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Mitzi Kay Jackson

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Detroit Institute of Arts
by Mitzi Kay Jackson   
Rated "PG" by the Author.
Last edited: Wednesday, June 08, 2011
Posted: Wednesday, June 08, 2011

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Three-pieces of art at The Detroit Institute of Arts

“Art begins with resistance - at the point where resistance is overcome. No human masterpiece has ever been created without great labor.”
Andre Gide

The three art pieces I choose to write about narrowed down from twenty-one pieces that I wrote out at my visit to the Detroit Institute of Arts, a place where every time I visit takes me hours to leave, I totally get lost, they are pieces I have gazed at before, all with the exception of “The Letter”. I am a fan of art (almost all genres of art) and my favorite artist of all time is Romare Bearden so I had to choose “Quilting Time”; I am also familiar with some of Bety Saar work so when I ran across “Beyond Midnight”, I selected her as well; but I was really caught off guard with this pull of Dutch painter Peter Lely and a lot of the oils on canvas in the Dutch Golden Age and British section on the third floor/level 3, I found the artwork very romantic in away and the colors vibrant. I truly enjoyed the portraits of the well-to-do, the softness and sexiness of the ladies also in the European: Inspired by Italy. I enjoyed the religious paintings in the American section full of emotion and motion, with their slight hints of slavery like in John Singleton’s “Watson and the Shark”. Because I have plenty of African American art books at home, I wasn’t all that impress by the works they selected for their two corners, but they had some strong resistant pieces like the Jacob Lawrence the one of John Brown and Elizabeth Catlett sculptors. Too bad one must go through all that contemporary to get to the largest collection of African American art. There are two genres in art that I am moving forward to, and that is contemporary and vernacular since these two are the least aesthetically pleasing to me I want to at least understand why this form is considered art (lately I have become fascinated with the vernacular art).


A lot of the works I selected to write information on came from The Grand Tour of Italy and I struggled over “The Court of Death” by Rembrandt Peale1820 and “Death on the Pale Horse”, the first was a huge painting with a smaller painting and explanation that was fascinating in itself. “Death on the Pale Horse” was also large and intricate both with strong religious matters. The art I also struggled with deciding not to use as one of the three was on level one from Africa. Although, I have been in this exhibit many times it is a powerful exhibit and emotional draining yet, just so profound. I had originally chosen the three masks that are displayed in a case together, called or subtitled, “Stories of Origin”. They are beautifully carved and decorated each having its own story and performed together as a tool of history and story-telling. What is so emotionally draining about this exhibit is that most of the pieces whether from Kongo, Yoruba or Kuba anywhere from Africa the artist is unknown and that transport my mind away from the artwork and the artistry of the pieces to the History, my limited knowledge of Africans and African-Americans, chattel slavery to present day racism and sometimes that is what art do (suppose to do). I did enjoy watching the video on honoring the ancestors the dancers are fully covered and decorated and dancing, it still saddens me some thinking of the rites-of-passages we as African-Americans have missed out on.


The first piece of artwork I choose is titled “Quilting Time”. I stepped off of the elevator onto the second level into this large hall and looked to my left; I immediately recognized that it was a Romare Bearden piece. In 1986, Bearden was commissioned by the Detroit Institute of Arts to celebrate their centennial. He executed a mosaic mural, done in mosaic glass, of approximately 10 x 13'. "The work is typical of Bearden in that it is rooted in his memories of his Southern childhood and depicts an important aspect of African-American culture. The brightly colored mosaic shows a group of women making a quilt. The artist's statement on this work states, in part, "It may have come to me in selecting a quilting bee (as these affairs were often called) as my subject that the technique had something to do with my own use of the medium of collage. After all, working in collage was precisely what the ladies were doing. "Bearden's use of mosaic tile late in his career developed from his use of the technique of building his forms with very small pieces of paper, a technique called tesserae. Since the paper was so fragile, Bearden began using mosaic tile for his large public artworks (

