African American Exhibit at PMA

On January 19, 2015, Diartspora Gallery launched a campaign with Indiegogo to raise funds to restore and re-furbish the many paintings of the collection which have suffered neglect. A lot of these works were salvaged from some pretty rough circumstances, and have the rips, stains, chips and grime to prove it. In some cases, the patina of wear, especially on the frames, actually complement the images depicted. But for the most part, a professional restoration and cleaning is needed to bring out the best in these paintings; to re-vivify their soul.
A week ago, Katie Pfeiffer and I saw the “Representation” exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; showcasing 200 years of African-American Art. It was eye-opening. The prices displayed ranged from the painterly masterpieces of Henry Ossawa Tanner to the idiosyncratic folk figures by Bill Traylor . There were abstracts, realistic portraits, impressionistic pieces, collages and cut-outs. All were striking.
There were also photographs, sketches, sculptures, and even furniture. As I walked through the exhibit, I became more and more aware how much all of the images were enhanced by virtue of their staging and framing. The identical picture – if surrounded by a warped or yellowed matte, or ill-fitting, spotted frame – would simply not present as well. Artful and immaculately tailored borders around an image unblemished by wear guide the eye to focus and see the essence the artist intended; the opposite detracts.
I have lived with these paintings for a long time now. And have gotten used to their sometimes weathered appearance. But the “Representation” show was a revelation. I realized that many of the pieces in the Diartspora collection were imbued with the same power, charm, and beauty as those on the Art Museum walls, but that their sketchy condition sometimes obscured that similarity. The pieces could be repaired and given new life. But it would cost. Money which I don’t have.
And so Katie and I decided to make an appeal to the art and culture lovers who benefit the offerings showcased on the Indiegogo website. This is a project, a sum, which indeed will take a village to raise. Any and every contribution is welcome and much appreciated. The phenomenon of group participation in creating and supporting different projects, thanks to the Internet, will definitely be what will take the Diartspora collection to the level it needs and deserves. We are grateful for the early responders for starting things off, and remain hopeful that the benefits of restoring this art will be understood and supported by many yet to come.

Finding Faces: A Century of African-American Portraiture in Philadelphia, Jan 31- Feb 28, 2014

Finding Faces: A Century of African-American Portraiture

First-Time Showing of Private Collection of Portraits by and of African- Americans Debuts as Part of Black History Month

“Finding Faces: A Century of African-American Portraiture,” is a selection of artworks that will debut at the University City Arts League gallery in cooperation with the Diartspora Gallery, from January 31 to February 28, 2014.

Begun in 1995 by collectors Michael Guerin and Katie Pfeiffer, the Diartspora Gallery focuses on images that portray the richness and creative spirit in the life and culture of the African American community. It includes hundreds of works in a multitude of media and from different parts of the globe.

Through their personal relationships and with a keen eye for the incredibly unique, Guerin and Pfeiffer have acquired many works by anonymous and self-taught artists. Much of the art was found or purchased in West Philadelphia, over a period of 20 years. “The urge to manifest something beautiful from their life experiences again and again trumps the creator’s lack of traditional training,” says Guerin.

“You will not want to miss this exhibit,” said Noreen Shanfelter, executive director of the Arts League especially as we present it during “Black History Month.” The range and power of the work are overwhelming. We salute the collectors for bringing this opportunity to the Arts League so we can share it with the community.”

The show will include approximately 25 paintings, small sculptures and photographs. It was curated by artist Douglas Witmer and award-winning photographer Lori Waselchuk, who are on the gallery committee of the Arts League.

T.V. Louie and Lobo

I met the artist Lobo (I never knew his real name) through my friend T.V. Louie. Occupying at least one ramshackle storefront and a semi-vacant lot in the shadow of the El tracks, T.V. is an entrepreneur, impresario, and man of some local renown. His crew does clean-outs, and he sells the goods in the store and lined up along the sidewalk. Furniture, electronics, tools, a shipping container’s worth of vintage videotapes, repaired appliances and the odd book….all make their appearance along the cyclone fence. Always eyeing new markets, T.V. recently expanded his business to include the sale of “loosies;” single cigarettes sold for fifty cents to the struggling smokers who can’t afford the price of a whole pack.

T.V. and I first met many years ago. I was working nearby, saw his storefront, and it happened to be open, which was something of a miracle, as the listed store hours were more a hoped-for ideal than an actual schedule. To walk inside was to enter every Building Inspector’s nightmare: uneven floors, sputtering lights, concave walls, and a great view of the third floor rafters through the yawning gap that used to be the second floor. There were display cases brimming with bling, mysterious rustlings in every corner, and an exotic fragrance that was part fermented shag rug and part aging cat spray.

But on the wall, surrounded by pictures of kittens and unicorns, was a painting that caught my eye. It featured a confident black man sitting behind the steering wheel of a convertible with the top down. It was done in a bold, bright style, and then, as I looked closer, I saw that the man looked familiar. Sure enough, it turned out to be T.V. Louie himself, in a younger incarnation. It also turned out not to be for sale. Which was not a surprise. I have a portrait of myself that was painted by my mother, and I would never sell it either (not that there have been any offers). But it was disappointing, because T.V.’s painting was a playful and realistic rendering of a commonplace but rarely portrayed scenario: a man and his machine. I have realized through the years that just because something sits on a store shelf doesn’t mean the owner will actually part with it. Still, it is also oddly re-assuring to discover that even in a poorer part of town, money does not always trump memories.

