Entertainment: Visual Arts










Drawing praise to the Lord

Blackmon, work continue to lift up his faith

Posted: Feb. 16, 2007

It would be easy to romanticize Prophet William J. Blackmon, to call him an itinerant preacher or a modern-day vagabond.


But that would ignore a tougher, unembroidered truth: His life has been full of harsh moments.

Homelessness, hunger, war, poverty and loss have been lifelong companions.

To gloss over these things does a profound injustice to who he is, his unrelenting hopefulness, his faith in God and his perseverance and inventiveness as an artist.

And he is a remarkable and visionary self-taught artist, though he doesn't see himself this way.

When Blackmon picks up his paintbrushes, it's about one thing - saving souls.

Blackmon takes Bible stories and nests and stacks them into the compositions of his paintings.

The tales progress from one visual compartment to another, in a clear, linear way.

He begins by redeeming old, distressed boards found in alleys and Dumpsters, smoothing them with a bit of sandpaper, before painting with deep, unmodulated latex and enamel house paints.

Wending lines of text circle the frames and snake through his figures and spaces to make Blackmon's meaning unequivocal and forceful.

More than 30 of Blackmon's expressive parables in paint are on view through Friday at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Union Art Gallery as part of the "Meditations and Revelations" exhibit, an intertwined pair of solo shows that includes the work of Seattle-based Lauren Grossman.

It is the largest gathering of Blackmon's artworks since a 1999 retrospective at the Haggerty Museum of Art. It could well be the last major show of Blackmon's work during the 85-year-old artist's lifetime.

No sense of ownership

Walking through the gallery with him on a recent evening, he seems to barely recognize his own art, much of which he hasn't seen in some years.

He has no sense of ownership over the pieces, anyway.

They're "God's work," he says.

In his biblical visions, angels may appear like giant yellow chickens, or white ones with red tail feathers. Bright white stairs and sidewalks crisscross across the artworks, hinting at perspective and segmenting one part of the story from another.

A Bible is nothing more than a few lines and dots on a purple table in "Spare the Rod And Spoil the Child," from 1989. Pinkish, fetus-like figures lean over to read God's Word in the flat, pink room with a red, checkered floor.

In "God's Holy Ghost Church," from 1986, rainbows spill from the sun and flame-like figures stand in the sky. Signs hang above a tall, thin entrance and read: "All Nation" and "Well Come." Inside, dancing figures without faces and upraised arms look as if they are stacked like toys on tiny shelves, with a giant pulpit and preacher at the top.

"I'm looking at this here, like a church, like the doors of a church, right, that's what that's supposed to be," he says, pointing to one work from 1993. "It says," he reads, "The best teacher is Jesus. Say no to drugs. Uh huh, oh see, these are saying 'Hi baby,' yeah, these are the addicts here."

Physically, Blackmon is a sliver of his slightly rotund former self. He is smartly dressed, as he always has been, despite his circumstances, though his suit is too big and his shirt collar easily twice the size of his neck.

He shuts his eyes as he speaks, opening them quickly and only occasionally, with the cadence of a swimmer coming up for a needed breath.

It's as if he's listening more than talking. But don't misunderstand, he is definitely talking.

When I ask him about the decades he spent hitchhiking and preaching, he tells me, instead, about his service in World War II and his tenure traveling with the Carnival of Amusements after the war. When I ask about his art, where the stories and symbols come from, he cracks a joke about his old outhouse and shares a yarn about the day his mother walked out onto a frozen lake to save the family dog, Bob.

Own stories, own way

When you meet Blackmon, who calls himself "God's bum" sometimes, you quickly learn that he tells his own stories, in his own time and in his own way.

To understand this is to understand something about who he is as an artist, too.

"He is an amazingly unique individual and not a conventional human being," says Jeffrey R. Hayes, a professor of art history and liberal studies at UW-Milwaukee and the curator of the Haggerty show eight years ago.

Blackmon and Hayes bonded initially, in part, as fellow veterans (Hayes of the Vietnam War) and have been friends for 20 years ago.