I first became aware of Romare Bearden’s work through his collage and photomontage. A collage is a work of formal art, primarily in the visual arts, made from an assemblage of different forms, thus creating a new whole and a photomontage is a collage made from photographs, or parts of photographs. “Quilting Time” is as big as a mural, it takes up an entire wall the mosaic tile is on plywood and the plywood is presented on the wall and like the Diego Rivera Court I do believe it is a staple, a piece that will be there for a very long time. The medium is again, mosaic tesserae mounted on plywood. The subject matter is history and daily life, just as the artist shared a piece of his memory of southern up-bringing; I felt a deep connection with this piece of work (as with many of Bearden’s). I wasn’t brought up in the south, but it was our family tradition to visit the south (Mississippi and Louisiana) every Christmas. Quilting was and for the most part still is on that side of my family a big part of the family event when visiting Bassfield, Mississippi where I was able to take my children to a few summers back; so I connected really well with this long-time southern tradition. “Quilting Time” has some signs of cubism in it, in using the mosaic which is cubes, up close the piece itself is fragmented, but when standing a nice distant back the lines and line of sight is focusing on what quilting bees were all about; it was a time for family and community and it usually had refreshments and entertainment. Bee as explained by definition is an expression used together with another word to describe a gathering of peers to accomplish a task, it was often both a social and utilitarian event (wiki/Bee). The composition in this work is unified, the colors warm blues and greens, shows in that everybody know and have a place: The sun is going down, and I think that is a real significant aspect, that was the time of day blacks/negro/African-American was allowed to take care of their home and families and even after slavery included in 400yrs, such a pattern is a hard thing to break. The head of the piece is the man, the dad with his guitar (in my family here in the north it was a harmonica); the elders/older women have their laps covered with the task at hand and a child watches and play.


“Quilting Time” shows order to me, meaning within its content it speak to the social order of the family; papa at the head, mama at the side holding baby, the elders (grannies the most experienced) are sitting sewing and the child plays close and watches on. An interesting theory about this commissioned work for Detroit, its Institute of Art (as with a lot of work around the city of Hubert Massey’s) it is about family and community. Bearden’s “Quilting Time” is a social commentary, I believe there is a greater philosophical and social context and for surely holds historical context in being an act, event that started during American slavery. Detroit had community, Detroit was one of the best examples of black unity, Black Bottom, Paradise Valley, Black mayor, Black Police chief, Black Fire chief, all black city council, black sheriff head, control of the water, block clubs we had community. This piece speaks to all that for me in being made especially for Detroit and it’s Institute of Arts to us, Detroiters reminding us of that community we were once apart of; especially since most Detroiters roots like the artist is from the south.

Here is what is written on this piece I have chosen about Romare Bearden an African-American Artist/ an American Artist 1914 – 1988 dying two years after completing “Quilting Time” for Detroit: In the rural southern childhood of artist Romare Bearden a quilting bee was a joyous time. Women of the community gathered together to sew a quilt, while children played around them. The mosaic commissioned for the 100th anniversary of the DIA reflects Romare’s childhood moments of these social occasions. “Quilting Time” reflects so much more because the work has personal meaning, yes it is biographical it opens itself up to reflect a history of himself(the artist), his personal but also every and anyone that has grown up or had ties to this tradition of community gatherings, like gathering to clear their fields, what brings to mind is here in Detroit when we would gather to have street clean-ups our block would set aside a day when we all came out and not just took care of our house and surroundings but our neighbors who couldn’t do as much for self and somebody would be cooking and there was kool-aide (smile) and everybody would be working together. So even though this artwork depicts as southern tradition, it speaks to joyous traditions of family gatherings and community gatherings for a purpose.


Beyond Midnight (Magie Noire) 2002

Mixed Media Assemblage on wood

Betye Saar

American born 1926


An African-American woman surrounded by Charles McGee’s (African-American) enamel and mixed media on Masonite, “Noah’s Ark: Genesis” 1984 as descripted; drawing upon Ancient Egyptian Art and African textiles as well as prehistoric rock, paintings from Europe and Australia, McGee creates an exuberant collage depicting biblical Noah, his family and animals boarding the Ark and Detroit’s own Tyree Gayton American born 1955 (African-American) “Caged Brain” 1990 mixed media that is on an enclosed pedestal case it is a worn rope inside of a bird cage, with a piece of the rope coming out some from the bars of the bird cage.