T.V. knew what I was looking for, as I had indeed purchased a few items from him in the past. He said he wanted me to meet someone, and took me to a corner row house, up a dark stairway, and into an even darker room. There I met Lobo, a soft-spoken hulk of a man, wearing a cowboy hat and sunglasses, despite the dimness. He pointed at and talked about the many works of art that he had created, which I could now begin to see were hung neatly along all the walls of the apartment. There was a wonderful array of colorful and extremely original masks, as well as a number of bas-reliefs representing a wide range of subjects, and which I learned were made from paper-maiche.

There were also quite a number of framed paintings, hung higher on the wall. They were hard to see from where I stood, and Lobo encouraged me to climb up on a table loaded with containers in order to get a better look. I clambered up and was delighted to see in better detail the humor and inventiveness which Lobo had imbued in many of his paintings. My delight lessened considerably, however, when I happened to look down and saw that what I had at first thought was a large, empty aquarium below me was not empty at all, but frighteningly filled with many coils of a very large snake. It was eyeing me as if taking my measurements and calculating the gastronomical odds. I got down in a hurry.

I visited with Lobo a couple more times before we struck a deal. No one was probably more surprised than Lobo himself to discover that, in the course of paying his debt to society, he became an artist. And a good one! I’m not sure what sort of fine arts instruction is offered within the penal system, but I can be sure that it isn’t like attending the Academy of Fine Arts. And yet Lobo succeeded in creating works that were inventive, filled with spirit and style, and in a variety of media. It is a lesson that I have leaned over and over again through the years of searching for and acquiring art: one must not pre-judge what can be found housed within a crumbling and ramshackle exterior. And, as Life keeps showing me over and over through the years, the same lesson applies a thousand times over when meeting new people for the first time: there is no vessel lacking beauty within.

Meeting Esther Johnson

I first met Esther Johnson at the annual community-wide Labor Day sidewalk sale in the Powelton Village section of West Philadelphia many years ago. She, her daughter, granddaughter and others were staked out in what I later learned was their long-held traditional corner at 35th & Hamilton Streets. Walking past the vintage furniture and furnishings, I stopped upon seeing an array of colorful and idiosyncratic watercolor portraits propped up along a stone wall.

Sitting quietly on a chair nearby was their creator, Esther Johnson. A serene, smiling woman with silver braided hair and a gracious manner, Esther possessed a gentle, simple spirit whose radiant essence was amply manifested in her portrayal of her subjects. I later learned that their charm owed much to the change Esther was forced to make as a result of a stroke, switching from her right to her left hand. The deftness of her draftsmanship took a hit, but in such a way as to imbue her portraits with a primitive yet powerful presence.

It was only upon visiting Esther at her home in Coatesville that I discovered that painting was only one of her passions. Tucked inside her rustic, quaint house was the collection of a lifetime; paintings, China, antique furniture and quilts, as well as bric-a-brac and some objects which defied categorization. Esther downplayed her obviously gifted eye for the unique, but at the same time relished her role as collector and curator of her own assembly of objects des arts.

We became friends. She took to calling me every Sunday evening, and we would invariably talk for an hour or so. Looking back to those conversations, I find it difficult to remember what it was that we actually talked about. But it was always time rewardingly spent.

I visited her when she moved into a nursing home, and was not surprised to find her painting watercolors, despite the difficult surroundings. Art was in her blood, from her youth until her final days. I miss her. But I always feel a hint of her warm radiance when I look at the works she left behind.

The Beginning

I’ve been asked how it happened that I started collecting black art. The root of the answer reaches all the way back to my childhood. I grew up in a household rich in both music and art. From my father’s side of the family came the love of making music; Dad could play 5 instruments and always kept a few others around for future exploration. My mother inherited her mother’s exceptional gift for painting, and was never happier than when working in her studio. The subtle scent of oil paints and turpentine that resided in every square inch of our house apparently seeped into my sensibilities as well.

Although my own creative impulses leaned towards the musical, an appreciation for art – and especially for those works possessing that elusive quality “soul” – gradually formed in my awareness. It became ever easier to distinguish works with it from those without it. Like the judge who famously said of pornography “…I know it when I see it…,” I, too, knew good art when I saw it.

And eighteen years ago, tucked in a corner of a now-defunct thrift store in West Philadelphia, I saw it. Actually,the artist Katie Pfeiffer, saw it first. She made a beeline for it, pulled it out from the shadows and showed it to me. It was a colorful, heavily textured image of a black woman wearing a headdress and field clothes, cutting down tall plants with a machete. It was painted on a masonite board, and it was only many years later that I discovered the title written in pencil in a corner….Caddie in the Cane Field. It wasn’t sophisticated, it wasn’t masterful, nor accomplished. But it was simple, raw, honest, and beautiful. When I took it on a whim for a free appraisal at an antique show some time later, I was told that even though the painting had one corner that was damaged, it was still a very desirable example of Southern folk art.

I started seeing artwork with similar properties here and there in the course of working in the African-American community of West Philadelphia. In display windows, sidewalk sales, flea markets and home studios, I saw images which were new to me, and, I think, to many others as well. The thought occurred to me: any native of the Northern climes of the Western Hemisphere can go to any of the many great museums and see depictions of people that look much like him or her self in the great majority of the paintings. The rare presence of a person of color in a work is often set within the context of slavery or servitude.

I realized that I wasn’t aware of any place existing where black folk could go and view a similar grouping of pictures of people like themselves. As I started collecting artwork and got to meet and know a few of the artists, I began to feel a sense of purpose in trying to assemble such a grouping of images. I felt that there existed a need to establish such a panorama; where the faces and works of those who often go unseen in society could come to light. Thus began a search and a journey which resulted in the works of art presented in the Diartspora Gallery.