Konch Magazine - Ishmael Reed Interviews Joe Overstreet and Corrine
Ishmael Reed: What are the highlights of some Black paintings and sculptures in the last hundred years? How would you begin?
Corrine Jennings: This is a list of Joe’s personal favorites. Norman Lewis, Jacob Lawrence, Sam Gilliam, Sargent Johnson, Mary O’Neal, Bob Thompson, Bob Blackburn, Al Loving, Larry Compton, Hale Woodruff and Aaron Douglas. That’s his list. My list is almost the same except to add Alma Woodsey Thomas and Roy DeCarava.
Ishmael Reed: I thought he was a photographer.
Corrine Jennings: He is. But he’s really important because of the light and his perspective. Thomas too, because she was the first Black woman to have a museum solo show in New York City.
Ishmael Reed: What year was that, do you know?
Corrine Jennings: 1972 at the Whitney. Here are important events: We didn’t want to do some of this without the 19th Century people like Robert Duncanson, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Grafton Tyler Brown, Edward Bannister, but also Edmonia Lewis, and there was that photographer right there--James Presley Ball--and his brother Thomas Ball, who were the first Black people to have a commercial photography studio in Cincinnati, which they opened in 1849. And they let Duncanson work in their studio, where he exhibited his own paintings. But what James Presley Ball did was make a 600 foot panoramic painting of some of the worst images of slavery and take it around so people could see it. Somehow Bannister got to see it and Bannister decided to study photography.
So here’s some of the twentieth century stuff. Augusta Savage had a big sculpture at the 1936 World’s Fair. Now I think the Art Departments at the historically Black colleges were very important, starting at Howard University in the twenties and then Atlanta University. I thought that the Black Arts magazines, Black fairs, Black Art galleries, all were important. And the National Conferences of Artists, such as in ’58 where people organized themselves , and Robert Blackburn’s Printmaking Workshop helped thousands of artists, not just Black American artists, because he brought in a lot of people from outside the US, too. Then I had the murals of Hale Woodruff. I have them lined up.
Ishmael Reed: Now let me ask you about that muralist on the West Coast. What was his name? His stuff is in banks. Charles Alston. But anyway, he’s a muralist going after the Mexican muralists.
Corrine Jennings: Diego Rivera?
Ishmael Reed: He was influenced.
Corrine Jennings: Diego Rivera also influenced Sargent Johnson.  Johnson worked with him on murals.
Ishmael Reed: This guy did a mural with California history.
Corrine Jennings: You mean down in Los Angeles?
Ishmael Reed: No. It was in Oakland.
Corrine Jennings: Well, Hale Woodruff and Charles Alston painted WPA murals in Los Angeles.
Ishmael Reed: Charles Alston.
Corrine Jennings: Charles Alston did murals on the history of California and they put it in the Golden State Mutual building that was designed by the Black architect, Paul Williams. So that was very interesting.
Ishmael Reed: See, I learned something from looking at a mural. For example, I didn’t know Blacks were part of the Pony Express. I didn’t know that they were whalers, Black whalers. That was depicted in his mural and the last whalers still exist in Oakland. A whaler. Why can’t I learn something from abstract art?
Corrine Jennings: Well, you have to learn how to interpret it.
Ishmael Reed: Well, but it’s all technique, you know. Where did abstract art…I mean when Joe and I met with Thomas Hoving over the absence of Black painters in the show, “Harlem On My Mind,” he said that  if Black people did Abstract Expressionism, he’d include them in the show. What are Black painters and Black sculptors doing now?
Corrine Jennings: You have people doing the derogatory stuff.
Ishmael Reed: Like who?
Corrine Jennings: Like Kara Walker.
Ishmael Reed: And who else?
Corrine Jennings: You know, there is somebody who is interesting. I didn’t see his show. I was going to go the last day and I missed the date. That guy is Kerry James Marshall. When he was here in New York he was abstract, but when he went back home, I think he’s in Chicago, he began to do more realistic stuff. There are the people who do conceptual art.
Ishmael Reed: Who’s the guy who does the wood sculpture with the African themes?
