The Intellectual Exercise of Talking About Art: An Interview with Curlee Raven Holton

By Shantay Robinson  


Before I could ask a question, Curlee Raven Holton told me who he is. He’s a man with something to say, and he says a lot. I told him, since there are already interviews and news articles online about his former work as professor of studio art at Lafayette College where he retired from; Raven Fine Art Editions, for which he makes prints of artworks by David Driskell, Willie Cole, Faith Ringgold, Danny Simmons and others; and his appointment as Executive Director of the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora at University of Maryland, College Park, I wanted to talk about his artistry. I soon realized there was more to this man than his work. Each question asked, prompted an unexpected response to convey a deeper understanding of the world.

During our hour-long conversation, he talked about his motivations, the art marketplace, and many other artists. Holton is concerned with the mortality, not only of himself, which is why he paints so many self-portraits, but also with the mortality of the artworld as it becomes oversaturated with “too many” mediocre artists and those critics unwilling to share apt criticism of those artists. I didn’t have to ask the questions I had prepared for our interview to yield these rich, multilayered responses. At the end of our conversation, he asked if that was all I had for him. I didn’t want to keep him long and had only prepared for an hour, but I guess he has a lot more to say. Of the ten-page transcript of this interview, below are some of the moments which struck me as exceptionally important, not that the rest of it isn’t.

(Othello Re-imagined in Sepia, Portfolio), Curlee Raven Holton

What made you want to become an artist?

Well, the common answer to that question is that I couldn’t help myself. I was always drawing and making things. But really what happened was I have an older brother who was artistic. And I used to emulate him. And I was really amazed by what he was able to draw. So, I began to do it. It wasn’t until I got out of the military. I was drafted during Vietnam. I got out in 1973. And art became a little bit more important to me. Even while I was in the military I was doing a little art. Competing in Army organized exhibitions, but I didn’t become a real artist. A little later on, after I got out of the military, I was not necessarily very happy with my existence. I worked and had a family, but I was not content intellectually or emotionally, so I began. I always had a sort of introverted impulse inside me. I began to go back to the art and make images about the world that I saw around me. And I reflected on it because part of my personality was to think about what was happening to me and what I saw, to think about what things meant. Art served an important purpose of allowing me to not only witness and evaluate what was happening in the world around me but make judgements about it… So much of the work I have done over my life and continue to do is reflection, my own reflection and contemplation about the world that I’m in and what I witness, what I think about being alive in this world. The purpose of existence. So, my work is driven by that. It’s been intimate to my personality… Being an artist is an intellectual exercise. Now when we think about creativity, we don’t want to think about intellect or genius. Sometimes when we think about artists like Bearden or Michelangelo or people like this who produce work that goes beyond our imagination about what a human can do. But in truth, making art is an intellectual process. So, you got some artists who are smart and some artists who are not so smart. And the work tells that story. I look at work all the time. They send it to me and some of the work is, every now and then, the work is amazingly intelligent, amazingly gifted. And then some work to me is redundant copying, shallow not very educated images. Not well-informed images. A lot of dumb art out there.

What distinguishes the two?

So, if you wanted to really describe what smart art is there are three parts to successful art. Number one is what we call design. When you look at a work you say, okay this is a painting of a thing of a family or this is a sculpture of a figure. Whatever the artist’s subject is the design element, whether they self-assign it or it’s assigned to them. The second part is modulation. What did that artist do with the figure? For example, let’s consider a painting by Hale Woodruff of a group of people. He has a certain kind of style a certain kind of palette. Then you see a Bearden do a family, similar theme. They are doing it differently. Hale Woodruff has a sort of abstract surreal quality to it. Elongated arms a little bit larger hands. Bearden larger hands but he takes the face of the figure and he makes a composite. He constructs, deconstructs, and reconstructs the face so now we have the figure as the subject, but the content is different because with Bearden he’s not just talking about a family, see, which may be the same theme we see in a Hale Woodruff or same theme in Aaron Douglas or Sargent Johnson or Henry O. Tanner, we then see them modulated differently. Abstracting the face changing the bodies, collaging it, a little painting. So, then it is signature Bearden because of how he modulated it. Individual choices of medium, scale, and the compositional elements. Very intelligent artist. So, its multi-language, trilingual sort of speak. Then you have recapitulation. When an audience looks at it and they respond to it. So, they look at a Bearden and they say, wow that is phenomenal. Or they look at a Kehinde Wiley of President Obama leaning into the space with his shirt open. Extremely powerful individual not egotistical, not vain. Not seduced by his power. But comfortable with being powerful. And to me, that’s the most important painting that Kehinde Wiley has painted. I think that is his master piece from my perspective.

