The celebrated artist Brian Washington is a name that most Americans need to know. Former President Clinton has called his artwork “masterful,” “remarkable,” “epic” and “a powerful and moving vision of America's struggle for equal rights.”
When the formidable former attorney left his job to be a full-time artist, he had one goal in mind—to document the historical Civil Rights movement in the U.S. as a form of freedom, justice and equality through the visual medium. "Art lasts forever and tells the story of our struggle in a way that is educational and inspirational," says the Cincinnati-native and internationally known self-taught artist who first thought of the idea as an undergrad at Duke University. "We've made a lot of progress because ordinary people did extraordinary things. But the struggle is not over. The problems we fought for in the past are still occurring today. We can’t thoroughly chart our future without an understanding of our past."
His latest exhibition The Continual Struggle: The American Movement and the Seeds of Social Change is a striking, vivid collection of 25 charcoal drawings—with themed images ranging from sharecropping and police violence to voter registration and freedom rides—took 13 years to complete. Drawn only in black and white, the original pieces, carefully researched from original photographs and archival television footage, take on a lifelike grandeur with many pieces exceeding 6 feet.
The celebrated collection is now touring at presidential libraries and museums around the country. Twenty five of the visual works are now on display at The George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas until March 27. The exhibit uses art as a way of powerfully recalling the beginnings of the public protests against injustice and inequality.
How did this award-winning artist who used to sell Ninja Turtle drawings for 50 cents in fifth grade become a celebrated painter depicting one of America’s most dehumanizing periods? EBONY sat down with Washington and discussed with him his greater ambition and vision.
EBONY: Why has it been important for you not to focus on selling your original pieces?
Brian Washington: The purpose from the beginning was to tell the story of the country’s continual struggle [against racism and for Civil Rights]. It still exists. Attacking that issue and raising awareness through art is a very positive step forward. Art lasts forever and will always be relevant. And keeping the original paintings together as a collection is a way for the visual narrative to survive.
Black people have always said the struggle still exists today, but no one believed us.
Absolutely! My recent collection is called The Continual Struggle for that reason. I have heard the term the struggle continues obviously and while it denotes the same thing, the continual struggle is more of a now thing; whereas, the struggle continues refers to an activity or an event. Using the words a continual struggle is more of an adept description of the condition behind the fight for civil rights is still a real thing. It is still relevant all of the time in everything we do.
Your illustrations capture various periods in the ongoing struggle for equality in America, from sharecropping, Jim Crow, Selma’s "Bloody Sunday" to the role of the Black church—the collection didn’t stop at three or even 10.
It was important for me to tell the story in a complete manner so that it will always be relevant.
The ghost-like nature of the people in your paintings makes you want to ask who are these people? Are they real people?
I went to the Library of Congress to see the prints and photographs of the Civil Rights era. There are literally thousands and thousands of images. I tried to soak in the mood. That was the most important thing because I wanted to be as authentic as possible. The haunting element is real! It's supposed to be kind of a warning shot or a foreshadowing that these times of struggles were going to continue. Nothing was easy by sticking in the storm. They were brave heroes. That’s what really came to me when I started making these works was that it was common people who did extraordinary things to give the movement weight. My parents were in Birmingham, Alabama at the time of the Civil Rights movement. My dad went to segregated schools until his junior year of high school. That’s like my life. And my life would be the same. My parents were born and raised in the deep south during the Civil Rights movement in the 50s and 60s. My mom and dad both attended segregated high schools until their junior year. That’s been the backdrop of my life. And that’s why I call it the continual struggle because we must continue to make progress. My parents are examples of progress—my mother is a registered nurse, and my father was a corporate executive. Our philosophy is that we continue to educate ourselves through all generations.
And that’s why I call it the continual struggle and the seeds of social change. People have forgetten or think it doesn’t apply to them—but it absolutely does, especially from the many protests that we've recently seen in the media.
You were a public policy major in college—not history or liberal arts. What or who opened your eyes to history in such a way to compel you to creatively document it?
A class at Duke called Administration of Justice. That was the class that helped me put my head on.
In what way?
The professor was basically reporting on experiments and studies of African Americans under the intensely punitive and racialized system. It was sad to see but kept me thinking why are we seeing these statistics. But it also really inspired me because it showed what the real issues of civil rights have been and continue to be.
You painted the first 13 at Duke and then ….
I actually painted five by the end of my senior year and stayed on campus in my apartment the summer after graduation to finish the other eight. That first edition of the collection was acquired by the Smithsonian-affiliated National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.
Why did you continue painting in law school? You already made your mark as an artist at a very young age.
Up to that point I had never really shared my work. And people who saw it were so impressed and thankful for it. I thought to myself, "I appreciate that but there's a lot more I could do." I had very limited time after graduation to do this—just three months. I could blow it out of the water if I had more time.
You continued painting even after being recruited to one of the most prestigious law firms in the country, Sidley Austin, where Barack and Michelle Obama met.
The firm didn’t know how serious I was. I kept the ideas close to the vest of how big of an art deal I was. I didn’t want to seem as if I wasn’t committed to the law firm. I did a few paintings to add to the collection while I was a lawyer in the five or six years [I was there] but I left specifically to do this project. That was my job. I said to myself, if I could bring into the world the vision I had, that would be incredible. Because no matter how big your talent is or what kind of ideas you have, it's nothing if it remains an idea. You have to create what you want to exist—and that became my personal logo. And, this was before all of these racial events started to take place all over the country.
What illustration is your favorite?
They Were Very Poor but Loved. It felt alive when I saw it come together. I got the father figure there. And I got the cabin in the sky, then it took on a life of its own. It was a moment of discovery that it was very much becoming what I wanted it to look like in my mind.
What do you mean when you say the images come to you?
The composition of my new body of work has come in my sleep. It got so bad that I would put a pen and notepad in bed with me. And I would wake up at night and I would write the visual description in case I forgot what I had seen [in the dream]. That was the most productive time. Just falling asleep. I had so many ideas at night that would have amounted to years of doing research.
I see myself as a collection-based artist, a narrative artist who works in collections. And that's how my work will come out as a whole collection. I have different areas of American history that I want to depict. They are all related to what was in The Continual Struggle but either an earlier or later period of time. Like covering the issues of slavery and emancipation. Then, maybe the next will be the Great Migration, then the Harlem Renaissance. In my mind, I am just getting started.