Corrine Jennings: Martin Puryear. I started to put him on my list, but my list sort of stops with the eighties.
Ishmael Reed: You think that’s the Golden Age? The eighties.
Corrine Jennings: No, it was mid-century. Pretty much 20th century. Puryear was a bit older, but he really was sort of straddling the two centuries. But I think he was in the Peace Corps in West Africa.
Ishmael Reed:  Out of the contemporary painters and artists whom do you like?
Corrine Jennings: Here is the list.
Ishmael Reed: No, I mean right now. Right now. I think you guys are mostly traditionalists.
Corrine Jennings: One thing is we both like painting.
Joe Overstreet: We have things in the Wilmer Jennings Gallery across the street.
Corrine Jennings: You know whose work I like a lot? It’s Mark Bradford. He’s sort of abstract. Its painting combined with other stuff.
Joe Overstreet: His work comes out from within. It’s very difficult to do. To paint something like that realistically is very difficult. But it doesn’t show anything about the artist as far as I’m concerned. It is very academic. To let someone see something about the nation is very hard to do in painting. You know what I’m saying? It’s much easier to do still life or landscape or portrait or something like that in painting than it is to imagine something and fill it out. I’m upstairs working on a project that I’ve worked out for across the street for the next show on Thelonious Monk. Now the way I see Monk is all hands and white. It’s all fingers and white. The piano board and fingers with a red hat on. Now that’s my interpretation of Thelonious Monk. Now somebody’s going to look at it and say, “What the f*** is this?” Well, the sound is what I’m trying to find in the painting.
Ishmael Reed: Well, the sound is very melancholy. He uses the flat 9 to get that effect.
Joe Overstreet: Yeah. So I don’t know, it’s very difficult. This stuff is very difficult in a lot of ways. You can illustrate, but it is still very difficult to be able to express what you really feel in your heart. I’ve been trying for a long time, Ishmael, and I’m finally seeing that to paint is very difficult.
Ishmael Reed: I can see that. 
Corrine Jennings: So a lot of people don’t. It’s also expensive.
Ishmael Reed: Yeah.
Corrine Jennings: So a lot of younger people don’t do it.
Ishmael Reed: What about-I went to this show of outsider artists. It was at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. Called “Revelations, Art From The African American South.” It was powerful. These were inspired by spirits to do their work. They’d say, “God showed me to do this,” or “Jesus told me to wake up and do a wood sculpture.”
Corrine Jennings: The problem with that is that they’re taken advantage of so easily.
Ishmael Reed: In terms of money?
Corrine Jennings: Yeah, and most of the people who own the work are White. White galleries have the work and pretty much control all of the marketing. That’s what I was saying about that the collector and patron Bill Arnett and the artist Bessie Harvey.
Ishmael Reed: She’s great. I love her, “The Poison of the Lying Tongues.”
One artist, Lonnie Holley, had a piece in the show called “A Box for Woman: The Pure White Spirit Trapped in Her Space.” This was based on the artifacts found in the home of a woman diabetic. Because he included in a syringe in the work, he was questioned by the police.
Corrine Jennings: Where was that?
Ishmael Reed: Alabama. Anyway, who would you say is the founding mother, the founding father of African American art?
Corrine Jennings: You know, there was James Porter. He taught at Howard for a long time. But he wrote a book called Modern Negro Art.
Ishmael Reed: When was this?
Corrine Jennings: In 1943. I have a copy of it. Alain Locke also wrote early. But Porter talks about people coming here with graphic skills.
Ishmael Reed: From Africa?
Corrine Jennings: Yes, and other kinds of things that were made after they got here that they could have only made with information and training they got in Africa.
Ishmael Reed: Is that book still in print?
Corrine Jennings: Yeah. I have a paperback.
Ishmael Reed: So they carried the skills from Africa and can you see those African techniques?
Corrine Jennings: You can see that in their quilting.
Ishmael Reed: Incredible!!
Corrine Jennings: You see it in carvings, you can see it in silhouettes, and drawings, and you can see it in buildings.
