Beating a Path: Community, Personal Truth, and Art

PART ONE

If you ever spent any time with me a few things are evident. One of them is that from all the scars on my face, I probably can take an ass-whooping very well and that’s very true. It is courtesy of Tyree that I can take an ass-whooping because every morning for as long as I can remember we fought and I lost almost every fight. If it wasn’t for my older brother stepping in, I would probably have been beaten into a vegetative state early in 1982. Still, Tyree was my neighbor and friend. I appreciate those ass-whoopings. They make you tough, tough enough that when you and Tyree are walking to the store and a red truck rolls by and the grown men in the back yell “Nigger”, throwing a seven-ounce Coke bottle that hits you square in the face, you handle that on your own at seven years old. It was the way he looked at me that really gave definition to the words he screamed.

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 A piece by Charvis Harrell

 

You don’t bring those troubles to people at that age. You are also wise enough to know the trouble you are already in. Your parents did wrong. They worked hard, saved up their money and moved from the little two-room duplex still standing on the edge of Fort Hill.  A row of gas stations, pawnshops, fast food restaurants, and liquor stores lined one side and the other border was a highway where poor pedestrians were struck and killed too often. Crossing a highway that wasn’t designed for their bodies was the sacrifice necessary to acquire the basic needs of life. We ventured beyond that place. They felt we belonged in a neighborhood bordered by a golf course, one where the families began to move away at the same time. 

You can choose two paths growing up, that of doing the things your parents ask – which theoretically should result in success – or the other, following the calls of your peers, off the porch, to seek and destroy – participating in your own detriment. My friends and I chose the latter, becoming part of a cycle in which young black males were killed routinely – every few months at least; otherwise, the possibility of incarceration seemed dead set at 100 percent. We embarked on being petty hoodlums until a few of my friends decided to organize a home invasion that left two almost dead and all three incarcerated. Another one of my friends killed another man in self-defense that very same night, while another had just killed a man a few weeks before. There were just a few weeks of school left, but after all that happened, I decided that would be my last day.

“If a tree falls in the middle of the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? The answer is yes, because sound does not depend on one’s experience, it is a product of vibrations through the air. I say that because if I would’ve painted my whole life and nobody would’ve ever seen any of my art, I would still be an artist.”

I love to read but I hated school. At the time, I also hated order, supervision, and being told what to do. I found more joy in leaving school because I already had my career path as a brick mason laid out. I loved working with my hands and my family and friends. It was a steady routine. Bricks and mortar come on a pallet. Break them down. Use them, then toss the pallet to the side. Repeat the process. There’s freedom in a job like that. You know what to do, no need for supervision. You are left alone all day, but there are just as many restrictions to that drone mentality. You realize you work in a plantation-style setting, where the people you work for will never acknowledge you – even while in close range – and the very idea of you using any of their facilities will be unheard of. It’s never more evident than the day the owner of one house you’re working on looks your way and says “Honey, come on in here! You know its too hot for you out there.”

Honey comes running to the door. Honey is a dog. 

You know your place, but you love working with your friends and family. Doing just that was my plan for the rest of my life until that was interrupted by Sarcoidosis. Cheap beer became my best friend and I couldn’t work. Art, then a hobby, became the only other thing I had.

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 Previously censored work by Charvis Harrell 

 

In February 2008, I was asked to do a show for The Contemporary Arts Exchange. People don’t realize that if you have to try to find a black artist, that means your organization lacks black artists. It follows that if you seek them out for February, that means you’re not particularly interested in showing black art any other month. That is the way Macon functions. I decided to present an art show about current, relevant issues instead of recycling the same heroes to celebrate: MLK, Malcolm, Mike Jackson, Jordan, and various rappers. My centerpiece was a bold interpretation of my favorite poem at the time, from Bicycles: Love Poems by Nikki Giovanni. The poem is entitled “Blacksburg Under Siege: 21 August 2006”. Nikki was the terrorists’ teacher and I recognized something off in him in his writings. I used a cardboard box from my former girlfriend’s daughter’s big wheel as a surface, a crude childlike image playing a video game and a television screen filled with the carnage such game would expose one to, along with a few other pieces that dealt with the vulgarities we unknowingly expose children to. It was a strong piece that was relevant and original and so thought the curator, but a day before the show it was taken down, along with everything that wasn’t on canvas. I didn’t fight. I didn’t explain. 

