The Hearing Eye: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Visual Art

By Graham Lock; David Murray | Go to book overview

TEN
Joe Overstreet: Light in Darkness

Interview by Graham Lock

Joe Overstreet was born in Conehatta, Mississippi, in 1933. He spent his teenage years in California, where he studied art at various institutions, worked as a merchant seaman, and became an early beatnik. When he moved to New York in 1958, his art became abstract expressionist, though in the ’60s he also painted several social protest pieces, including Strange Fruit, inspired by Billie Holiday’s anti-lynching song, and worked as art director for Harlem’s Black Arts Repertory Theater/School. In 1974 he co-founded Kenkeleba House, a gallery space and artists’ center, where he still has his studio and is artistic director.

From 1982 through 1987 Overstreet worked on a seventy-five-panel artwork at San Francisco’s International Airport, and in 1988 produced his semi-figurative Storyville Series of paintings, which explored the origins of jazz in New Orleans. In 1992 a visit to the slave house on Gorée Island, off the coast of Senegal, resulted in the Facing the Door of No Return series. Recent exhibitions, such as 2001’s Silver Screens and 2003’s Meridian Fields, show him experimenting with light and shadow in paintings made on steel wire stretched over canvas.1

I interviewed Joe Overstreet on two occasions. We spoke first in October 2003 in his studio at Kenkeleba House, on New York’s Lower East Side.


FIRST INTERVIEW

GL: Can you tell me a little about your background and your early memories of music?

JO: I was born in Conehatta, Mississippi, a small place where maybe a hundred black families lived. You know the pianist Dorothy Donegan?—her family lived

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