Welcome to Off the Wall. We’ve skimmed the news around the museum, and want to share the highlights with you.
We wear the mask that grins and lies
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, –
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask…
-Paul Laurence Dunbar, “We Wear the Mask”
WE ALL WEAR MASKS
Minnesota-based artist Melvin R. Smith recited the above lines from African- American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1896 poem, “We Wear the Mask,” when inquired as to what inspired his Mask of Found Objects (False Faces Series). The colossal mask, two collages, and two works on paper by his spouse, Rose J. Smith, form an important 2016 gift to the museum’s permanent collection. All five works are currently on view in the museum’s Sandy Bell Gallery.
“We all wear masks… whether you can see it or not,” Smith said, his pause between recitation and conversation barely audible.
Dunbar’s poem, in part, stimulated Smith to begin making masks from found objects in 1997. His earlier masks tend to represent portraits of a family member, friend, or mentor. Mask of Found Objects (False Faces Series) consists of large chunks of rusting metal, remnants of an electric starter (with operating instructions still adhered), and a snow shovel, all composed in situ in a junkyard or—as Smith describes it— an “art supply store.” Although Smith originally titled masks with the names of the people they represent, he now keeps the identities secret.
While Smith’s masks comment on African-American history and identity, his collages more overtly reflect personal history. He grew up in Sandtown, an impoverished but close-knit neighborhood just east of May Avenue, on the banks of the North Canadian River. Annexed by Oklahoma City in 1930, the community was first settled by freedmen during the early 1880s. Smith’s collage, June Bug, honors longtime Sandtown resident June Bug Williams, with whom Smith became well acquainted while serving as an artist-in-residence for the state in the late 1990s.A return trip to Oklahoma in 2009 resulted in Smith’s panoramic collage, Second Street. The collage presents a child’s-eye-view of well dressed couples, families, and individuals spilling out of the famous Aldridge Theatre in Oklahoma City’s Deep Deuce neighborhood. Jazz legends, vaudeville stars, and celebrated musicians, including Billie Holiday, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington, performed at the Aldridge, which opened in 1919. This vibrant center of the city’s African- American community life figures prominently in Smith’s childhood memories. But when Smith visited Second Street in 2009, the Deep Deuce of his childhood no longer existed, buried beneath luxury condominiums. In fragile paper, he assembled an image that depicts the place not as it actually was, but as it survives in his memory. Shadowy, mysterious forms and crisp, boldly dressed figures dance, stride, and sway together in kaleidoscopic perpetual motion.
Rose J. Smith’s mixed-media works similarly merge personal emotion and public history. Born in Kansas City, she attended art school at the University of Minnesota—where she met Melvin, on a blind date—and has worked as a design consultant and fashion designer. During the early 1990s, the Smiths traveled to historic, vibrant African-American communities, including New York City’s Harlem and Chicago’s Bronzeville, and created works inspired by the experience. In 2005, they visited New Orleans. Both of Rose’s works acquired by the FJJMA respond to the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, particularly to the tragedy of human suffering caused less by the disaster than by the slow response of government relief efforts. In Broken Dreams (2008), she pictures despair. Carefully rendered lines delineate a man slumped over his knees, his face hidden. Blank picture space both isolates and confines him. Melvin notes that for the Smiths, Broken Dreams refers not just to the aftermath of Katrina, but to broader devastation caused by continual flooding in the South, which destroyed not only individual dreams, but faith in the American Dream.
And yet, “Oklahoma has been good to us,” Melvin said, speaking fondly of the years he and Rose spent in the state making art, leading mask workshops, and running the former Oklahoma Museum of African American Art.
He readily acknowledges that the honor given legendary African-American running back Prentice Gautt during an OU football game led them to consider giving art to the university. As a result, the museum is now fortunate to count works by Melvin R. and Rose J. Smith in its permanent collection. The museum is grateful to the Smiths for their generosity in sharing these works with its visitors.