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Artist behind iconic Roxbury mural is keeping the faith

Posted by Roy Greene  April 11, 2011 04:15 PM

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(Alexandra Legend Siegel photo for boston.com)


Gary Rickson painted the “Africa is the Beginning” mural on the side of the YMCA building on Warren Street in 1969. It is one of the last vestiges of a movement that gave Roxbury a place in black American history.

Many Roxbury residents may have passed by the “Africa is the Beginning” mural on the side of the YMCA building on Warren Street with barely more than a curious stare.

But to those familiar with the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s, the mural is a glowing treasure left over from an important era -- one of the last vestiges of a movement that gave Roxbury a place in black American history.

The mural was painted by artist, poet and musician Gary Rickson in 1969, and was repainted by him in 2002, when the YMCA was remodeled. This month, Rickson, a pioneer of the Black Arts Movement, will return to the neighborhood to give a firsthand account of his experiences, in the hopes of motivating young artists, while also opening up lines of communication about black history and culture.

A discussion with Rickson will be led by Barry Gaither, director of the Boston-based National Center of Afro-American Artists, on Wednesday, April 27, at 7 p.m. at the Haley House Bakery Café, 12 Dade St., Dudley Square. The event is free and open to the public.

Rickson said the climate for black artists has changed in the last 40 years.

“We were very well-educated, but it seems like the more communication outlets we have, the more people go into darkness,” Rickson said in an interview. “Nothing is going down today like it was then. We have a lot of paintings, and the ones that are for the people need to go on murals and in prints and on the Internet. We are making history now, [but] we’re not passing it around like we used to.”

Rickson stressed the importance of public walls and displaying paintings in places where people will take notice. He described this as the fulcrum of the Black Arts Movement.

“I’ll tell you what the Black Arts Movement really did: the artists expressed themselves to the community, [along with] what the community felt -- and you could see it on the walls. The walls became the teachers. That was the phenomenon of the mural movement,” he said.

Rickson, a founder of the Boston Afro-American Artists Association, is a collector of African-American art and considered an expert on black history and culture. He recounted painting with influential black artists of the time, such as Dana Chandler, and once sharing a glass of milk with Miles Davis.

The concept of painting on a public, open surface is a tradition that has endured throughout black history, said Robin Chandler, a professor of African- American studies at Northeastern University and a local artist. Chandler said the idea of the wall as a way to communicate began in ancient Africa with cave drawings and has continued through the mural movement, up to contemporary forms of graffiti art.

“The mural was seen as … a means to create community solidarity,” said Chandler, “We always use the wall to express ourselves.”

In an era where public “walls” are part of social networking – on Facebook, for example – Rickson urged that the Internet be used as a way to continue conversations about art and history. Both he and Chandler bemoaned a growing gap in education in the areas of art, black history and culture.

“There is absolutely a lack of [art] in schools,” Chandler said. “In the 80s and early 90s, there was a very strong artisan school movement. Some of that is left, but only in the schools that can afford it. The problem is, how can we create a very strong movement to return artisan school programs to the level that they were 20 years ago?”

Rickson said the answer rests in creating a dialogue between older and younger artists – one that he hopes his talk will help to inspire. He said he is working on a painting called “Old School, New School Bridge” which highlights this issue.

Gaither said he hopes that Rickson’s personal insights will remind people of the power of the Black Arts Movement, which he described as “the insistence by black people that their own history and legacy become a legitimate subject for exploration and study.”

This article was reported and written by Northeastern University journalism student Alexandra Legend Siegel, under the supervision of journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel (l.chedekel@neu.edu), as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.

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