Did your upbringing prepare you to be an artist?

My brother was [an artist] and then he gave that up when he met a woman, so he shifted focus you know and every now and then we talk about it a little bit. My father passed a year and a half ago. So, we went to the wake and one family member said, “Curlee, you know, your brother just said that he’s a better artist than you?” I said, “He might be better, I’m smarter though.” I have a career in art. He doesn’t. He ended up working in a factory and raising his family, which is a fine thing. I think, sometimes, I lamented that I didn’t have a lot of positive role models other than seeing my brother do art because my parents were undereducated or uneducated. Neither finished high school. And worked in factories or worked as a domestic. And the only books in the house were a Bible or Ebony magazine. So, it wasn’t about learning, I had to discover that through my teachers. And that’s the role education plays for a lot of people. It liberates you from your own family situation. I had some teachers that were interested in me as a young artist. And I found a home in it. And I found my wife who is a writer and was very encouraging and accepting of it and not everyone understands that. I dated a woman when I was in art school. And I remember telling her I wanted to be an artist and she told me she didn’t care whether I was an artist or someone that picked up garbage for a living. I said well that’s the wrong thing to say to me. I need someone to believe in me. Not just accept my situation. So that was the end of that relationship. So, you have to find validation for yourself. You have to find ways to believe in yourself and set up a system to support yourself. Not just emotionally and philosophically. Of course, it’s important to find a way to support yourself economically. But for me art has been more about my own emotional and intellectual development more than anything else.

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In your own words how would you describe your art?

I think my art is honest. My art is, sometimes though, a bit morbid. Because I talk about existence and I do portraits. For example, I did a big show and I had a lot of portraits. People asked, “why do you do so many portraits?” I said, “I’m documenting my demise, my disappearance.” Nobody wants to hear that. Why are you saying that? Well why do you think I’m doing self-portraits? I’m looking at myself change and become something different. A lot of artists have done that. So, the purpose of the art is not always this lame conversation about I make art because I can’t help myself or I make art because I really love it and I want to make some beautiful things because I’m a believer that truth is beauty. Truth can be painful. But I think truth is the real beauty. A lot of art can be deception.

Is there a recurring theme in your work?

Yes, there is a recurring theme or a constant theme of the human dilemma, human dynamics. I’m doing a series right now called Deluge. And the series is about how we deal with having everything washed away. And when people look at it they say are you talking about Katrina or Sandy? I say no, I’m talking about struggle. What do you grab when everything is going to be lost. When the wave is coming in and you can see it. And you’re in your home, what is the thing that you grab? The only thing you can take with you. You grab your money. You grab your credit cards, you grab your photographs. What do you grab to take with you? It’s an interesting thing this human dynamic.

What do you find most challenging about creating art?

Before, it was probably trying to accept myself as an artist. Trying to and wanting to be accepted by those who I consider the masters. Getting my teachers and others to accept me as an artist and to say that I have a gift that was meaningful and significant enough to participate. Because you know when you go through school, and train as artists there’s a lot of artists…I went to a private art school, 500 students and everybody was going to be a Picasso. It was so competitive. You’re looking over your shoulder. You’re looking at people. And then not only do you have a range of talent, you have privilege. So here I am after the military in my twenties sitting in a classroom with 17 and 18-year-olds whose parents have paid for the whole ride and here I am struggling to pay for it with the GI Bill and working. My experience in that classroom was completely different. Becoming an artist is completely different. So of course, you begin to realize that the artworld was racist like most of the world. That you gotta negotiate a certain kind of space being identified as a black artist or self-identifying as a black artist. The amazing thing about that, this is an interesting story. When I was in Cleveland, Ohio which was almost 50% African American and had the first black mayor in the country, Carl Stokes, his brother was Lou Stokes the senator. We had the senators, mayors that were black, entrepreneurs, some of the wealthiest people in the city were of color. They had power, they had prestige, so I grew up in a community where my patrons, when I started as a young artist, was that community. So, I went to an organization. I was invited to come to an organization of predominantly white artists. I think there were 150 people in the audience there were three of us that were of color and they are talking about the entire market, how the market is, and how they can survive. And I realized that I had half of the population available to me. I had a larger studio than they had. I had more success than most of them. I left that meeting because I had a market.  They were trying to find a market.

Can you expand more on your education and what that was like being a black man in your twenties going to school with privileged teens?