“Beyond Midnight (Magie Noire) is in a section of the DIA that is, “Awakening of a Black Consciousness”. It is encased and mounted on the wall, it is like boxed art, and the way the frame is coloered and decorated with symbol it really sticks out. It is a very powerful piece with its use of colors, the black and dark blues gives off an air of mystery, of magic along with these symbols, a spiritual awareness (all true in association with the black woman). There is a diamond shaped black cloth with white dots in the center of the piece (it is a layered work), inside the diamond shape cloth is a smaller wood frame that has a picture of an elder black woman, who we find out to be a ritual healer. There are symbols through and about this artwork; the most note-able ones are on and around the outer frame. There is a blue candle that had been burnt and sitting on top of the frame, there is also a craved-out black metal hand of a women with gold-like rings on every finger and a gold bracelets that has a diamond in the center, dangling from the bottom of the frame are a set of keys and one of the smaller symbols (and the one I found most interesting) are of a wristwatch face over the inner wooden frame above the image/picture of the black woman.

This is the caption on the information given with this piece of art: Here, Betye Saar questions the attitude held by some African Americans that light skin is favorable. Saar celebrates darkness by placing the image of a woman, who is a ritual healer against a brilliant blue night sky. “Black Magic” in the title reinforces the healer profession but is also a play on words emphasizing the beauty of darkness.

The subject matter of “Beyond Midnight (Magie Noire)” is religious (in its use of symbols linking Voodoo), it is history (in dealing with color and the effects/after effects of slavery), it is daily life (if you are a person/woman of color) and it is nonrepresentational (it was done to evoke feelings). The predominate color scheme play a major role, so major that it is a part of the title Midnight blue and black assented by the white or bright stars illuminating. The composition is unified in all aspects the title, the color scheme, its message of dark being beauty and more importantly useful, it works in evoking this air of darkness, questioning the meaning of all these symbols together.

“Beyond Midnight is not biographical in the sense that she isn’t a dark-skinned woman, yet she is a woman still, a black woman, she is of mixed race and she wanted to show we are all connected in this thing called life. So the art piece did have personal meaning to the artist, it makes a social and political statement. Race relation and matters, how not only socially but how we of darker skin are treated at our homes and in the community, and also how laws are made off the fear through-out the Americas and the world; example with cast systems color plays a major role and there is something wrong with that; that is in part the statement of this piece of work.

I personally was captured by this piece last year when I took my time and looked at the section in the DIA, I had just seen and talked about a piece on Betye Saar “Liberating Aunt Jemaah”, and I thought “Beyond Midnight was more powerful and more aesthetically pleasing.

Betye Saar is widely viewed as one of the most distinguished figures in American art today. Born in 1926 in Los Angeles, she emerged in the 1960s as a seminal figure in the redefinition of African American identity in art. Throughout her career, Saar has made art that challenges us to think about our societal responses to race and to the history of race in the United States. Though politically trenchant, Saar's work moves beyond protest to encompass a profound spirituality and an awareness of the things that link human beings across cultural lines and across time. Best known for her richly evocative assemblages of found objects, Saar has been included in numerous exhibitions and is represented in many major museum collections. This exhibition examines Saar's achievement by focusing on her work with photography, specifically, her incorporation of photographic fragments as a metaphor for her view of the African American experience and of lives too often obscured in American visual history.


In her own work she began using a larger, room-size scale, creating site-specific installations, including altar-like shrines exploring the relationship between technology and spirituality, and incorporating her interests in mysticism and Voodoo. Pairing computer chips with mystical amulets and charms, these monumental constructions suggested the need for an alliance of both systems of knowledge: the technical and the spiritual (wiki/Betye).


Last but not least, The Letter 1650

Oil on canvas

Peter Lely

Dutch, active in England 1618-1680

(The image that I chose of Peter Lely on the cover page is not “The Letter”, unfortunately I could not find the image or a print of it on-line, but the image is one of his more popular pieces, it is not his most popular but I want to bring to attention the image of the lady with her back out turned in the corner, “Violone Player” is the image I have on my cover sheet, this version of the image don’t includes everything, the version that included everything wasn’t in color. (1640). His most famous paintings are “Nymphs by a Fountain” and “Two Ladies of the Lake Family”).


