by Maureen Hartmann
[dropcap]C[/dropcap]harles Curtis Blackwell is a tall, lean, African-American man with a quiet, calm demeanor that creates an impression of a man at peace with himself. Blackwell is a poet, painter and playwright whose art has been featured in the New York Times and on PBS television. His paintings have been exhibited from coast to coast and he has received many outstanding artist awards.
Blackwell usually uses a white cane because his eyesight was severely damaged in an accidental fall when he was a young man. When he paints, he must stand extremely close to the canvas so he can dimly see what he is painting, his eyes only inches away from his brush strokes.
His lifelong love for jazz and blues music shines through in his countless impressionistic portraits of musicians. In overcoming the formidable obstacle of his near-blindness, he has done amazing artistic work in creating scores of abstract paintings, mask-representations of African-Americans, and about 100 paintings conveying his impressions from listening to jazz music.
Blackwell said he has a middle name to preserve an “African-American Blues Rhythm.” He also has some Choctaw and Sioux ancestry. He respects the mixed-race, holy and urbane Martin de Porres, a Peruvian saint of the 16th and 17th centuries, who cared for the poor and sick and homeless, and opposed discrimination.
Born in San Francisco in 1950, he spent most of his life in California. In his childhood, his folks traveled with him yearly back to the woods of Mississippi, the place of their origin. In Mississippi, they took him to the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Baptist Church, where he first learned to sing by joining in the hymns. There, along with hearing gospel music in the churches, he also experienced his first blues music.
While growing up, Charles lived with his original family in Sacramento, where he began attending Rio Linda High School. The city of Sacramento assigned him to a busing program. He noted that, in many areas, busing had good outcomes in terms of fostering tolerance and diversity, and often resulted in inner-city schools being upgraded and repaired and even receiving improved access to better textbooks and educational materials.
Yet in Sacramento, due to the intolerance of many people in the community who were opposed to busing and integration, Charles found it to be “a horrible experience.” Fourteen people were arrested at the school in a 1965 racial riot, which “became rather serious,” he said. Charles was not arrested.
With an African-American friend named David Fontaine, he became a farm worker, picking tomatoes in Woodland, Davis, and Lodi during the summer, earning as much as six dollars a day. Farm buses picked them up early in the morning in their neighborhoods.
As a sophomore, Blackwell joined an AME choir at Allen Chapel. His singing career began with rhythm and blues. Rhythm and blues music caught his attention while listening to a radio station, and he began composing lyrics while in high school. He would show the lyrics to a friend, and they would discuss them. In typing class, he keyed blues lyrics.
Blackwell began avidly seeking knowledge about jazz and blues music by reading Down Beat magazine, gleaning information from the backs of album covers and studying the book Blues People by LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka). Images of performers and their performances remained vividly engraved in his memory. He did poorly in most subjects, but excelled in art, which was for him “a God-given talent.”
While living with his parents, he enrolled at Sacramento City College, where he did not need to pay tuition, as a visual arts major. In his art classes there, he wrote poetry. Typing up the lyrics to songs had jump-started his poetry.
Blackwell joined a protest for Black Studies at the college, and enrolled in the first Black Literature class, where he read the poetry and novels of gifted African-American writers including Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Nathan C. Heard, Richard Wright, and Gwendolyn Brooks.
He dropped out for a semester to work at a steel mill in Seattle, then returned to college and earned a Bachelor of Arts in sociology at California State University at Chico. His first short story was situational, describing anecdotes related to his job in the steel mill.
At the age of 20, Charles had the accident that brought about his blindness. He was on a hill by the ocean in Santa Cruz in a van, reading a book. His friends had left the van earlier. When Charles got out, he accidentally took the wrong path, and the terrain caused him to fall. He fell over an embankment and down a deep slope.
“I came over a rock and there wasn’t anything there,” he said. He was hospitalized in critical condition. The night after his accident, he was temporarily paralyzed, had internal bleeding and pneumonia.
His writing career began with an article in high school about the graduation of black students from the school that had the busing program. It appeared on the front page of an African-American newspaper, The Sacramento Observer, but his self-esteem in writing remained low.
Blackwell spent some time in Washington, D.C., where he tried to publish his writing. He was an organizer in the cultural community, and had to support himself with manual labor including dishwashing, deliveries and janitorial work. But he used his blindness as a tool for meeting creative friends.
He was published internationally in the African Commentary, Literoti, and The Drum Voices Revue. He found it an honor to be in the same book with such writers as Sonya Sanchez, Quincy Troupe, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Eugene Redmond. He studied writing under Redmond in Sacramento, and with Marietta Golden in D.C.
The Mood, The Music, The Passion in Art
An Exhibit of Visual Artist Charles Curtis Blackwell
659 14th Street, Oakland.
Charles Curtis Blackwell’s paintings are currently on display until September 6, 2014.
Blackwell was featured in the Oakland Post about three years ago with ten other writers in a program that brought their books to different churches, and agencies such as Center of Hope, for residents of juvenile hall. The writers spoke to the kids, “trying to point them in a different direction,” he said. The churches bought some of the writers’ books. This really touched him.
With another friend, Bob Hooker, he is currently organizing an art exhibit and poetry presentation at the Beat Museum in San Francisco.
In the early 1990s, the California Original Theater produced Blackwell’s plays, Is, the Color of Mississippi Mud, and Im’ma Boxer. He belonged to the National Conference of Artists where he met Nelson Stevens, editor of the African Commentary in Nigeria. Several of Blackwell’s poems were published in the African Commentary.
Blackwell now lives in Oakland. Despite the seemingly quiet demeanor of this modest man, he has achieved local and international recognition as a painter and writer. Blackwell has been awarded the prestigious Elva Iacona Vergari Prize, an “outstanding artist award” granted by the Lighthouse for the Blind in San Francisco. His art has been featured in the New York Times and on PBS television.
He has been honored for his writing by the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission. The Oakland Mayor’s Commission on Persons with Disabilities awarded Blackwell its Cultural Artist award for outstanding service to the City of Oakland and the disability community.
His paintings have been exhibited at the African-American Disabled Arts Festival of the Paul Robeson Gallery at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J.; the African American Museum and Library in Oakland; Mt. Gilead Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.; Jazz in the Tenderloin; the Hospitality House Community Arts Program in San Francisco; Arts Beyond Sight: Focus on Art and Vision; and National Exhibits by Blind Artists in Philadelphia. In April 2014, his paintings were exhibited at the Berkeley Library.
As a musician, Blackwell collaborated with jazz drummer Billly Toliver to create Congo Square, a poetic jazz ensemble which has performed in churches, schools, universities and on television.
Blackwell also has had an impressive teaching career, despite his vision challenge. He was a Ceramics Instructor in Washington, D.C. He has conducted writer’s workshops in various prisons in California. He has practiced art therapy in Sacramento, and has conducted art workshops at Lighthouse for the Blind.
As an author, he has five published books under his belt: The Fiery Responses to Love’s Callings, Is, the Color of Mississippi Mud, Wrought, If a Pigeon Can’t Fly, and Blind Alley Cats Dream Jazz. He has written several other plays, performance pieces and books of poetry.
During a recent presentation at the African-American Museum at Oakland, Blackwell moved and touched his audience with a talk about his life. He sang about slavery from a recording made at Mississippi’s infamous Parchman Prison by Alan Lomax, who was documenting this music for the Library of Congress.
As an internationally known writer, painter and singer, Charles Curtis Blackwell deserves far more recognition as an artist of renown in the East Bay.
Charles Curtis Blackwell’s paintings are currently on display until September 6, 2014, at the African-American Museum in Oakland.