Born to a wealthy, established Creole family in Louisiana in 1945, I grew up in segregated schools and attended Bishop College in Dallas for three years before doing two tours of duty with the Navy in Vietnam between 1964 and 1973. When I returned from Navy duty, curiosity as to my standing as a black man and an American citizen drove me to see how the rest of America lived, and so, for 17 years thereafter, I travelled back and forth across the country, accumulating addresses and occupations, including janitor, short order cook, substitute teacher, and commodities trader.
In 1990, I moved to the South Bronx. Within a year I found myself unemployed, lost my apartment, and found myself homeless. Then, and only then, did I start painting, using materials I found on the street.
Still homeless, I moved to Southampton, Long Island, where I found a job as a janitor in a nightclub on the East End. To fill the empty, lonely hours when I was not working, I began to paint. At the town dump, I discovered a cache of good art supplies and set to work. Six months later, I saw work similar to my own at a local gallery and convinced the owner, Morgan Rank, to look at my paintings. One month later, I had my first one-man show. It was 1992.
I was inspired to create my first series while living in New York. Fascinated with the phenomena of social dynamics and power, I created "George to George", depicting all the U.S. presidents, from George Washington to George H. W. Bush; 41 portraits that collectively chronicle the succession of power of American leaders. Incorporating historical research into my drawings, paintings, and collaged portraits, these works on paper were comprised of oil and acrylic paint, paste, magic marker, and recycled objects. Campaign buttons, ribbons, sequins, fabric and costume jewelry, fragments of plastic, wood, and leather were reclaimed from obsolescence and fashioned for artistic purposes. As visual documentation for symbolic importance, personal engagement, power, beauty, and associated levels for sophistication, the portrait supplied fresh meaning in my art practice.
In the classic tradition, my subjects stand front and center as human agents of national symbolic importance, creative masters, and visionary and heroic leaders. These portraits all share compositional force, defined by the absence of neutral environment. In contradiction to the frequent association of iconic personalities as isolated unto themselves, one may interpret the voluptuousness of these works as testaments of spiritual wealth. In every series to date, I have investigated dominant contemporary themes of gender, identity, memory, power (the social implications thereof), notions of beauty, and race. My practice challenges the modernist inclination for dismissal of ornamentation, while successfully incorporating a dominant cultural aesthetic preference for motif and pattern. Another example, "The Royals", a series of 30 icons of international royalty, incites a fascinating range of impression, while evoking a tactile response to the embellishment that is both expressively and formally assigned to them; as though a metaphor for their dichotomy.
Morgan Rank first displayed the paintings in his own gallery and then sent them on a tour of presidential libraries and museums. With Rank's sponsorship, I had time and materials available to complete a second series of paintings. Entitled "Black and Red: African American Cowboys and Native Americans", the work approached the subject of 'cowboys and Indians' from an alternative perspective by chronicling the contributions of – and prejudices encountered by – African Americans and Native Americans in the West.
My third body of work was a pictorial history of jazz in the United States. The work drew upon my childhood experiences and my music education to bring a distinctly personal and human perspective to America's jazz legends. This collection was published by Alfred A. Knopf in a book entitled "Jazz: My Music, My People”, with vibrantly colored portraits and abstracts accompanied by commentary. It proved to be a delightful read for jazz aficionados and laypersons alike.
My fourth body of work entitled "Divas: And So I Sing" was shown at The River Oaks Square Arts Center in Alexandria, Louisiana, and New Orleans. This series featured African Americans who became successful on the operatic stage.
In another series which I co-ordinated in Rhode Island, "I’ll Make Me a World", one will find more personal heroics portrayed by ‘everyday people’, whose spiritual and psychological presence leans forward to draw the viewer into their world. Crafted in my characteristic style, the use of calligraphy colours the subject’s personal aura, engaging the viewer with rhythm and texture that assists the definition of personal space; consuming negative space, and interactively informing the viewer with facts and possible clues to their secrets.
In terms of what drives me as a self-taught American urban folk artist, I seek to re-emphasize the contributions African Americans have made to American history, life and culture. This is my creative mission. As artist-griot, I am a philosophical innovator having a deep concern with principles, truth and justice and this comes out in the revisionist approaches to my art. My paintings express beauty, tragedy, love, healing and life. My portraits imply intricate relationships with rich hues and ornate contexts.
Currently, I am adding to a new series entitled "Exegesis (Black Bible)", a series which portrays Biblical scenes from an African American perspective, and which previewed about 15 paintings in Baltimore in the spring of 2015.