ArtCentric

Miami Area Museum Salutes Freedom-Fighter Artist Gordon Parks

Friday July 1st.,2011

And that museum would be the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, currently showing "From A to Z: Great Photographs from the Norton Collection," now through Oct. 16. One of those exceptional photographs is by the late, legendary Gordon Parks (1912-2006). I consider myself especially lucky to get to meet and interview him for The Miami Herald in 1999. (For more info about the very terrific Norton Museum of Art and this particular show, see http://www.norton.org/ )

An eloquent warrior and photojournalist in this country's 20th Century battles for freedom of speech and civil rights, Gordon Parks is the perfect topic for this post during our July 4th holiday.

But first things first...I do want to say that when I finished last week's post, "Miami Dade College Entrusted with Cintas Cuban Art Collection" for 6/26/2011, it was rather late at night. I went to bed tired and a bit sad, feeling like a pale ghost of my former Miami Herald self, also convinced actually that I am totally nuts for still looking back at the past this way. I was so energized to wake up the next morning to find that there was already an appreciative comment on my blog! (Not that I am one of those insecure folks always desperate for approval, but now that this Ishmaelita is cast into the wilderness of free-lance journalism on the Internet, a comment like this is nice now and then.)

And meanwhile, after I made that post, I have been continuing to hear from artists who are concerned about their artworks that have been lost by the Cintas Foundation. I have been encouraging them to post comments on that 6/26/2011 blog post so maybe these troubling issues can at least start to be resolved.

So, for my readers, here are some artcentric events I am looking forward to in the coming days:

I hope to catch "Ernesto Oroza: Videos and Photographs" from 7 to 9 pm July 16 at Art @ Work Gallery, 1245 SW 87th Ave, Miami. (For more information about Ernesto Oroza, check my 4/2/2011 post, "Miami's Historical Vizcaya Museums & Gardens Now Hosts Contemporary Art.") Kudos to that very fab art collector and orthodontist Dr. Arturo Mosquera (as well as his wonderful wife Liza Mosquera) for providing Art @ Work Gallery events for artists and Miami's art community! (For more info about the Magnificent Dr. M, see my 2/26/2011 blog post, "Miami Art Bites in Orthodontist Office.")

Though I am not much for watching television, this does sound cool: On WBPT Channel 2 at 7:30 pm on July 7, there's a 27-minute special show re the Knights Art Challenge and its winners, including Kathleen Hudspeth of Turn-Based Press. For more info, see the 6/23 blog post by Valerie Nahamad Schimel on the Knight Arts Blog. (You'll find a link to that blog on the right-hand side of my blog, underneath my blog archive.) Kathleen's name especially caught my eye since last week I was so delighted to run into her husband and terrific artist Adler Guerrier in the Publix parking lot! I really do missing seeing my artcentric buddies, so it was fab to see him again!

And let's give a shout-out to Dina Mitrani Gallery for extending her fab show of photographs by Colleen Plumb through August 20. Her photographs were part of my June 2011 Critic's Choice forhttp://www.artcircuits.com/ How terrific that this talented Chicago-based photographer received a rave on 6/21/2011 at TIME.com for her new monograph Animals Are Outside Today from Radius Books, available at Dina Mitrani's gallery, 2620 NW 2nd Ave in Miami's Wynwood Art District. See http://www.dinamitranigallery.com/ andhttp://www.colleenplumb.com/

Mark your calendar for Second Saturday Gallery Walk at the de la Cruz Collection Contemporary Art Space, 23 NE 41 Street, Miami. On July 9 from 7 to 10 pm there will be a free performance and radio broadcast by Nicolas Lobo & Terence Hannum, also closing reception for "Kevin Arrow: Amor Infinitus." (For more info about my terrific artcentric friend Kevin, see my 4/22/11 post, "Miami Artist Kevin Arrow Featured at de la Cruz Collection Contemporary Art Space.) See alsohttp://www.delacruzcollection.org/

I must say I was quite pleased to learn that Terence Hannum has exhibited at the Richard Peeler Center at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. Fancy that!! DePauw is my alma mater, also where my sister, my son, and my beloved late nephew attended. Plus my husband and numerous members of his family graduated from from there...I always say that Eric, even though he was born and bred in Miami, is actually one-half Midwestern and one-half Cuban. And guess what--when I went there, the Richard Peeler Center did not exist, but Richard Peeler himself did--he was a ceramacist and a revered art prof. When I was a student there I even bought a charming tea pot that he made and inscribed with his signature at the bottom. I still have it now in my Miami kitchen! What a coincidence!!

Well, as they say, enough about me.

Here's my story about Gordon Parks from The Miami Herald, November 1999. What a remarkable, remarkable man.

HIS WEAPON AGAINST POVERTY, RACISM WAS A $7.50 CAMERA

His manner is more affable than angry now. Call it a generous charm, though one spiked with steely determination.

And he's a natty dresser to boot, telling stories while decked out in a navy blazer. An ivory handkerchief that nearly matches his white mustache is tucked with saucy style into his breastpocket.

But outrage lingers in Gordon Parks' low, raspy voice--a voice that wavers at time in deference to the tolls and triumphs of his 87 years.

It was outrage that inspired and informed a remarkable career as a photographer, writer, composer and filmmaker--a career so important and prolific, thousands of his photos and manuscripts now rest in the Library of Congress. A career so remarkable that it was launched with a second-hand camera purchased in a pawn shop 61 years ago but is now being honored in "Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks," a traveling retrospective of his photographs, films, and music that opened last week at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach.

But back then, back where it all started, Gordon Parks simply remembers being angry; so angry, he stomped out of a department store when clerks couldn't--or wouldn't--come up with a single coat his size. The time was 1942 and the place was Washington, D.C., recalls Parks. It was his first trip to the capital and he'd just arrived from Chicago, where he'd been photographing South Side slums and high-fashion women, the kinds of desperate and beautiful subjects that would capture his lyrical imagination and laser-sharp social conscience for decades to come.

As a shopper on the mean streets of Washington, he was on a "very strange assignment," he tells his audience, a group of reporters on hand to preview the retrospective. Parks' assignment came from Roy Stryker, director of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), an agency President Roosevelt had set up to help poor farmers. To muster support for these efforts, Stryker hired photographers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange to call attention to the farmers' plight--and the photographers responded with landmark images of Depression-era inequities.

Parks first saw the photos in a magazine left on the North Coast Limited, where he was working as a railroad waiter. It was a job he'd gotten after a gig playing a piano in a brothel.

The stark, tragic images excited him so much that he soon found himself in a Seattle pawn shop looking for a camera. Then he found Richard Wright's Twelve Million Black Voices, an attack on bigotry illustrated with FSA photos. Wright's book became his Bible and the camera unleashed his powerful voice.

It was, he allows, "not much of a camera, but for $7.50, I had purchased a weapon I hoped to use against a warped past and an uncertain future."

His weapon had gotten him work in Chicago, and a fellowship with the FSA he so admired. And now, before Stryker sent Parks out and about in the United States--to destinations that included Daytona Beach--he was sent out to experience Washington.

"Put your camera on the shelf," Parks says Stryker told him that day. "Go to Julius Garfinkel's department store and buy yourself a topcoat, and there across the street is a restaurant. Go in there and get some lunch, and catty-corner across the street is a theater...come back and give me a report on what you thought of that picture."

But the picture to see and report on, he would soon learn, wasn't the movie playing at the theater. It was the one playing in the hearts and minds of men.

At Julius Garfinkel's, for example, nobody even tried to find a coat that would fit a black man, Parks remembers.

"So, in disgust, I stretched my little black body out on this white chaise lounge and said, 'Go get the manager.'" When the manager dithered about how busy the store was during war time, Parks snapped, "Well, there's nobody on this floor but me. I wouldn't take that coat if you gave it to me."

At the restaurant, he says a waiter approached him with this reproach, "Don't you know Negroes can't eat in this place? If you want to eat, you have to go around back..."

Still, that was even better than Parks did at the movie house.

"I didn't even get into the theater," he remembers.

It was the pivotal moment of his career--and a pivotal moment in the long, unsteady history of race relations in the United States--for it inspired the high-powered images of poverty that became Parks' trademark.

"He was always looking at things that needed to be looked at," says University of Miami communications professor Michael Carlebach. "Things that were right there in front of us, but that nobody had paid attention to."

