Works of art reveal themselves to me, rather than my creating or composing preconceived notions. (I’d call them vague notions that I feel for some time without defining them, sometimes for a long time.) I believe each work belongs to itself and to each viewer. The viewers (and I too) interpret each work of art uniquely. Viewers reveal many details to me that I didn’t realize were hidden there, if they so desire, and I’m always fascinated. They’re like messages.
I wondered about sharing this in my piece, as it is not really a technique… it’s more a communion with the atmosphere, which I think everyone has — children have it without hesitating a bit as to how to depict what they see or feel. Leave it to teachers (often wonderful teachers!), to rely on art techniques taught to them by inventors (often artists themselves), or whole cultures (Degas when not painting ballerinas, or Picasso the sculptor, or Japanese artists in origami).
In my early school days, I was frequently sent out of class and instructed by the teacher to draw pictures on the walls of the hallway in chalk. Since I didn’t consider myself one of the school’s artistes, I thought I was being punished (don’t ask me why). In hindsight, I think I was bored in class and had been given something, anything, to do.
I did not think of doing visual art on a regular basis until my middle age while visiting my maternal relatives on the Caribbean Island of Nevis. Palm trees and an ocean vista were close at hand, as were coloured pencils and paper at my great-uncle’s little shop. In my self-taught way I tried to capture the scene.
Sometime later, I finally attended Pratt Institute in Manhattan and took classes in drawing, painting (watercolour and acrylics), and the basics of computer use and coding. Later, concentrating on computer arts, I taught myself the digital ways to apply colours, varied sizes and styles of brushes, and how to overlap layers of transparent and opaque sizes, shapes, and strokes to create abstract digital compositions.
In the 1980s, a long period of study became available for me at the Ruth Leaf printmaking studio in Long Island. I concentrated on hard-ground etching which involves using an extremely sharp-pointed steel engraving needle to draw on zinc or copper plates coated with a hard ground. The plates are then run, one by one, through a printing press. (To see an example of my prints, see Duo, an etching featured in this issue’s editorial.)
I continued printmaking at the legendary Bob Blackburn studio in Manhattan, and with Stephanie Navon Jacobson at the Great Neck Long Island Program (which offers many arts programs for adults) and the Art League of Long Island.*
My other self-teaching endeavors at various stages in my life were in collage, monotype printmaking, wood burning, and Suminagashi, a decorative technique catching floating inks on waters’ surfaces with “rice” paper.
Much of my art, as in Collard Green Rhythms, Antibes, Master Juba’s Dancing and Warm Day, Sweet Fruit, is celebratory and inspired by nature and everyday life. However, certain themes of social awareness can be found throughout my work (poetry and visual art) and my activities.
Red Nets, while expressing the movements of the sea, also was a product of a meditation on the damage done by overfishing and the blood engendered by it that runs through the sea.
Dance Around the Earth is a tribute to Carmen De Lavallade, a black modern dancer and educator who, while still insufficiently appreciated, was a soloist with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre and who subsequently founded her own dance companies and continued to perform onstage well into her eighties. The sweep of red in the painting is her skirt as she dances on international stages.
The Amadou Diallo Diptych (presented in an earlier issue of Montréal Serai) is a memorial divided between a section of darkness and violence, chaos, and a section devoted to Diallo’s suffering. A bleeding hole drips with his blood from the unwarranted barrage of police bullets that killed him in front of his Bronx, NY home on 4 Feb., 1999.
Long Island, where I live, is known to be one of the most segregated areas in the U.S.A., and the formation of the Long Island Black Artists Association in 1968 was made in answer to gallerists who stated that they did not know any black artists existed on Long Island. LIBAA creates its own exhibition opportunities to this day, and galleries remain largely as they were, except that they do know now that we exist. As a group, we paint a variety of subjects, as any other artists would do. To do otherwise would ghettoize our art.
In my poetry, the social themes that I address are black rage, feminine domestic abuse, class differences, and, alas, an ever-growing body of antiwar poems (including the one that follows). My poems have appeared in three specifically feminist anthologies: Songs of Seasoned Women; Tamba Tupu: Africana Women’s Poetic Self-Portrait; and Grabbing the Apple: An Anthology of New York Women Poets.
When I have not been painting, writing, and educating myself, I have participated in many marches and rallies in Washington, D.C. and in front of court houses and prisons in New York City. I ran the Housing Accommodation Desk at a major Black Power Convention in Atlanta, Georgia, worked at two nonprofit organizations (United Negro College Fund, and LISC – a grantsmaking organization for community-run developments nationwide), worked in a clerical capacity at the United Nations Secretariat, and devoted three years of my working life to the cause of Black Studies, at the Institute of the Black World, in Atlanta, Georgia.
So, there you have perhaps an insight into the person behind the art works. If you read the antiwar poem, maybe you will know more than all of the above. An embrace of solidarity to you all.
IN LIEU OF A SALUTE
Standing in a parched meadow
she waves her lily instead of a flag.
Her brownspotted white flower,
where did it come from?
How did the flag come down?
Medals are strewn about,
looking like bottle caps after a game,
squashed faces awaiting the broom,
and here comes the sweeper,
tired, pushing though his back aches.
Here too the newest chevrons
worn by sergeants in a comedic army,
children shuffling in mock parade
without drums or tanks or guns,
but with pots, pans, grave memories.
Stars from all the aeons
wink at us from a deepening blue.
It is evening, earth empty of song.
Leave a plaque to remember all,
him, her, them, me, you.
Leave a plaque, a flower,
or the name of someone you love
scratched into dry, windswept ground,
Leave your mark below the monument
* Stephanie Navon Jacobson now also teaches at St. John’s University in Long Island. You can find her gorgeous prints and paintings on many online sites.
Ruth Leaf went on to work in California for some years. Both she and Bob Blackburn are now deceased. They are fondly missed by hundreds of talented printmakers.