Romare Bearden
 
On Saturday mornings in his studio along with several other aspiring artists, I listened raptly to Romare Bearden for nearly two decades. This celebrated and politically inspired artist opened his workspace and freely shared his ideas, collectively and individually. "I see that you make finger exercises, but can you make a symphony?" he said to me. Words that motivated me to dig deeper into my artistic soul. Where was I going with my work, with my message?

The moment I set eyes on Romare Bearden's art, I was mesmerized by his treatment of strong colors and his fractionalization of time and space. I happened to be putting together my second photography book, Drums of Life, about men and wanted to include a portrait of Romare Bearden. He agreed. I showed up at his loft on Manhattan's Canal Street and rang the bell. Three flights up, a window opened and Romare threw down keys. After climbing the three long staircases, I entered his loft and he made tea, which we drank at his kitchen table. We discovered we shared southern origins and bonded over his stories of rural Mecklenburg County, Virginia, where he had spent summers with his grandparents.

Romare, or Romee as I in time felt comfortable calling him, was an engaging storyteller, who often expressed ideas through his tales. One centered on a woman who cleaned the Harlem building, owned by his mother, where his studio was then located. During the harsh days of the Depression, prostitutes lined 125th Street and jingled keys to attract business. On his way to his studio, Romee encountered this particular woman jangling her keys; she called out to him, "25 cents " but, sensing his non-interest, quickly reduced her demand to "a dime," then "a nickel " and in desperation called out "Mister, just take me. " Romee asked if she needed a job. He knew his politically active mother would want to help. The woman quickly said yes, his mother hired the young woman to clean her building, and so she began employment there. A year or so later, Romee was sitting in front of a large blank canvas stuck in a period of inactivity. From the corner of his studio the cleaning woman, broom in hand, spoke out: "Why don't you paint me? "

Romee, turning with a dismissive expression, said nothing. "I know what I look like, " the woman said, "but if you can find beauty in me, you can call yourself a painter."

He immediately began and over time completed a painting of this woman. Romee always chose to see obstacles as opportunity, an idea he credited to French artist Georges Braque. The greater the limitation, the more creative you must become to overcome it, he liked to say.

Over the years I, too, have come to rely on these words. Whenever equipment or circumstances fail me, his words become my mantra and, with hardly a glance back, I refocus and seek out a solution by calling on my creativity to rescue me.

It saves time - and has never failed me.

DustBowl Dali
 
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