Sir Peter Lely (14 September 1618 – 30 November 1680) was a painter of Dutch origin, whose career was nearly all spent in England, where he became the dominant portrait painter to the court. Lely was born Pieter van der Faes to Dutch parents in Soest in Westphalia,[1] where his father was an officer serving in the armed forces of the Elector of Brandenburg. Lely studied painting in Haarlem, where he may have been apprenticed to Pieter de Grebber. He became a master of the Guild of Saint Luke in Haarlem in 1637. He is reputed to have adopted the surname "Lely" (also occasionally spelled Lilly) from a heraldic lily on the gable of the house where his father was born in The Hague. His early English paintings, mainly mythological or religious scenes, or portraits set in a pastoral landscape, show influences from Anthony van Dyck and the Dutch baroque. Lely's portraits were well received, and he succeeded Anthony van Dyck as the most fashionable portrait artist in England (wiki/Peter_Lely).

This art was presented on the wall in a corner a little bigger than a normal portrait frame size artwork somewhere around 9 by 14”, maybe a little bigger than 8 by 10. The painting is of a young woman slender and fair she is sitting looking down (her line of sight) and her clothes has fallen off of her some displaying her breast, there is an older woman standing behind her holding a letter in her hand.

There was another emotive piece near it on the wall titled “Job” about 1620, oil on oak panel by artist Jacob Jordaens Flemish 1593-1678 where the emotions of this piece is noted: Jacob worked in Ruben’s Studio, Ruben influence shows in this biblical figure’s dramatic pose and the thick layering of paint. Job looks up, his gaze full of suffering and emotion; Jordan covered Job’s face and neck with globs of paint. Unlike Ruben, Jordaens left some it runs giving it a dry chalky look.

The subject matter is history, daily life and it has elements in portrait. The way the letter is sticking out and semi-center to the women in this piece, we know that the letter is the cause of the emotion of the women. The colors are soft neutral and it is shaded representing a depression. There is no information about this piece that would suggest any personal meaning or it being biographical, yet I do believe it to be possible of a social and or political commentary, if the young woman lover or husband was killed in a war and that is what the letter, the message was holding, than that is a social and political matter. Everything happens by mail back then, no telephone for them. One can assume by the space and emotion of the women that the letter held bad news or that it was sensed to carry bad news.


There is softness, sexiness to this piece that is done very elegantly. I found such a wonderful story to “The Letter” it took me to this poem Patterns by Amy Lowell from Men, Women, and Ghosts (1874-1925):

I walk down the garden paths/ And all the daffodils/ Are blowing, and the bright blue squills.

I walk down the patterned garden-paths/ in my stiff, brocaded gown. / With my powdered hair and jewelled fan, /I too am a rare/ Pattern. As I wander down/ the garden paths.


My dress is richly figured, / and the train/ Makes a pink and silver stain/ on the gravel, and the thrift

Of the borders. / Just a plate of current fashion, / Tripping by in high-heeled, ribboned shoes.

Not softness anywhere about me, / only whalebone and brocade. / And I sink on a seat in the shade

Of a lime tree. For my passion/ Wars against the stiff brocade. /The daffodils and squills/ Flutter in the breeze/ as they please. / And I weep; / for the lime-tree is in blossom/ and one small flower has dropped upon my bosom.


And the plashing of waterdrops/ in the marble fountain/ comes down the garden-paths. / The dripping never stops./ Underneath my stiffened gown/ Is the softness of a woman bathing in a marble basin,/ A basin in the midst of hedges grown/ So thick, she cannot see her lover hiding,/ But she guesses he is near,/ And the sliding of the water/ Seems the stroking of a dear/ Hand upon her./ What is Summer in a fine brocaded gown!/ I should like to see it lying in a heap upon the ground./ All the pink and silver crumpled up on the ground.


I would be the pink and silver as I ran along the paths, /and he would stumble after, / Bewildered by my laughter. / I should see the sun flashing from his sword-hilt and the buckles/ on his shoes. / I would choose

To lead him in a maze along the patterned paths, / a bright and laughing maze for my heavy-booted lover,

Till he caught me in the shade, / and the buttons of his waistcoat bruised my body as he clasped me,

Aching, melting, unafraid. / With the shadows of the leaves and the sundrops, / and the plopping of the waterdrops, / All about us in the open afternoon --/ I am very like to swoon/ with the weight of this brocade,

For the sun sifts through the shade.