"American Gothic," among his most famous photographs, depicts Washington, D.C. charwoman Ella Watson standing with mop and broom in front of a huge American flag. [This iconic image was part of my Critic's Choice for June 2011 for http://www.artcircuits.com/ ] She gives us an uncompromising gaze, the tools of her dead-end trade lining up with Old Glory's stripes.

"For its time, it was an image that talked about racism in this country in a way no other picture did," says Philip Brookman, curator of photography and media arts at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which organized the Parks exhibit. "Here's a woman working for the U.S. government, posed exactly like the American farmer in [Grant] Wood's "American Gothic." The farmer is considered to be an icon of everything good in American culture, and yet the black woman is an ambiguous image, with the feeling of people being exploited."

Coming from Chicago, where Wood's famous 1930 painting of the pitchfork-wielding couple hangs in the city's Art Institute, Park acknowledges that Wood's painting was a "mild influence" on his image.

"But actually," he adds by phone from his Manhattan apartment, "it was an indictment of America. I tried to do something that would show my anger...I had no idea it would turn out to be so popular."

The popularity, however, would come later. At first the photo was considered too provocative to be shown.

"Well, you got the idea all right," Parks remembers an approving Stryker saying when he saw the picture. "But you're going to get us all fired."

So the photo was hidden away. "Years later," recalls Parks, "I was on a plane from New York to Hollywood and there it was, "American Gothic," in The Washington Post. When I got back to New York I jumped straight on the shuttle to Washington and went down to the Library of Congress and got my picture."

In Hollywood, he blazed more new ground. The man whose silky shots of Parisian haute couture for Harper's Bazaar and Vogue made him the first black photographer at Conde Nast, whose 1952 move to Life made him that magazine's first black staff photographer, became the first black director to produce and direct a major feature film with his 1969 movieThe Learning Tree--a film that takes its title from Parks' 1963 novel based on his boyhood in Fort Scott, Kansas.

The main character "is like other boys, no matter what the color or place or time...Bruised by [the world], he learns from it nonetheless. The film remains a lyrical and eloquent statement on the black experience in America," writes film historian Donald Bogle.

Two years later, Parks released the critically acclaimed detective movieShaft, a film that helped launch a decade-long run of successful films by black directors.

As he talks, he looks back on a life so dramatic it, too, could have been scripted in Hollywood. (In fact, HBO will air a documentary on Parks' life next year.)

There was the time in 1961, for example, when he traveled to the mountainside slums of Rio de Janeiro. This was, he wrote later, "dead center in the worst poverty I have ever encountered." There he photographed Flavio da Silva, an asthmatic 12-year-old caring for seven younger siblings who became the subject of one of his most famous Lifestories. Readers were so moved they sent in more than $30,000 to bring Flavio to the United States for medical treatment and to buy the da Silva family a new home.

As the civil rights movement gathered steam, Parks spent time with the black Muslims in New York and the Black Panthers in Berkeley. He photographed their leaders for Life, striving to balance journalistic integrity with his sympathy for what he called "the heart of black fury sweeping the country."

Parks himself was moved when an initially skeptical Malcolm X asked him to be his daughter's godfather.

In Park's storied life of peaks and valleys, he fell in love with the art and beauty of Paris, buried his parents in a still-segregated cemetery in Kansas, and met and photographed princes and paupers, as well as Alexander Calder, Ingrid Bergman, Richard Wright and Muhammad Ali.

Now divorced--he was married three times--Parks has raised four children, losing his eldest, the filmmaker Gordon Parks Jr., in a plane crash in 1979. He is a grandfather and great-grandfather several times over.

"My family is mixed up with all kinds of races," he says. "I'm part Cherokee, part black. Jewish people have married into my family. One of my wives was Chinese, two great-grandchildren are part Swedish. It's a grand mixture."

Known to friends as an enthusiastic cook and tennis player, Parks continues his literary life. He's at work on his 17th book, a novel based on the rags-to-riches life of English 19th Century landscape painter J.M.W. Turner--whose "absolutely smashingly beautiful" watercolors have influenced Parks' latest dreamy abstractions.

"I deserve a little time to myself to look at the beauty in the world, after those years of looking at poverty and discrimination," says this Renaissance Man, whose days still include time for playing the piano.

"The most important thing is that I find poetry in everything I do."

POSTED BY ELISA TURNER AT 6:35 AM 0 COMMENTS

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