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 Previously censored work by Charvis Harrell 

 

I remember thinking I have a G.E.D. and they have degrees from universities that say they know art. I’m ignorant. I’m out here showing my feelings and emotions. I remember your art from that chapter we read in world history, with its beautiful paintings and statues of marble. I will leave with my work and you can stop looking at me like that man on the back of that truck. 

I tried to show my art at a few more places, but I was turned away.

 

PART TWO

At this point, I stopped focusing on expressing my feelings and tried my hand at creating. I approached Mrs. Ward at the Douglass Theater about hosting a show there. She saw my art and agreed. It felt great. I made works with my best friend, Jermaine Causey. Our friends and family came. No member of any art gallery in Macon showed up, but it felt great to truly share my art. After another show there, I had gotten better and realized it was time for a bigger venue.

“It was a strong piece that was relevant and original and so thought the curator, but a day before the show it was taken down, along with everything that wasn’t on canvas. I didn’t fight. I didn’t explain.” 

I had never been to the Tubman Museum, nor had I a reason to go. I made art – I didn’t need to see it. It was a fairly small space. The first time, I took a few of my best pieces of art, spoke to Adra at the front counter and she told me Jeff Bruce was the person to talk to about having an art show. I waited for him to come down and I was not easily impressed by their art. Jeff came down the stairs, we said our hellos and I showed him my art. But, he was not impressed and he began to explain to me a few things. “The difference between showing art and having an art show is when you make some pictures of a particular theme or subject and you present them together, that’s showing art. An art show is when you try to immerse your audience in an experience, be it one piece or a hundred.” We walked around and I didn’t like anything. There was not a single piece – not even the Kojo at the time – and Jeff was telling me I wasn’t ready for a show there, that there was a way you move up to museums by showing in your local gallery, having pieces, traveling, having academic papers written, and then moving into museums. As he told me this, I thought to myself, “You’ve got a statue made out of trash and I ain’t ready to show here. I mean, I know my stuff is way better than a statue made of trash.”

I would come back to the Tubman once or twice a week and talk to Adra for a few minutes every now and then. I would get a chance to talk to Jeff when he wasn’t too busy and I would walk around the small place checking out the art. They maintained the space themselves, so Jeff would handle the cleaning duties, breaking down and setting up for events and other general labor tasks that are unheard of for a curator. I saw that as a chance to barter my services in exchange for his knowledge of 21st-century art. I developed a routine where I would contact Adra to find out when the events would occur, set up the events, do the takedown, and some mornings I would come in and do the bathrooms, freeing up some of his time so he could talk about art. He gave me books and catalogs from shows all over the world. I would read those books, take notes, and ask questions –  The Tubman became my school and Jeff Bruce, my only professor. It was hard to admit when I had realized that even after I had been coming to the Tubman for a year, I had no idea what art was or is. He said, “I know” so fast…

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 Jeffrey Bruce, Director of Exhibitions at Tubman Museum of African American Art 

 

I started to come in almost every day,  spending huge amounts of time with the collections at my leisure, alone with great art. But at that time, it was just stuff.  It was so wonderful, the day I understood what art was and is for me. It was this piece that looked like a broken cuckoo clock. I don’t know who made it but it reminds me of something Radcliff Bailey would’ve made. I couldn’t tell you how long I was transfixed by it, but for the first time, I could hear a painting talk to me. It was that thing little kids do when they play with toys, giving them voices, creating scenarios aloud, unaware of anyone listening. Our conversation happened all in my head with the piece personifying the way I felt, saying, “Stop looking at me like that. I ain’t white and I ain’t no nigga. I’m constructing a narrative of my own design with the things that are relevant to me in direct opposition of the definition previous slave masters set before me.” Somehow, the painting formed an emotional connection, saying how I felt about that art and my own being taken down. I was able to examine art very differently ever since. I no longer viewed that piece as a broken clock; I saw it for what it was. I was able to see Kojo for the first time, ashamed that I ever saw that statue as trash. Those pieces also became my teachers, reminding me to believe in myself and tell the story that was only mine to tell.

