Everyone has a story to tell. Life and its partner, circumstance, can cause one to move towards self-defeat or grab hold of a dream and make either come true.

A Madison creator, respectfully known only as The Artist, chose the latter. Sent to a reform school by age 9, he turned his childhood pain into passion. The passion to paint. 

“Don’t you dare be sad,” he told UMOJA Magazine, thrusting his head high. “I am an artist. And I am not going to sacrifice anything for it.”

The Artist invited UMOJA for a private tour of his art studio to unveil a 13-piece collection reflecting activists on the frontlines of civil rights and social justice movement. The profundity of his work is remarkable in capturing the spirit of the moment.

Now on full display to the public, in a two-person gallery art show at the Overture Center for the Arts, The Artist’s acrylic paintings are part of an exhibit titled “Healing Journeys: Heritage and Resistance.” Held in Gallery 1, the show runs through March 5.

The mosaic-style paintings stretch nearly 100-inches wide. With artwork titles of “Ain’t Worth 2 Nickels,” “Meet Me in Selma,” “The Event,” and “Go Away Little Girl,” The Artist documents a time of revolt, protest, and Black power. The artwork defines the civil rights era well beyond a sitting portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King.

“One thing I love about him is his obsession with artmaking,” said Karin Wolf, the arts administrator for the city of Madison. “I love those kinds of artists who cannot not make art, you know? He is compelled to be an artist. It’s just that passion and it’s just so beautiful to me.”

Milwaukee By Way of Jamaica

The Artist is tall with Bob Marley-style dreads. Jamaican-born, his childhood was a whirl of chaos. He acted out for attention. Raised on his own wits and faith, he made his way to Milwaukee when a juvenile act caused him to come face-to-face with Vel Phillips, the first woman judge in Milwaukee County and the first Black judge in Wisconsin.

“When I was a kid, I didn’t have a family,” The Artist recalls. “Vel looked out for me. … One day, she looked me in the eyes and said, ‘I can tell you’re really special. There is no reason for you to be institutionalized.’ She never gave up on me. She helped find a foster family for me and would come around to check on me.”

Phillips wasn’t the only civil rights trailblazer to cross his path. The Artist met Jessie L. Jackson Sr. at Loop College in Chicago, during his nationwide campaign for U.S. president. 

As a young adult, he made a living as an inspector supervisor for International Automotive Components, an automotive and commercial vehicle interiors supplier based in Iowa City, Iowa. The lure to paint outweighed the 9-to-5 job, The Artist said.

“I wanted to be free to do the kind of art that I want to do,” The Artist said. “I can really express myself as an artist if you allow me to be free. It allows me to pay my dues to the people of this world. And one hundred percent of my work is inspired art.”

Freedom Movement in Art 

The civil rights struggle and other social and political challenges faced by the Black community were never far from The Artist’s mind, either. His favorite band, Earth, Wind & Fire performed upbeat songs like “Shining Star” and “September”. The band would grow to symbolize confidence, freedom and liberty to the masses amid a post-civil rights America.

The Artist said his street murals and studio work became his way to keep the racial justice movement alive. And it does. His art keenly captures the ethos of the era.

Inspiration to paint often came from historic documentaries. As did the public lynching of George Floyd, a Black man  murdered by a Minneapolis officer Labor Day weekend in 2020.

“I just sit there with documentaries playing in the background, you know,” he said. “I’ll see a moment and it’ll catch me. It hits me at being so profound and gets inside of me.”

Inside the art studio, there’s Hosea Williams and John Lewis leading marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on Bloody Sunday. The Memphis sanitation workers with placards stating, “I Am A Man” as they fought for equality, dignity, and respect. And there are the freedom riders, including, Jim Zwerg, an Appleton native ꟷ among a handful of white civil rights activists ꟷ that sat next to John Lewis and Stokely Carmichael.

There’s also an image of King arriving to the Lorraine Motel, just a day after delivering his prophetic “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. A piece, often unseen in the history books, are the children of the civil rights activists. The Artist captures their air of bravery.

“These are the children of Mississippi,” The Artist said. “These are the children of the activist. What’s in their eyes is this; they’re dealing with something that they never had before ever. I love painting eyes because of what they are saying without speaking a word.”

The Artist’s talent is being noticed. His work has been commissioned, including for the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, where he painted the state’s only member of Tuskegee Airmen ꟷ Waukesha native Lt. Alfred Gorham an elite pilot during World War II.

When the Overture informed him that his work would be on display for three months, The Artist was elated.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “And they really rolled out the carpet for me, too. It’s my time to give back to the world and I’m loving every bit of it.”  

The Overture is accepting applications for Gallery I, II and III as part of our 2023-2025 seasons. Show your art in one of the most visited art galleries in Madison. To learn more email Beth Racette, the center’s community engagement manager, at bracette@overture.org.