The Greater Reston Arts Center (GRACE) recently launched an exciting partnership with the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). The first outcome of this unique partnership, initiated by GRACE’s new executive director Lily Siegel, was a “conversation” between Radcliffe Bailey – a nationally recognized painter, sculptor and mixed media artist whose work is now on view in a solo exhibition at GRACE – and Dr. Tuliza Fleming, an author, distinguished scholar of African-American culture and curator at the Smithsonian’s newest museum.
The conversation, held July 22 at the Reston Community Center at Hunters Woods’ CenterStage, was crowded not only with GRACE supporters and other interested Restonians, but also many of the members of NMAAHC’s “Ambassadors” program.
The GRACE exhibition, “Radcliffe Bailey: The Great Dismal Swamp,” is the third of the art center’s ambitious “Destination GRACE” exhibitions, intended to attract people from downtown D.C. and elsewhere to look westward, to look at Reston and especially GRACE as a major arts destination.
In introducing the conversation and the Destination GRACE vision, Robert Goudie, chairman of the GRACE board of directors, said, “When you arrive at the destination, we transport you to another. The Radcliffe Bailey exhibition epitomizes that.”
Bailey’s art – layered mixed-media works, constructed from culturally symbolic materials and found objects – not only addresses ideas related to his own history and African-American heritage and the legacy of slavery but also delves deeply into the universal issues of race and identity, memory and ancestry, hurt and healing, displacement and endurance. Founded as one of the country’s first and foremost racially “open” communities, Reston, it has been noted, is an especially apt place for Bailey’s first solo exhibition in the D.C. metro area.
In addition to the GRACE exhibition, which is on view through Aug. 18, Bailey’s art is included in NMAAHC’s permanent collection. His art works are also found in many other significant collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Art Institute of Chicago. That same week Bailey, who lives in Atlanta, Ga., shipped out one of his most recent major projects: a monumental, multi-media painting cycle for the new $1.5 billion Atlanta Falcons stadium, honoring Atlanta’s rich history of historically black colleges and universities and the connections between sports and the community.
Thanking GRACE for the opportunity to interview a “black contemporary artist dealing with the same themes” as the NMAAHC, Fleming chatted discursively with Bailey about his “journey as a professional artist,” including his background, his process, and, most especially, his perceptions of himself as an artist and the premises of his art works. “How did you get into the game; how do you stay in the game?” Fleming asked.
Born in New Jersey but a resident of Atlanta since the age of four, Bailey suggested, “Art snuck up in my life.” Initially “pushed” into art school by his mother as a Saturday afternoon activity, Bailey, who earned his Bachelor’s of Fine Arts degree from the Atlanta College of Art in 1991 with a dual major in sculpture and painting, proffered that even more than formal schooling, he “had to work through it on my own.”
He recalled once being asked if he was “self-taught.” He replied wryly, “I taught myself to go to school.” But he admitted, “I don’t understand what it takes me to do what I do. Mistakes don’t bother me. I learn from my mistakes. It’s like playing chess with myself. … I like to cause problems to be solved.”
Starting at first with welded sculptural works, some old family photographs given to him by his grandmother sent him in another, new multi-media direction. Bailey got his first exhibition while still in college, and soon after graduating, he got his first solo show at a Charlotte, N.C., museum. Since 1991, his work has been subject of voluminous coverage in arts and other publications across the country. “I’ve worked non-stop,” he told Fleming.
Although he met two of the lions of African-American art when he was very young – painter and educator Jacob Lawrence and photographer and leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance James Van DerZee – Bailey confessed that at the time “I didn’t have a clue, but now I see the connections in my work.”
Noting that the NMAAHC is “very thoughtful about the way we present artists of African-American descent so they are not boxed in, so if you’re black, you [must] do black art,” Fleming asked Bailey: “How do you feel about this label?”
Although his art is definitively and proudly rooted in the African-American experience and his own story and heritage as a black man, Bailey mused: “I always thought of myself as just an artist. I see myself as an older soul, a person of the world.”
He added, “I consider myself an artist of color, but I have the makeup of many people, and my work speaks to many people. … I learn through the work, learn more after I make it. … More than anything, I’m concerned about understanding the unknown.”
Further pondering the question, Bailey equated himself with the figure of the “trickster” of African and African-American culture. Found in many oral traditions, the “trickster” is a figure that initially appears weak but outsmarts stronger opponents and often disobeys the normal rules of conventional behavior. Especially identifying with the trickster traditions of the Yoruba people of West Africa, he admitted: “I have a tendency to go the opposite way. … I see myself as a bit of a trickster, a troublemaker. … A trickster can lead you in different directions.”
Reflecting further about the factors that contribute to his work, he shared: “For me, the colors relate to different [African] deities and to my own family deities. … like a green wall in my grandfather’s house. … I’ve always collected things, things that have traveled, have a history … things from older friends, family. … There is so much information in every single person, every single thing. … When I’m doing something, it’s not A to B. I go from here to here to here.”
Asked by Fleming to expand on his creative process, Bailey freely acknowledged that his approach is entirely egocentric. “In the studio when I’m doing it, I don’t care about anything else,” he said. “I don’t think about sharing it. Don’t think about the market place. I just want to listen to myself. … I don’t sketch or draw. I go straight into it. …. I don’t care what anyone else thinks. … I want to do something simple that says everything.”
Fleming cheerfully concluded, “That’s why you have to talk to contemporary artists. You can’t make assumptions about their work.”