When I met with Blackmon in the dining room of "Sister Betty," or Betty Sherrod, a friend and member of his loosely organized congregation of about a dozen people, I couldn't help but wonder whether his wartime service was part of what has set his reality apart and prompted his nomadic existence.

He answered so many questions, whether it was relevant or not, with "after the war . . . " And when I arrived he shared a song "God gave him," sitting at Sherrod's out-of-tune piano to pound out "Bring them back, from Iraq, Mr. President," a dissonant and erratic tune that's nonetheless musical.

"The Pacific did intensify his inclination to see the world in terms of faith, in terms of a very distinctive belief system," Hayes says of Blackmon's time in combat.

Blackmon also lost his first wife when she was giving birth. After her death, his mother-in-law gained custody of his children.

Family is everything to Blackmon, Hayes says, and his Christian ministry, his custom of calling himself "stepfather" to troubled kids, betrays a desire to be rooted to a family of sorts.

It's hard to know exactly what makes Blackmon's point of view different, and it doesn't matter much anyway. It's the strange and rare vision of the world born of that difference that's of interest.

"One thing, I've always had a mind to do something," he says, rocking in his chair at Sherrod's dining table, his long fingers touching his forehead as if recalling something.

"I had daydreams. I got rid of that spirit in me of hating somebody because they could do something I couldn't. Instead it stirred me up to see what I could do, you know.

"Of course, that's got to come from a natural instinct. One can be more relaxed if they know that this is original out of me, rather than I tried to steal it from somebody else. That's right. Amen."

Sold signs for $100

The art did come from a "natural instinct."

After splitting open a melon and discovering the seeds formed the letters "MI," which Blackmon took as a sign, he moved to Milwaukee from Madison.

He opened a shop at the Sydney Hih building, the once-colorful, artist-filled space at Juneau and Old World 3rd St.

He lived in the space and put up hand-painted signs advertising his shoe shine, shoe fixing, sewing, car washing, rummage sale, laundry and preaching services. "We make dresses," one sign said, "Shoe Shines 75 cents" said another.

In 1982, Paula Giannini, wife of Milwaukee Art Museum director Gerald Nordland, loved the signs and offered to buy two for $100.

Blackmon was emboldened to create a few basic figurative elements, and began making his first true paintings.

The heavy outlines and rich colors in his work resemble Gothic stained-glass windows, medieval tapestries or even Japanese woodcuts, though Blackmon has probably never made such associations.

When Blackmon was evicted from the Sydney Hih building in 1985, the dozen or so artworks in his space then were rescued by Milwaukee photographer Bill Tennessen and taken to the Wright Street Gallery in Riverwest for safekeeping.

Kent Mueller, a co-founder of the Wright Street Gallery, was quoted in the catalog for the Haggerty show recalling his discovery as he pulled back the newspaper wrapped around the paintings and adhered to their fronts with Elmer's Glue.

"As I carefully unwrapped them, gently pulling the newspaper away from the glue, I experienced my very first epiphany in the art world," Mueller said. "Here was the real thing . . . the undiscovered genius. He was what most true art dealers live for."

After initial shows at Wright Street, Blackmon had a number of important local exhibits at the Milwaukee Art Museum, which has a handful of works in its permanent collection, the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design and UWM. His work has also been shown at Artist's Space in New York and the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, among other places.

What money Blackmon did make funded his ministry and "share program" for Milwaukee's poor neighborhoods, where he spent much of his time, on the streets.

Several of his current congregants have been with him for all of these years, and he's remained poor himself.

His message on the streets and in his artworks was and continues to be conservative and strict, though he doesn't leave a strident impression.

"It speaks to his specific and profound humanity that . . . the ideologies that might separate the two of us don't," says Hayes, who is not religious and is politically liberal.

What may seem like a romantic embellishment, but is not, is that just about everything Blackmon does, mundane or not, is prayerful.

"At first, I didn't have this big mind of stressing Jesus Christ through art," says Blackmon. "The thing of it is, see . . . my goal, trying to get people to be Christians, you know, to think about God . . . so since I have this talent, see, that's what came in.

"We all just have a heart, you know, we're human beings and that's it. You know. Amen."

From the Feb. 18, 2007 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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