In artist Faith Ringgold’s children’s book “Harlem Renaissance Party”, a young boy Lonnie and his Uncle Bates spend a whirlwind day in 1920s Harlem meeting great black artists including Langston Hughes, Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins. . At the end of the tour, Lonnie told his uncle, “Black people didn’t come to America to be free. We fought for our freedom by creating art, music, literature and dance. His uncle replies, “Now everywhere you look you find a piece of our freedom.” This understanding of the inescapable entanglement of joy and sorrow – and hardship and creation – is one that echoes through much of Ringgold’s work, which can be seen, in a major retrospective, “Faith Ringgold: American People”, at the New Museum, in New York, until June.
This week’s cover, for the Spring Style & Design Issue, features a piece from Ringgold’s “Jazz Stories” series, which she started in 2004. In it, Ringgold, born in Harlem in 1930, celebrates the music that provided him with a lifetime of inspiration.
Can you tell us about your link with jazz and music?
I have spent my life listening to the great music of Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and others. Many of these musicians also lived in Harlem, so while they were stars, they were neighbors too. I grew up with Sonny Rollins. My first husband, Earl Wallace, was a classical pianist and composer. Our house was entertained by musicians such as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Jackie McLean, among others.
These serigraphs were part of my first jazz series, which I dedicated to Romare Bearden, the greatest of the jazz painters. I could easily spend the rest of my life singing my song in pictures.
You have also been an educator for a long time. Has teaching changed your job?
I grew up with role models in my family who were teachers. Most notable was my mother’s father, Professor BB Posey. For over forty years I have taught students from middle school to college. In 1985, I was offered a tenured professorship in the visual arts department at the University of California, San Diego, teaching studio drawing and painting. Teaching art has brought a richness to my life and my art that could never have happened otherwise. I couldn’t be happier to describe myself as both an artist and a teacher.
You have painted, quilted, sculpted and written children’s books. Is there a medium where you feel most comfortable?
Since the 1950s I have worked in sixteen distinct mediums including oil paintings, quilts, tanks, soft sculptures, prints, masks, book illustrations, etc. I have never limited myself to one medium or one technique. I used each one to tell my story, to express what I needed to express.
You have been creating art for decades. What is one thing you wish you had known when you were starting out as a young artist?
I think about the things people have told me, instead of what I wish I had known. My mother told me that I should work twice as hard to get half as far. My dad always said, “We tore the boss off of this one. And I tell all young artists that anyone can fly, just try.
For more jazz covers, see below: