Last year, when the Rutgers Institute for Women and Art organized and mounted, Declaration of Independence: Fifty Years of Art by Faith Ringgold, a retrospective, I was very fortunate to get to interview the legendary artist on the occasion of her receiving an honorary degree from Rutgers University. Now, the retrospective exhibition catalog is now available for $40 (payment can be made to: Rutgers University, and on the memo line write: Institute for Women and Art, and sent to 191 College Ave., New Brunswick, NJ 08901).
Here’s my interview with her, one of the most inspiring interviews of my career:
“YES we can.” Most recently our President made these words famous, but Faith Ringgold, born in 1930, has been reciting the mantra all her life.
“If one can anyone can, all you gotta do is try,” she has written in a song, “Anyone Can Fly.”
Well-known for her Caldecott Honor-winning children’s book, Tar Beach (Crown Publishers, 1991), Ms. Ringgold was able to fly over the racial and gender barriers in her life. She has produced a limited edition of “Yes I Can” playing cards, published by the Rutgers Institute for Women and Art.
By flying, Ms. Ringgold means “you’re going to do what is in your heart and not let yourself be stopped by yourself or anyone else,” she says from her Englewood home. “You’re going to have the confidence to do it, to put yourself out there and be number one. So many children and adults are told they can’t do it – no one knows whether you can but you.”
Even lack of ability shouldn’t hinder one. She has had students who had no talent, but determination. “All it takes is to really want it… The trick is, don’t stop trying.”
How did she gain such confidence? In short: her parents believed in her.
“Back then, no one asked little girls what they wanted to be,” she says of her childhood. “My mother wanted us to be something, to go to college.”
Born in Harlem, Faith suffered asthma and did not go to school until the second grade. She was home schooled by her mother, a dressmaker. Willi Jones took her daughter to the theater, movies and museums, bought her textbooks at Barnes & Noble, and taught her to sew. When she finally did arrive in second grade, her classmates were stunned to learn that Faith could read. “You have to be twice as good to go half as far,” her mother told her.
Faith was surrounded by the artists, musicians and writers of the Harlem Renaissance, but didn’t know it at the time – “They were just people who lived down the street,” she says of Grammy-winning saxophonist Sonny Rollins and the musicians of Sugar Hill. Thurgood Marshall was a neighbor – she remembers him sitting on a park bench on Edgecombe Avenue. “It was a wonderful group of people who had broken down so many barriers and were so giving,” she says. She painted Mr. Rollins wailing on the Brooklyn Bridge, where nothing could interfere with his practicing.
(On May 20, Ms. Ringgold and Mr. Rollins received honorary degrees from Rutgers – it is one of more than 16 honorary doctorates Ms. Ringgold has received in her lifetime.)
During the Great Depression, Ms. Ringgold remembers, so many men were out of work, although her father had a job. People would lend each other money to pay the rent, and even though those were hard times, there was a community of sharing.
In the summer, no one had air conditioning. Apartment dwellers went out on the fire escape or up on the tar paper roof to picnic. Ms. Ringgold remembers adults playing cards, and she would lie on the “tar beach,” looking up at the stars and the George Washington Bridge, with its twinkling lights. She thought it looked like jewels, and imagined the jewels as a necklace.
Ms. Ringgold’s father often told friends and family, We broke the mold when Faith was born. “I loved when he said that, because I knew I was special, and confidence came with that.”
A bright shining star herself, Faith excelled on the academic track in high school, and at a time when very few people of any race or gender went to college, she went to City College of New York for both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. It was tuition-free, but in return there was pressure to keep up grades.
Ms. Ringgold recalls a homework assignment for her design class, to produce a playing card. She created the jack of diamonds, and when she arrived for class – early – she discovered that other students had made the entire deck. “I learned at that moment that it was important to do more than was expected of you,” she says. “Something that would make you stand out.”
Half a century later, she has come full circle and completed her own deck of cards, even creating her own suits: the Whitehouse, a light bulb (for enlightenment), Uncle Sam’s hat and money. Limited editions can be purchased through the Mason Gross Gallery.