Ishmael Reed: Did they have those masks and everything? They brought those?
Corrine Jennings: You know, about twenty years ago we showed decorative art that belonged to some collectors and this guy from the Ivory Coast came to the gallery and he was looking at some canes that we had right on this wall and he said that a mask carved in the handle was of his people. And he said that it had been dipped in blood and rubbed with leaves in order to get that patina on that mask.
Ishmael Reed: Incredible.  I’ve never heard this. Because they say that Black people have forgotten everything when they arrived here. They forgot their religion, they forgot their art when they came here and the White people had to fill their mind with stuff. They say the same thing about the Chinese. Same thing. They came here and the White man had to fill their mind. (Ishmael Reed and Joe Overstreet laugh).
Corrine Jennings: We also had some carpenters and designers.
Ishmael Reed: Do you know this man who used to be down here, Andy Pigatt*
Corrine Jennings (to Joe Overstreet): Do you remember Andy Pigatt?
Ishmael Reed: Andy Pigatt? I looked him up. He was with some fancy antique place.
Joe Overstreet: Where is he at?
Ishmael Reed: When I Googled him, I found out he died in 2009.  (See below)
Corrine Jennings: So Andy Pigatt went down to Maryland or somewhere where his family is. An ancestor had worked for George Washington or something. Oh, and iron work. That’s another skill.
Ishmael Reed: They brought that?
Corrine Jennings: Yes. The wrought iron fencing and so forth.
Ishmael Reed: That stuff you see in New Orleans? That fencing? That fancy fencing and balcony work?
Corrine Jennings: Yeah. Also South Carolina is known for iron work.
Ishmael Reed: South Carolina?
Corrine Jennings: Yes. It had a lot of that.
Ishmael Reed: Did those people come from specific tribes?
Corrine Jennings: I can’t go back that far because I haven’t spent a lot of time studying that. I just like to look at that.
Ishmael Reed: So this was done even under the conditions of slavery and colonialism and all that?
Corrine Jennings: So now I’m talking about Cincinnati and some places in North Carolina where people made furniture and in the furniture you will see African patterns. For instance, Thomas Day, who’s very well known. Actually, we have one of his chairs.
Ishmael Reed: You got one of his chairs here? Wow. Wow. That’s incredible. So when did you guys begin this gallery?
Corrine Jennings: We did “Personal Problems” here and it was our first event in 1979.
Ishmael Reed: It has gotten international distribution now and it might be on Turner Movie Classics. Vertamae Grosvenor was in it and so was Walter Cotton. She was the star. This guy named Jake Perlin who’s got this beautiful new cinema, Metrograph Theater, on Ludlow Street; he’s the one who revived “Personal Problems.” He showed it at BAM and all of these film people loved it, you know, and then he got it shown at Lincoln Center.
Corrine Jennings: Well, so, we did a reading of that.
Ishmael Reed: Absolutely. I remember.
Corrine Jennings: That was the first project we presented and we didn’t have a boiler. It was freezing. 
 
Andy Pigatt_head shot












Andy Pigatt (1928-2009) was born in Raeford, North Carolina, October 20, 1928. He received vocational training in general woodworking and carpentry at George Washington Carver High School. Pigatt served in the United States Army in 1950-55; studied cabinetmaking on the G.I. Bill after leaving the military; and apprenticed under James W. Leach, Baltimore, Maryland in refinishing and repairing period antique furniture.
Pigatt performed free-lance work in New York after 1963, working for firms such as Worldwide Antiques, Leonard’s Antique Gallery, Knapp and Seigal Antiques, et al. Restoration experience includes work on Chippendale, Jacobean, Sheraton, Queen Anne and other types of collections.
Anderson launched his sculpture career late in 1960’s. A self-taught sculptor, his work is represented in a number of private and institutional collections.
“Nigger Chained” a seminal work is in the permanent collection of the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York. Other sculptures are in the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York; Reginald F. Lewis Museum, Baltimore, MD; and the American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore, MD.

 

END OF PART I