Sometime over a decade ago, I was dreaming about and planning a children’s program for the Old Stone House, a history museum in northeast Vermont and, on a trip to New York City, decided to look for ideas at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan on the West Side. That was how I came across the work of Faith Ringgold. There it was: Tar Beach in all its rich color and whimsy and funky reality and all of it mixed up together. The Museum was, as I recall, not only exhibiting that quilt and several others, but had made a place for children to play on their own Tar Beach with an old plastic radio, the table with its feast, the card players, the blankets spread across the imaginary roof, all of it. She’d made the past come alive for them in a way I could only dream of doing.
Tar Beach is one of Ms. Ringgold’s story quilts, but it is also an award-winning children’s book, one of the seventeen she’s written. And why not? As her web site and a children’s song she wrote declare: “If One Can Anyone Can, All you Gotta Do Is Try.” In the painting – I couldn’t locate a free copy of it quickly enough to put it up – lighted skyscrapers surround the tarred roof of a Harlem tenement like the one where she grew up. The family shares a picnic and plays cards, oblivious that far above them, far above everything, their daughter is flying, giving life to her fantasies.
There’s so much to say about Ringgold, it’s hard to know where to begin. She grew up in Harlem, earned B.S. and M.A. degrees at New York City College, and in the mid-1950s began teaching art in New York public schools. She grew more and more politically conscious and active: her first paintings portrayed the civil rights movement from a black and a female perspective. Travel in Africa and Europe stimulated the invention of African-style masks and political posters, at the same time as she organized actions to fight for racial integration and women’s presence in the New York art world. Her mother helped her create bodies to go with the masks; her daughters worked with her on performances featuring the characters she’d made. Her family has always been a part of her art.
The story quilts were inspired by Tibetan tankas (paintings framed in cloth). Her mother collaborated with her on some of them. Ringgold liked them especially because they were women’s work and people who couldn’t relate to paintings could relate to them.
For many years, Faith Ringgold was kept out of the New York art scene because of her race and gender. Today, partly because of her work, the art scene is much various and lively and African-Americans and women play a major role in it. Ringgold’s quilts, paintings and sculpture are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, and the Studio of Harlem, to name just a few places in New York alone. Her exhibits have been many; her honors numerous, and she’s still working. She says:
… many artists live long productive lives and never retire. In fact there is the real possibility that an artist’s work will get better with age. I like to say, ‘If you can live long enough, all your dreams can come true.’
How many important artists have worked with children? How many have been joined by their families in their own creative projects? Art has become community with Faith Ringgold.
In a recent post I asked whether an artist could live a normal life, and spoke to the particularity of the artist. I didn’t draw any conclusions then and there, but it did strike me that it was hard to give the appellation “art” to the activities of elderly people in programs designed to stimulate their minds and help them live longer, healthier lives. And then too, of course, to children. Faith Ringgold answered that question for me when she said about art:
Art allows individuals to have a voice. It’s a way of speaking and communicating. Everyone has a need to make a mark and make something visible. It’s an absolute necessity. Children start off making art. They come into the world as artists and continue to be artistic until about age 10. Then the art making stops because they realize they are revealing themselves – exposing themselves in a personal way. Art-making makes them unique. They may not want to be unique; they may want to be like everyone else. This is part of growing up and fitting into the world. Some of us continue to be artists, to hold onto art-making. Art is very, very important.
That’s it – exactly!