Monday, February 6, 2012

Harlem and Bearden, For the First Time

When Gary Schwartz, Visual Arts Chair at Leman Manhattan Preparatory School, asked me to help chaperone a field trip to the Studio Museum in Harlem, I eagerly said, "Yes," having never been to Harlem and excited to learn about a new museum.
Then he added, "I'm taking a group of students to see The Bearden Project, an exhibit containing works by Romare Bearden and artists influenced by his style."
Wanting to appear cultured, I could have faked more than I knew with a simple, "Ahhh . . . interesting," but opted for honesty (with a hint of embarrassment) and said, "Never heard of him." Then, I quickly reminded myself, "It's all about learning."

I had even more ignorance to admit. My knowledge of Harlem was in serious need of updating. . . images of poverty, high crime, high unemployment, dilapidated buildings, racial tension.  As we climbed the steps of the 7th Avenue subway station into the noonday sun of 125th St., I was surprised at the sights that greeted me. . . clean streets, bustling businesses, brownstones in good repair, busy sidewalk vendors, restaurants with intriguing names and equally enticing smells, sidewalks overflowing with people, walking in safety and with purpose.  A couple of blocks doesn't begin to tell Harlem's story in 2012, nor capture the complexities of her history.  But as I walked toward the Studio Museum, I was already making plans to return and learn.

In an earlier posting, I wrote that modern art and I know one another only casually.  As a contemporary collagist, Romare Bearden's art falls into that genre, and I did not immediately "take" to it. However, as I listened to our enthusiastic guide, watched the engaged faces of the students, and heard their teacher speak of the inspiration he felt from Bearden's art, I tried to look more closely, with openness.

And I gradually began to find beauty in color, in position, in stories from Bearden's life as told through his creations.  I noticed the recurring birds, foliage, windows, the "rituals" from the South, with which I could identify.  I lingered and learned.

 (Romare Bearden - American, 1914-1988,
"In the Garden" from the portfolio,
"The Prevalence of Ritual" - 1974
Silk screen in colors, 15/110)
Then we walked downstairs and were transported into "The Block," an entire room depicting life on a street in Harlem.  The original 18-foot-collage was created by Bearden, but Kira Lynn Harris re-created it in her own style, in white on black.

It was a space that invited me in, that said, "Come look in my windows and sit on my stoops." I began to feel what it must be like for visual artists to be so significantly influenced by another, similar to how I've found inspiration and instruction in the poetry of Mary Oliver and Billy Collins.

I stood looking at the scene, realizing once again the exhilaration of learning something new!  As I spend time in parts of NYC unfamiliar to me, with art that is not instantly intuitive, with people whose perspectives are diverse, I grow beyond what I could imagine.

Thanks to Gary and his "Dream Team" of students, as he proudly called them, for a day of fun, learning and delicious food.  Jacob's Restaurant, Soul Food and Salad Bar --- worth another trip back to Harlem just for the collard greens and mac and cheese!






  1. You are an excellent learner! Thank you for being a role model. ;>

    I think "The Block" sounds amazing. I'd love to see that.

  2. Thanks, Kate! I found an exciting connection to "The Block." Langston Hughes wrote a series of poems about it. I found them on Amazon in a book called, what else?? "The Block." I ordered a copy and am eager to read it.


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