The Double Vision of Clarence Major, Painter and Writer

Article excerpt

If double consciousness is a factor in the fiction of African Americans, then it makes sense that it would be all the more so in their practice of the visual arts. While the writing of African Americans is "difficult, working in English, a language with a white |personality'" (Major, Dark and Feeling 26), at least African traditions of storytelling survived in the slave colonies and evolved into the strong, rich African-American modes of vernacular speech, tales, and lyrics. Unfortunately, this was not time to the same extent for African traditions of visual expression. Although some examples of African-influenced carvings, pottery, basketry, and ironwork are extant from the period, "the surviving visual art tradition was |generic, simple, and (almost completely) restricted to areas of dense and recent contact with tropical Africa'" (Robert Farris Thompson, qtd. in Fine 17).

The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s provided a modem alternative for those seeking a uniquely African-American perspective in all the arts, but was primarily a literary and musical phenomenon. It produced muralist Aaron Douglas, and the thirties and forties introduced now well-known painters such as Jacob Lawrence, the brothers Beauford and Joseph Delaney, Archibald Motley, Lois Mailou Jones, and Hale Woodruff, but their works were not widely exhibited until years later. So, when a young African American of the 1940s and '50s, being educated in the Eurocentric tradition, found himself interested in fine, color, composition, texture, light, and the allure of gessoed canvas and creamy paper, sable brushes and viscid paints, he had few directions in which to grow other than along the trellis of Western art.

Clarence Major was gifted, as his early experiences with both words and paints make clear, and he was endowed with a drive to become an artist. But his consciousness was split by the nature of being an American of African descent, in an ambivalent political relationship to the Western cultural heritage that he was beginning to love, especially as a painter. Based on my experience of Major's paintings and his fiction (Emergency Exit, My Amputations, Such Was the Season, and Fun & Games), it is apparent that his career as a writer is due, at least in part, to this early splitting of consciousness in the area of his first passion, painting. For years Major deferred, almost even denied, his passion for painting a passion whose nature - more obviously Eurocentric and less practical than that of his writing - threatened to alienate him from his African-American community ("Necessary Distance" 202-05). In a sense, he went underground with his painting and got into the habit of seeing through his writing, which was easier to conceal. The painting however, remained a motivating force in his literary work. Major's questions about his own identity as an African American and his relationship to the African-American community seem to have led him to become a man of double vision, searching for a colorful but color-blind existence, both through the visual image and the written word.

Major remembers "being the kind of kid that just gravitated toward visual expression," and he says that painting came "more naturally" to him than writing. He still recalls being entranced by a kindergarten assignment to draw a "big, red apple," which he took home and proudly showed to his mother (Major, telephone interview). By the time Major was twelve, his paintings were spilling out of his bedroom into the family's hall. He won "many prizes" in school art contests. One of these awards, granted when he was in high school, provided a scholarship to a program for school-age children at the Art Institute of Chicago, and he stayed with these lessons until he left home to join the Air Force (Major, "Licking Stamps" 177-79).

It was a formative period for Major, not strictly because of the scholarship program, but because he also met some regular college- and graduate-level Art Institute faculty and students who encouraged him and provided an even greater level of awareness on his part. …


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