Giving small tours and teaching art, I was taking part in almost every activity they provided. Meeting artists and working with children really fueled my art and creativity and I also continued to make stuff, wanting to be shown in local galleries. At the same time, I knew that nobody wanted to deal with the things that displayed my feelings. Things went on like this for a few years. I would make art with my friend Jermaine and we would show art at the Douglass. Jeff would hang it for us and the next week he’d give me his critique. I had already set the standard for him to be completely honest – that was the only way I could get to where I wanted to go. It worked and honest he was. Jeff saved a spot for me in an upcoming AFROFuturism Show. But, when I saw the other heavyweights showing, I decided not to take part. I still felt like I was far from being good enough to show on the walls of the Tubman. Though knowing Jeff’s integrity, he felt I had a piece strong enough. Soon, a special occasion would permit for us to show. 

“I didn’t like it because at the time, I didn’t like myself. It wasn’t that pretty, plain stuff. It was confusing, just like life is confusing and it’s so much going on.”

The Tubman had outgrown itself and it was time to close the old building. I figured they would let all the teachers who make art there have a show, but the Contemporary Arts Exchange held the final show there. I guess we needed to be shown what real art was – see that we were heathens exposing our feelings and using emotions and I had the nerve to be teaching that language like Voodoo Mojo. They came like missionaries to show us real beauty, good and plain and we were to be thankful. I wasn’t. I only wanted to be away from that place, just like that last day of school. I left and I wouldn’t return for a long time.

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Charvis and Jeff stand together outside the Tubman

 

I stopped going to the Tubman. I stopped making art and instead, worked on staying drunk all day. In order to protect herself from my destructive behavior, my wife built up a twenty-foot high, twenty-foot thick wall between us. It had spikes on top and a moat on both sides and a thousand-acre forest I planted with my bad ways and she watered with her tears. 

PART THREE

I had given up on making art – but someone still saw me as an artist. Mrs. Ward and I ran into each other at the mall, each with our families. The Douglass had stopped offering its space to host art a few years prior, but I guess she saw something in me that needed some help. I did. Sarcoidosis had taken my career and energy. Then, the way I had dealt with disappointment took my pleasure and my ability to enjoy my family, leaving me miserable.

“Mr. Harrell, why don’t you give me a call so you can set up an art show?” I don’t know if she knows how bad I needed that. So, I made some stuff and showed some art. Nobody came but my wife’s uncle and that was good enough for me because it encouraged me. After that show, I’d hang out in the quiet abandoned part of Fort Hill, making art and mostly giving it away.

“I felt as if I knew absolutely nothing about the place I lived my whole life. I knew I was going to try my best to never feel like that again.”

My wife shared a poem with me just when I needed it, Kai Davis’ “Fuck I Look Like.” I began to make stuff that showed more of myself, but I still felt restraint working on canvas – their medium. One day, I read an article in the paper about a couple who had recently moved to the area and opened a shared studio space downtown, Becca and Gabe Balmes. I brought a few of my paintings in and she told me how much she liked them, which was completely strange for me. The only other time someone liked my art in Macon and wasn’t a person of color was Gracen Strong. She was a photographer working at a gallery downtown. Though she really liked my work and took pictures of the pieces for me, the people she showed would be repulsed by them or me or both. She told me the most important thing ever: “You need to experiment.” She gave me the space to do it, setting me free and giving me confidence that my pursuits would lead to the real me, more than painting pictures.

