Carolyn Mims Lawrence was one of the artists who contributed to The Wall of Respect, a mural created in 1967 at the corner of 43rd Street and Langley Avenue in Chicago that combined the work of several African American artists to create portraits of Black heroes and heroines. The Wall was a project of the Visual Arts Workshop of the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC). Featuring sports figures, civil rights leaders, musicians, authors, and historical figures, it became a source of pride and a center of activity for the people of the neighborhood.
Later, Lawrence was a member of the art collective, AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), which sought to define a Black aesthetic and to uplift and celebrate African American culture and community by creating positive, empowering images of Black life. (To learn more about AfriCOBRA, read this post.)
In addition to being an artist, Lawrence taught art to students at Chicago’s Kenwood Academy. She is now retired from teaching and re-devoting herself to her artwork. Lawrence’s work is included in Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, on view at Crystal Bridges through April 23, 2018. The following is an interview with Lawrence conducted by Senior Editor Linda DeBerry in January.
LD: As a member of AFRICOBRA, why did you feel it was important to outline specific qualities of a Black art? How did the group choose those qualities?
CL: Members of AFRICOBRA wanted the work to reflect qualities that were inherent or common to Blacks. The unique characteristics of Blacks do set them apart in appearance and how they relate to others. We chose those qualities that were most positive and life-affirming. Through group discussions about our heritage and life-styles of Black families we were able to come to an agreement on some basic qualities.
LD: You were part of the group of artists who painted the Wall of Respect. What motivated that project? How do you think it impacted the neighborhood where it was installed?
CL: The Wall of Respect came out of a need to foster family solidarity, racial pride, confidence in each other, and self-determination. The mural had a very positive influence upon the community. Residents and other Blacks who visited admired the heroes who were chosen to be represented. All the beautiful images were inspirational.
LD: What was it like to be a woman artist involved in the Black Power movement? Did feminism fit into your agenda at all? Was the role for female artists different than that of the male artists in the movement? How about today?
CL: My participation in the Black Power movement was liberating, because I had artistic talent to contribute. Female Black artists were just as dedicated, compassionate and courageous as male artists. It was good that women in the feminist movement were becoming more vocal about issues such as equal pay for equal work, ceilings that limit their advancement in companies or government, and access to resources allowing them to start their businesses. Raising that awareness benefitted women everywhere. I was focused on my AFRICOBRA painting “Uphold Your Men, Unify Your Families.” For me, it was imperative that Black men be present and fully involved in their families. The strength of the family unit affects our community. When fathers, husbands, or soulmates are not present it has a profound impact upon wives, mothers, and most of all children. That next generation is missing close role models, mentors, and nurturing from a male. For most women nurturing comes naturally, however, males in their own way give children the trust, confidence, and security needed to develop into fulfilled human beings.
LD: You were an art teacher at Kenwood Academy for most of your career. What, in your opinion, is the value of teaching art in public schools?
CL: Students need to understand art as a way to spark their imagination as well as develop critical thinking. The value of seeing art in every aspect of our daily existence is so important. Studying how humans lived since the beginning of time shows us that art is intrinsic to everyone.
LD: You wrote an article about teaching art to Black students in which you said that Black art students need to “look his heritage in the face and understand his racial heritage in terms of his own family history.” Can you expand on that? Why did you feel that was important?
CL: Knowing their family history is important to understanding their heritage. Young people especially Black students, need a sense of self which can give them purpose in their lives. The more that parents can tell stores of the challenges that family members have had the better prepared young people are to overcome their own struggles.
LD: What is the role for art and artists in the racial problems happening in America now? What has changed and what has stayed the same?
CL: Art and artists can be a way to interpret how race affects everyone. Our images are a healing force against negative images that are an assault upon the minds of Black people. These images breed self-doubt, identity confusion and self-hate. The more unaware a Black person is about the strength of his character and other Blacks past and present, the more easily his mind can be manipulated. Our images reinforce what is already naturally authentic about us and callus to love ourselves.
LD: Do you feel that Black artists today have an obligation to represent the Black experience directly in their work? Why or why not?
CL: Believe in a person’s right to express themselves freely. Hopefully it will be healthy in mind and not destructive. It is the decision of the artist as to what form the work will take, what message is to be sent and the intended audience.
LD: Is it important for audiences to know an artist is Black? Has your attitude about that changed over the course of your career?
CL: It is important for the artist to speak to or have a visual connection with the audience. The making of art is inclusive and is a natural human impulse. My attitude has not changed over the years.
LD: What advice would you give a young artist today?
CL: Make as much art as you can. See and study the art of the past and present. Be open to critiques from anyone. Have confidence in your own abilities at any stage of your development.
LD: What are you working on these days? What inspires you or informs your work?
CL: I continue to work on expressions of the human figure. Members of my family or extended family inspire me.
LD: What would you like your artistic legacy to be?
CL: I would like my artistic legacy to also be my journey of self-realization.