall is perfect for his artwork, and it's across from the dining hall where thousands of students actually have time to stop and sample his work. Plus the art is site specific — the main subjects gather at a lunch counter, interacting with each other in life-sized proportions, discussing larger-than-life matters.

The completed painting justifies Logan's recommendation and the committee's faith in Quashie. It's a breathtaking reminder of the contributions African Americans have made to North Carolina's history, from activists to teachers and businessmen, escaped slaves and abolitionists. The artist realistically depicts more than 40 notable figures with unfussy brushstrokes.

"Service" doesn't just add to the art already at the school; it will undoubtedly get people talking. It's a perfect example of an artist becoming enthralled by his topic and making it reach out to others in a vivid, stimulating way.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

UNC Press Blog Series

UNC Press has decided to collaborate with the School of Government via a new blog series to highlight the Missing History Mural. Many of the individuals depicted in the painting have been the subject of, or included in books published by UNC Press. In an effort to further educate the public, each Tuesday (starting today) they will feature a panel from the mural and post information about every aspect of the panel and suggest relevant UNC Press books that give further insight into the events and individuals. UNC Press has an impressive array of published material about African American contributions to North Carolina history. They include a great biography of Ella Baker, a book by David Cecelski on slave and free black watermen along the NC coast, a history of U.S. colored troops from NC, a history of Durham that explores the Parish Street heyday, a book of Pauli Murray’s correspondence, and a 2-volume collection of Harriet Jacobs’ papers—just to name a few. In addition to the numerous reference books on our list (many by the remarkable NC historian William Powell), they have identified at least 14 other books that would fit in panel by panel with the mural. In the future, they hope to incorporate guest posts from authors in the series. 

UNC Press Blog Series can be accessed by clicking 'HERE'.