I was offered a space in a show called Outsider Art and when I learned who I would be showing with, it was an honor, especially given that only truly compassionate people would go out of their way to show art as they did. A young man who was homeless took part in a robbery with an older individual, the person they robbed was killed and the younger man was blamed for the murder. The young man was executed on death row and to hold on to his humanity while he waited to die, he made art. In respect, they gave him a voice by displaying it. I understood, loved, and appreciated what she was doing. She was doing for him what she was doing for me, and it was the first time I took part in a real art show. I worked with Jermaine and we came up with one bold piece accompanied by two smaller pieces, the “Indians of Cleveland Jim Crow League Championship Banner.” I returned to making art again as I first did, but I was still far from being myself. Drinking had taken too much of that away.

During my time at Becca’s gallery, I met talented artists from all walks of life. I wasn’t used to it at the time, but they treated me like a real artist. It was amazing to talk with professionals, feeling their enthusiasm when they ask about your work. It builds confidence that your work should be shown. They all give the same advice: you need to put your art out there. But somehow, still being turned down by every gallery in town does something for your desire to approach galleries, so I continued to make art in the abandoned parts of Fort Hill and mostly give it away.

The Art Association of Macon received a grant to rebuild that abandoned section of Fort Hill and transform it into an art community. That’s when I knew, once and for all, that if artists really were to come here, my work would definitely be seen. I was here. My art was born and raised here and that can’t be unseen. They moved the artists-in-residence to town before the first set of living quarters was complete, so they lived in an apartment downtown. The artists were eager to engage the community in which they were supposed to live and one day I was approached at Becca’s gallery with a request to take the artists to their new neighborhood. I obliged.

“Our conversation happened all in my head with the piece personifying the way I felt, saying, ‘Stop looking at me like that. I ain’t white and I ain’t no nigga. I’m constructing a narrative of my own design with the things that are relevant to me in direct opposition of the definition previous slave masters set before me.'”

So much transpired from that, but the most important thing of all is learning that people like Ed Woodham and Samantha Hill are artists of such high integrity that they will sacrifice everything for the things they believe in. It’s humbling to be included in that. They forced me to do what my art needed.  When they were fired for standing up for the things they believed in – including me and the rights of the people in my neighborhood – I was forced to do something I hadn’t done in a long time. I had to speak out and up against the people trying to take advantage of those who couldn’t speak for themselves. It would be nice to point to this as the episode that gave me the strength to become sober and use the faith that other people had begun to put in me. It wasn’t. Not yet.

The next artist to come take part in the Mill Hill experiment was Nick Nerburn. Just like before, I was hanging out in the abandoned part of Fort Hill, making art and a mess of my life. Nick came with a deep curiosity toward the situation that had transpired between Ed, Sam, and the art community, but he also came with an openness to understand the community in which he was placed. These were the same intentions Ed and Sam came with but were not allowed to build upon and because of the publicity of the last situation, there was no way they could stop him from working with me. We decided to do an art show. 

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Charvis and viewers experience his work together

 

The time for me to stop drinking did come, but it wasn’t by choice. When December came around, my body was so damaged that I couldn’t handle alcohol. I could no longer handle water either. I had developed diverticulosis so bad that I had to be hospitalized with morphine in an IV and Heparin shots to my stomach. That was when I stopped for a few weeks until my father passed away, then I went right back to drinking as if I had never stopped.

I used all the hurt and pain and evil looks I had always gotten to try to show people what it felt like to be seen as Us. There is a famous old saying about a problem and that problem you have is said to be a Nigger in a woodpile, so I decided to put together a show from the point of view of a woodpile. The pile of wood I choose was a perfect symbol of how I felt and who I was. They were the same pallets I used to pull my bricks-and-mortar, the same pallets that were discarded and thrown away, just like my father’s before me. I took those pallets and displayed black characters that were meant to demean us and portray us as less than human. Those dirty old pallets weren’t supposed to be in a place of prominence. It was dirty wood meant to be worked and stay outside. It wasn’t the clean wood that’s refined and used for furniture. We presented people with the ugly stuff that was only supposed to work and remain silent.

