Please, Don’t. Let Me Be. – A Winning Essay in the Art Writing Contest!

[Dear Readers, today we begin publishing the essays of the 16 finalists in the New Art Writing Challenge Contest! Here is the second of four articles we publish today on Artblog and the St. Claire.  Thanks to all those who participated, submitting more than 70 articles. And thanks to our jurors — Hrag Vartanian, Abigail Satinsky and Nell McClister — who picked the winners. We are energized by all the wonderful writing that was submitted and know you will enjoy reading it! — the Artblog editors]

Winner of the Prize for 500 words or less

Please, Don’t. Let Me Be.
By Justin O. Walker

painted portrait of African American man
Beauford Delaney, James Baldwin

An artist told me art is benign. I think it is misunderstood. Art needs to be revisited like people. I was there with Bearden at the Philadelphia Art Museum at the show Represent: 200 Years of African American Art, rekindling an old conversation. I drank from a faucet that cannot be shut off. Those mismatched features spoke truth to my humanity. It is what these works have done for me. They disentangle, highlight and hug.

Through Moe Brooker’s patching of color fields through frantically applied paint, I fell into limbic space. I lost myself in Glenn Ligon’s barrage of letters his in black and white piece Untitled (I’m turning into a spectre before your very eyes and I’m going to haunt you). And though the words “fell” and “lost” suggest an alternate reality, what I mean to say is I gained footing. Pursuance of truth, not facts, means home is subjective.

block party with lots of people
Block Party

In Philly, sometimes we praise grit out of helplessness. The inner city is cursed and gifted. But too often our voice is entertainment not dialogue. I was misunderstood like some art. These curiosities, labors of love, or trading cards for the elite, suggested I was more than entertainment. James Baldwin once said, “…only an artist can tell and only artists have told…what it is like for anyone who gets to this planet to survive it.” And as I stared at Beauford Delaney’s portrait of him—his wide wakeful eyes gazing into mine, an onlooker—I knew he meant all of it. Black art in America starts at survival, a vibrant, solemn, frantic search for the next breath.

Justin O. Walker is an artist and writer who lives and works in Philadelphia, PA., where he was born and raised. He graduated with a B.A. from Columbia University in 2013. While he’s not weeping over crushing school loan debt, he’s working on his book and posting thoughts on Tumblr.