I remember it took me ten years to get my first undergraduate degree. The school was just so happy that I had finally finished. And that reveals a struggle. But I had confidence that I was going to pass all of them. And I’ve been more successful than 90% of the people that graduated from my class. So, maybe even more than that. I may be the most successful. I’m not sure. So, you have to think about what does success mean to you? And that’s one of the hardest things for artists to make a determination about. What does it mean to be a successful artist? How do you define that? Does it mean you have a show in a museum? You can have a show in a museum, but what if no museum buys your work although you have a show in a museum? Or the museum buys your work, but you get no shows at a museum? I remember there’s a colleague of mine who’s an artist, African American, and he just so wanted a show in New York City. I knew a gallery director in New York City and I recommended him, and I think someone else did too, not just me. He was eventually given that show in New York City for a summer show. And I remember visiting his home and on his dining room table was a framed announcement of his show. It was in the middle of the dining room table. He was so proud of this. All he wanted was to have that New York show. Well, it didn’t mean anything. Nothing in the end. It just means he had a show in New York City. A lot of artists have shows in New York City.  A lot of artists are in museums. So, that can’t be the thing that determines whether you are producing meaningful work. And then what are you to do if you are not seeking validation from the world around you. You have to validate yourself. So, I make work so that I can better understand my existence in the world that I am in, so I can negotiate that and also nurture and develop my own awareness and consciousness and to find a higher plane of an existence and understanding. So, my work serves a very personalized purpose more than a social purpose. I don’t make things for the marketplace. Sometimes I sell things and find things in museums. But that’s not my motive. I have a very private motive.

So how do you measure success for yourself?

I think probably one of the most important aspects of success for me is what I do for my family, for my children. For example, the idea of my children and grandchildren walking into my studio and seeing a painting. They think about what Poppa thought about. My grandfather had these ideals. My grandfather thought about these things. The consciousness of my grandfather. How often do you get to see that? We have parents, grandparents. How often do we really know what they’re thinking? How often do we see our mother’s poetry? How often do we know about our father’s dissatisfaction or longing for something else? Or existential crisis? We don’t know anything about that most of the time. I discovered things about my father before his passing. He was 94. How do you get a sense of who you are? And I want my children to know who I am. My work also reveals the things that I value and the things that I want to assert and also my morality. You’re asserting your morality.

Is there anything you would tell emerging artists to do as they try to create a career for themselves?

Well, first of all there’s too many of them out there. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be artistic in life, creative in your living. But there are so many. You’ve got to have noticed that yourself. What I mean by so many. So many at different levels of talent and ability and it’s starting to get diluted so much. The meaning is diluted. For example, we see this now with the attention paid to African American artists. You see so much work. Just go on BAIA, shop at BAIA all those images. That’s just a small sliver of what’s out there. So much out there. And what do we do with all of that? What do we do with all that? It’s like singers. Some people can really sing, and other people can’t necessarily sing. Turn off the electronics and they sound terrible. So how do we determine where quality exists. That’s the question. Quality not just competence or ability but quality. What is someone talking about that is really meaningful. Because you can be so democratic. Everybody gets in. You don’t have any sense of quality. Mediocrity rules. Now this is a hard thing to do because if you set a standard and you claim that something’s good or something’s not so good it can be a difficult existence. And part of the role at the Driskell Center that I tried to move the center to, is being an evaluator. Say what’s good, say what’s not, and be able to support it. You gotta be able to say it. Nobody’s saying it. Before if a museum like the Met bought your work, you assume that it had gone through a process of critical review. For them to acquire it, meant it was good. That may still exist at the Met and other museums, but it doesn’t exist in the marketplace. There’s no one in the marketplace that is evaluating the work. Critics don’t even write criticism. They write press releases. Seldom do they critique. Sometimes they do. Every now and then you’ll read a review that says an artist is not so good.

Do you feel it’s important for you to create?

Yeah, it’s important for me to create because I’m trying to have a discussion. And sometimes I have images that pop into my head that I go in and create from. That happens every now and then. The work is important because you’re trying to seek a higher level of consciousness about yourself. That’s the motivation. But I don’t make art to make things for the market place. I don’t make art because I want to have a new set of works out there to be displayed and marketed to a gallery. I’m interested in producing work that’s meaningful to me. So, a lot of people don’t see my work. But I’m successful. I sell work, I place work in museums, as a publisher at Raven Fine Art Edition, I sell and place works in museum collections by other artists.  So, I have the freedom to pursue my own creative interest and I don’t have to compromise to make objects for the market to survive.

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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While  receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.

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