It was the best show I had taken part in. The work Nick presented was so outstanding that it changed the way I work. I can do art and I can present information, but I have never done the amount of research he presented and it was amazing. It showed in his juxtaposition, made it seem as if the young white males living in Mill Hill were the exact same as the young black males living there, telling me so much about the place I am from and inhabited. I felt as if I knew absolutely nothing about the place I lived my whole life. I knew I was going to try my best to never feel like that again.

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 “That was the one thing that made me pick myself up and work with integrity, as if they were always watching” 

 

After Nick departed, I began to work with Danny Glover and his organization to acquire a grant for half-a-million dollars to revitalize his neighborhood on the south side. I agreed to do the art for the project and he agreed that once the grant was awarded, he would meet with me to determine what art programs I would bring to the community. I did the art and as I waited for the grant to be awarded, I reached out to corporate sponsors to help execute the programs I came up with. I researched important and inspiring art for young people in the community. For the first time since I was 14 years old, I went more than 30 days without drinking. Those 30 days turned into 60 and six months became a year. It was because my sons were getting ready to leave for college and before they left, I wanted to give them what I had – and something I had never given them – a father they could be proud of. That was the one thing that made me pick myself up and work with integrity, as if they were always watching. I began to collect supplies and do studies of the murals, so I could have visual aids to explain my ideas.

When the grant was awarded, the organization offered me $500 to paint a mural. I declined in the most vulgar way I could. To be offered such a sum is to say one of two things: either you know very little about the proper fee to pay an artist to create a mural (it’s easy to Google) or you know the right price and you just wanted to be unethical. Either way is extremely bad business.

“They came like missionaries to show us real beauty, good and plain and we were to be thankful. I wasn’t. I only wanted to be away from that place, just like that last day of school. I left and I wouldn’t return for a long time.”

I began to hand out art supplies and pencils to schools in east Macon and a few other places, including back home at the Tubman. It was a huge building, not the same as my quaint old house. It’s still home, though. I have free roam and my own private spaces to hide away. I had missed my friends. I had missed that piece that screamed at me and everytime I go upstairs and I see Mr. Imagination, I cry on the inside. The child in me apologizes to him, saying “I’m sorry I ever saw you as trash” and in his big regal voice, he always says “I know.” Some mornings, I tell Jeff I need to go see my painting,  Jeff let me in the storage room and there he is, Kojo. I didn’t like it because at the time, I didn’t like myself. It wasn’t that pretty, plain stuff. It was confusing, just like life is confusing and it’s so much going on. When I take the time to look at it now, I’m so thankful that I get to spend so much time with so many masterpieces. They humble me and make me understand that anything I do is expounding upon things the great ones before me have done and are doing now, but it’s my job to tell my story the best way I can. I continued to do research and build my first-ever show to be endorsed by the Macon Art Association at Mill Hill.

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 Harrell’s piece in State of the Union, dedicated to the community of Flint, Michigan 

 

One of those pieces was then exhibited in State of the Union, a National Juried competition, as chosen by the Manager of New Artists at the Kennedy Center of Performing Arts. I had this feeling that was so weird that it’s still hard to describe. I told my wife about the strange feeling I was having and she told me that it’s called being happy.

