Recently Willie and I were talking about his abstract work. Looking at his abstract pieces today and comparing them to the earlier work, got me wondering about the conversations we had when he embarked on rust as his medium.
“I like doing the abstract pieces because they don’t involve me emotionally. I get to create beautiful pieces without reliving the memories of that past, or dealing with the issues of Race in America today. The abstract pieces are just about creating something beautiful without any story or baggage attached.”Willie Little – 2003
Now as I’m looking at the newer work there seems to be a whole new narrative. This I’ve felt growing and I’ve heard from Willie also… there is a sense of emotion around them… a sense of rage, a sense of frustration, a sense of pain that is surfacing with the new work…
“We started as Colored, then we were Negroes, then African American’s and now we’re Black.”Willie Little – 2021
Willie reminded me of this quote by James Baldwin from the time when ‘…we were negroes.’
“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”James Baldwin – 1961
Last week I asked Willie about the change in his abstract work and if he still felt that it was just about making pretty work. I asked about the rust, the colors… a lot of reds and blues… and the scraping and gouging that were in many of the pieces. I was wondering if it’s still about making ‘pretty work’ or if we couldn’t take those as symbols of the deep frustration and possible rage that he as a ‘relatively conscious’ Black person must feel today:
“When I went back home in 2006 for my uncle’s funeral, one of the things I took a picture of a rusted tobacco barn. It’s made of a rusted tin roof material and it’s a tobacco barn. It was all rusted and decayed, but it was absolutely beautiful.
All of the colors and the rust, the way that it has aged, perfectly. I love things that are aged, rough, and have history in them. Those are the things that I’m attracted to. But also, that is about the passage of time, history, things that are decaying, those things fit together in my aesthetic.
I’ve always thought older things are richer… older people are richer… but the downside is… the decay is beautiful but…there are other kinds of decay… the erosion of spirit for example.
The erosion of spirit is what inspired me to do work about race because when the people are constantly torn down, like for the last 400 years, that can’t help but erode the spirit, that’s why the work about race and gun violence is a response to the erosion of spirit because of decades of being marginalized for who and what we are.
The first abstract pieces came from rust which is again the passage of time and the things that are decaying but beautiful.
And I also started looking at the landscapes of the south, the topography, the way it looked as if it was a photograph from the sky.
Some of the shapes and forms I have made by haphazardly manipulating the rust material, the acid, the patina copper, all come together into something beautiful.
The work has evolved since 2002 when I had a residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts. That was my first time experimenting with oxidation paintings.
As I’m creating the work, I begin to see where the work is going. None of it was intentional in the beginning, because I’m reacting from emotion when I’m scraping, gouging, digging into the painting.
Also, as I was experimenting with the oxidation paintings, I found that depriving the materials of oxygen while they were transforming, developed deeper richer colors. It’s a sad metaphor to the Black men of today, who have uttered the words “I can’t breathe” during the taking of their lives by law enforcement in America.
So what was once simply an experiment to create work that was not emotionally taxing in any way, has now evolved into my release of the anguish I feel as I’m digging, scraping, colorizing, and starving the pieces of oxygen.
And now these pieces are not just beautiful, they also serve as reminders… a cataloging… of the rage and angst Black American’s feel at the state Black life in America today.
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