Underneath the fallen blossom/ in my bosom, / is a letter I have hid. / It was brought to me this morning by a rider from the Duke. /"Madam, we regret to inform you that Lord Hartwell/ Died in action Thursday se'nnight."/ As I read it in the white, morning sunlight, /the letters squirmed like snakes. /"Any answer, Madam," said my footman. /"No," I told him. /"See that the messenger takes some refreshment. / No, no answer."/ And I walked into the garden, /Up and down the patterned paths, /in my stiff, correct brocade.

The blue and yellow flowers stood up proudly in the sun,/Each one./I stood upright too,/Held rigid to the pattern/By the stiffness of my gown./Up and down I walked,/Up and down.


In a month he would have been my husband./In a month, here, underneath this lime,/We would have broke the pattern;/He for me, and I for him,/He as Colonel, I as Lady,/On this shady seat./He had a whim

That sunlight carried blessing. /And I answered, "It shall be as you have said."/Now he is dead.


In Summer and in Winter I shall walk/Up and down/The patterned garden-paths/In my stiff, brocaded gown./The squills and daffodils/Will give place to pillared roses, and to asters, and to snow./I shall go

Up and down, /in my gown. /Gorgeously arrayed, /Boned and stayed. /And the softness of my body will be guarded from embrace/by each button, hook, and lace. /For the man who should loose me is dead,

Fighting with the Duke in Flanders, /in a pattern called a war. /Christ! What are patterns for?


With the poem to reinforce, the emotion of the painting it covers the social and political meaning. Women are left to deal with the war and its effect on the family and the community and her own personal feelings of lost. I can relate to this picture in a personal way, it touched me. The downward look, the clothes falling off and down and in the painting nothing is being done to conceal this all too real emotion of lost. The curve of the young woman shoulders suggest to me an aching, just as the lady in the corner on the cover page picture, Peter have a way of displaying and/or capturing the moment and the emotion of the moment.


As with the three choices I made to do Romare Bearden, Bety Saar and Peter Lely all these pieces stood out to me in a personal way; it reflected some aspect with me on a personal level. Romare’s “Quilting Time “took me back to my own family traditions as a child and helps remind me of the family vacation I took with my own children. Bety Saar’s “Beyond Midnight (Magie Noire)” touch me as being a woman, a black woman and all the stereotypes and myths and like Saar herself who isn’t dark skinned, I am brown (golden) it still affects me of this psyche- thing we as human have with people of darker skin, it has always bothered me. And, Peter Lely’s “The Letter” has touched me being a woman knowing the felling of lost and how powerful the written word is, they all are amazing pieces of art.

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Reviewed by Aberjhani 6/18/2011
After enjoying a great deal of your acclaimed poetry, that you often paired with exceptional works of art, it's a pleasure to read an essay in which you share aesthetic assessments and appreciation of visual art as well as your trademark expressive literary passion. Much gratitude,

Reviewed by rayfield waller 6/14/2011
This was very nice, very lovely--it took me along with you, and knowing the DIA as well as I do, I could see everything you talked about, the architectural details (such as stepping off the elevator and looking to your right!) That was what I liked most. Reminds me of very beautiful and contemplative writing from the "Age of Sensibilty" and also French authors from te arly 1900's, just after WWI. I think of the French writers from the turn of that century because of the sincerity of your impressions, the interest and honesty of your writing, all made this wonderful to read.

You should do more like this--I'd love to read your walking up to and looking at the Diego Rivera fresco, "Detroit Industry." If you haven't already. I'd like reading it in the exact same style--you walking up to it, the surounding gallery, the people in the gallery, etc.

I hope you don't mind, I linked you at the bottom of my blog, "Report From Detroit." I just published the very first log, inagurating the site, which is going to be carried and syndicated by the international thinktank blog, "AfroSpear".

You can find "Report From Detroit" at:

At the bottom of the page of the only entry there right now, I have links to Detroit writers and intellectuals I ask my readers to read and follow. Your link is among them.

Keep writing no matter what, no matter who comes into or leaves your life, no matter what else happens to you--your writing is your true self, what you must cherish and nourish, to give meaning to everything else. It is your gift--the gift you received from the gods and the gift you have to give to the world.

Be well,

Rayfield Waller
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