Diedra Harris-Kelley: Black Artists You Should Know
Words: Meilan Carter-Gilkey
More than an artist, Diedra Harris-Kelley is shaping the way we look at art.
Born into a creative family of painters and dancers, Diedra Harris-Kelley was destined to be an artist. As a child, Harris-Kelley learned to see more than just the lines and colors in a piece of art, and developed an appreciation of art that helped spark an impressive career. Along with being an artist like her uncle, renowned painter Romare Bearden, and her father, graphic designer Claudius A. Harris, Sr., her resume has grown to include curator, educator, author, and foundation leader.
Harris-Kelley pays homage to her creative roots as co-director of the Romare Bearden Foundation, keeping the art and legacy of her uncle significant not just to the art world, but to conversations in history, academia, and culture. Harris-Kelley and the Foundation focus on education through lectures, books, exhibits, and even an app, as Bearden continues to be introduced to younger generations and new fans. It is a demanding role that requires her to act as a historian, lecturer, and teacher while still making time to focus on her own work as a talented painter and on her own family. Harris-Kelley took time to speak to mater mea about her work.
How did art become a part of your life?
My father was an artist, I have an aunt who danced for Dance Theater of Harlem, and Romare Bearden was my uncle, so I was immersed in art at an early age. My uncle was always working, but he was a typical jolly uncle and he let us explore his work/living space and he would say “Go find me images of the four seasons.” I was surrounded by art and encouraged by my family. I could always draw well and was praised by art teachers. I went to college but without a clear dream of becoming an artist.
I had to find out what in art drove me. I tried illustrations but it didn’t work out and I decided to go to grad school to become a painter and a teacher. Over the years I became more involved with my uncle’s foundation and now I am the co-director.
What does the Romare Bearden Foundation do?
The Foundation is a non-profit institution to perpetuate the legacy of the 20th century master American artist Romare Bearden. Our mission is to make the artist's artistic and intellectual legacies publicly accessible to future generations. We do this through exhibitions, symposia, publications, and a program that places teaching artists into schools to teach through a curriculum we designed based on Bearden's life and art.
What is your role as co-director?
One of the most interesting parts of my job with the Romare Bearden Foundation has been curatorial. It is the ability to create exhibitions and programs that focus in on aspects that are unknown or forgotten. Again, it comes down to our way of seeing, observing, and our point of perspective.
There have been big exhibitions of Bearden’s work that the Foundation has taken a role in, either lending artwork or research from our extensive files and archives, or directing curators to [Bearden] scholars to participate in their programming. But as a small institution we can afford to focus in on the little details. I liked the challenge of mining our finite collection for perspectives on the artist’s work typically overlooked. For example, a show just on the jazz cities depicted in his works; or a show based on his activism through cartooning and commissions for magazines; or his experimental approach to printmaking, which was the theme of a show the Foundation toured to 12 cultural institutions.
As part of a grant, the Foundation organized a showcase of two photographers’ collectives, “Kamoinge and En Foco: Advancing the Frame,” installed at the Nathan Cummings Foundation on view [until] March 26, 2015. This is part of our mission to support the work of other artists, as Bearden did in his lifetime.
What’s next for the Foundation?
A large show of Bearden’s works will be on view at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Gallery on Columbia University’s campus [until] March 2015. This exhibition, “Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey,” features the series of works retelling Homer’s “The Odyssey."
Tell us about your work outside of the Foundation.
I have worked with two other curators on independent exhibitions at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. We did a number of exciting shows, again based on either overlooked or forgotten ideas. One featured the collage works of Louis Armstrong, another the work of an artist who did album cover illustrations, which became the signature style for the depictions of jazz. We also featured the “other” work of the Center’s own in-house photographer, Frank Stewart, known best for his jazz work, but who has travelled extensively in Africa and Cuba over the course of 40 years!
The evolution of black artists is that some are finally getting some attention...
I have also conducted workshops and lectured widely on Bearden's work, and authored "Revisiting Romare Bearden's Art of Improvisation" in Uptown Conversations, The New Jazz Studies (2004 Columbia University Press, NYC). I have taught courses at New York University, Parsons, and will teach a course on Bearden at Columbia University for the spring of 2015.
What do you enjoy most about teaching?
Seeing the light in the students’ eyes is really satisfying. Training their skills of observation, showing them technique, and watching them ‘get it’ is powerful and good for the ego.
What advice do you have for our readers who love art and are interested in collecting?
They should collect original work that they want to live with. People will spend money getting a cheap reproduction of someone well known, [but] in the end it will not increase in value. Always try to buy originals. The art market is fickle so collect what you like; buying from a living artist has the possibility to increase in value and it is a great way to support young artists. Once you start to build, you can buy some heavyweights, but buy art that you like to live and work with. Try to get involved with museums that are now catering more to young patrons. These new patrons are helping to dictate what gets into public museums, especially works by artists of color.
Do you have any thoughts for aspiring artists?
You might ask the question: What is it I have to say, and how [do I] get people to see it? People are so busy with so much it seems to have shortened attention spans; they don’t know how to look at paintings and they don’t have the time. It is a sad thing that if your work doesn’t look good in a photograph or on Instagram then you have a problem. I would say work hard at creating a unique vision, so when viewers stop to look, there is something for them to learn.
Along with teaching and being a co-director, you're an artist as well. Do you have recurring themes or inspirations that appear in your paintings?
I am interested in what appears and changes in front of our eyes: illusion. How we look at something and it transforms into something else—that magic. I have a larger affinity with abstract painting that is about surface and form and less about narrative content. In order to shape an idea, I may use figures in my work, but I would start by playing with color and form without too many predetermined ideas. I enjoy putting paint on a surface and seeing what develops, the layers, opaqueness, the thickness, and dimension. One of the paintings in my upcoming show is a true biographical sketch, The Artist in Her Studio. It is about creation and what we do to shut out the noise of other voices in the studio. The painter depicted dons a sort of headdress meant to transform her to the realm of a shaman or magic maker. There are bits and pieces of what floats through your mind and the curtain represents illusions and the veiling of truths.
What are some of the challenges black artists face?
Young black artists are often not encouraged to go to art school because of the fear of financial instability. And if they make it to art school, they do not have the same resources and backgrounds as their peers. The evolution of black artists is that some are finally getting some attention, but there is not enough room for many black artists at the top at any one time. The art world can still be a source of extreme elitist and racist views. Sometimes artists who deal with stereotypes get more attention, because curators and critics may think this is edgy and smart to promote. Often viewers don’t understand this work because it lacks immediate access or critique. It is a struggle for an artist to be caught between the work not being understood and the artist needing to do the work and remain relevant to the conversation. Curators can do the work of bridging these gaps.
Meilan Carter-Gilkey is a freelance writer and a writing coach, who blogs about being a parent of sons 16 years apart. She has an MFA from Mills College in creative writing and her work has appeared in Mutha Magazine, Heart&Soul, and elsewhere.