PART FOUR

An important tool in being a good artist isn’t just producing it, but knowing how to steal and what to steal. People who know art know. Picasso stole cubism and in that grand tradition, I stole that painting from my best friend Jermaine. He’s been my best friend since kindergarten and the person besides my wife whose opinion I can rely upon to alter my course for the better. In the process of putting together A View From The Woodpile, we were having a conversation about the crisis in Flint and he said he wanted to draw a picture of a child drinking from a dirty bottle. I instantly knew a perfect way to show a representation of that. In my research, I had stockpiled a bunch of images with the word nigger associated with them in my head. As he made the comment, I remembered the cartoon by Charles Twelve Trees, Nigger Milk – that image just popped up and I couldn’t get it out of my head. I should’ve told Jermaine, but I couldn’t. I knew that picture would be such a representation of Flint that once you see it, that’s all you’d be able to think. Jermaine lived about 45 minutes from my house and when he left my house before he could pull into the driveway, I sent him a picture of the outline on my pallet. Sorry, but I had to. Jermaine continues to make art; most of his “art” is made through the four girls of his that he pours his love and time into and it shows through their talent and beauty.

This March, Jeff was hit by a car as he was putting air into his car tires, and that was one of the scariest moments for me in a long time. Jeff is a person who always has my back when things go down. When people want to have a sit-down or meditate, I can always count on Jeff showing up on my side, no matter how outnumbered and out of the tax bracket I am with the people I go up against. He has always shown up for me. The accident left one arm partially immobile for a while, but his brain remained 100% Jeff, an extremely dignified, intelligent art expert that very few people know and nobody would believe is really a 12-year-old Godzilla fan who collects comic books. We returned to our old ways of me helping with some of his duties while he had one able arm. One of the duties I had the privilege to perform was to help pick out some art for a show for a rare style of art, one I was totally unfamiliar with: marquetry. It’s an intricate wood inlay that forms pictures, including wonderful work by Errol Bruce – no relation to Jeff. Surprisingly for me, this gentleman stays just a little over a mile from me. It goes to prove that you’ll never know the fantastic artists you might cross paths with every day unless you take the time to introduce yourself and strike up a conversation. This was the first show that I hung in a gallery by hand.

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If a tree falls in the middle of the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? The answer is yes because sound does not depend on one’s experience, it is a product of vibrations through the air. I say that because if I would’ve painted my whole life and nobody would’ve ever seen any of my art, I would still be an artist. The passion, drive, and creativity would always be there, but it feels so much better when someone says they hear you, and the strangest things happen. I started to feel satisfied and began to take some time to work on myself. When I got sober, I occupied my time by focusing on my charity and art. Both of these things absolutely dominated the rest of my time, because I had to paint. I had to have my art show in Macon and I had to display that piece good enough for the nation in Becca’s gallery first because she was the first gallery owner to accept my work. I brought it home to Fort Hill to show. 

I don’t have to paint anymore, satisfaction took some of my fire. One of the things that has affected me for a long time are the scars on my face. I used to tell my wife all the time, very few people know what it feels like to walk around with a big scar on their face; it changed the way I feel about myself and it changed the way I feel people view me. I never shave and very rarely took the time to bother with how I looked in any way, shape or form because I didn’t like the scars on my face. I decided to use them to my advantage when a film crew came to town to do a few scenes and needed some background actors. I got that job and I caught the bug. It’s minimum wage but maximum benefits if you make the most of your opportunities and that’s what I intend on doing. I’ve worked on two productions for HBO, one for STARZ and one major movie. Often, I feel out of place on sets because it’s a foreign world from spending most of my time by myself painting. Sometimes I do things I shouldn’t, like smoke cigarettes and one day I had some but didn’t have a light. I saw a gentleman hurry to his truck as if he needed to have a smoke. I held up my hand as if I had an invisible lighter and was flicking it, the universal sign that you need one. He recognized what I was doing and called out for me to come over. I instantly recognized his voice and felt too nervous to bother him until he called me over again. I began overacting, as if I didn’t have a hundred thousand questions I wanted to ask, so I quietly tried to light my cigarette – and dropped it. He said, “You a’ight?” and I said ‘Yeah,’ but I really couldn’t believe I had just met Michael K. Williams. I doubt if I will ever get a speaking role of any kind and my screen time is so small that even if you keep your eyes wide open the whole time you’ll miss me, but it is a learning experience, another way to see art being made on the grandest of scales and I appreciate every opportunity.

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 Charvis Harrell, Artist

 

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