After college, she became a teacher, and is grateful to all that she learned from the children she taught. She was active in the civil rights and feminist movements, and all the while, she worked hard on her artwork. In 1973, the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick gave her her first retrospective.
Ms. Ringgold learned that if she painted on canvas and created a quilt around it, it was easier to roll up and ship, and so she could ship more and earn more. She could also work larger. By making her work more accessible, she could enlarge her audience.
Her mother helped with Ms. Ringgold’s very first quilt, “Echoes of Harlem,” in 1980, then died a year later. Ms. Ringgold’s next quilt was a tribute to her mother.
In the 1980s, Ms. Ringgold wrote her autobiography, but couldn’t find a publisher. “They weren’t quite ready for a story like mine – a celebration of the struggle and triumph of being an artist,” she says. “I didn’t want someone else to tell my story. I’d become an artist so I could tell my story.”
Instead, she began incorporating text into her quilts to communicate her message. As a child, she would listen, rapt, as her family told stories, and she wanted to record these, with their detail and variations on theme.
Once a quilt was photographed, she felt, it was “published.” In 1988, she wrote Tar Beach, painted the picture, and put together a story quilt for an exhibition. While it hung in a New York art gallery, an editor from Random House saw the quilt and thought it would make a good children’s story. “I had no idea I was writing a children’s story,” Ms. Ringgold says. “Sometimes you need other people to see your work to understand what you’re doing.”
After the publication of Tar Beach, Ms. Ringgold went on to publish 14 more children’s books. Mosaics made from her quilts are in the New York City subway and the Princeton Public Library.
“Some people term her work ‘naive’ or ‘outsider,'” says Ferris Olin, exhibit co-curator and co-director of the Rutgers’ Institute for Women and Art, along with Judy Brodsky. “But she is a master – a thinking, content-laden person who knows art making. It goes beyond political… there are themes of independence, jazz, family life… although not everybody’s family, an urban family on the roof.”
“It is her conscious choice to work this way,” says Ms. Brodsky, who knew Ms. Ringgold in 1973 when teaching at Beaver College – Ms. Ringgold performed using masks and costumes there. “She is a woman artist who wants to avoid the male Renaissance tradition, and be specific to her ethnic group and gender, and still have it be high art.”
In fact, during her studies, Ms. Ringgold was consistently required to copy the work of the European masters. On her own she taught herself that to express herself as a black person, she could mix her European training with African origins to create a truly American style of painting. She takes inspiration from the styles of Chagall, Miro and Picasso, who, in her words, “achieved as a mature artist the freedom children have in painting.”
Around 1990, after she was a published author, a tenured professor at the University of California at San Diego and an artist who’d had numerous retrospectives and a slew of prestigious awards – even Oprah owned one of her quilts! – she decided to build a studio. The houses in Harlem were too narrow, and she would have to buy two buildings and tear down a wall. So she looked over to the other side of the George Washington Bridge and saw Englewood. Ms. Ringgold found a ranch house on a tree-lined street and fell in love. The name of the street was Jones Road, and as Jones had been her maiden name, Ms. Ringgold saw it as a good omen. She hired an architect to add a second story to the ranch that would become her studio.
She invited her neighbors to the planning board meeting to see the maquette. Along with the invitation she sent her resume and letters of reference.
Much to her shock, the neighbors showed up armed with a lawyer. They accused her of wanting to build a rooming house and a parking lot. The neighbors complained that it would impede their quality of life and their ability to send their children to a good school. “It was a really racist situation – to prove I was unfit to live in the neighborhood,” she recounts.
Ms. Ringgold rose to the challenge, fighting for six years until she finally won the approval. “Never was I more determined in my life,” she recounts. “They were trying to take away my freedom.”
In all the time she’s lived on Jones Road, “I’ve never been invited to the zoning board” to stop anyone else from moving in, she says. Ms. Ringgold insulated herself with shrubs and a fence. “I think a public apology would be in order.”
During the six years of stress and depression, “I needed to do what musicians do with the blues,” she says. “To take a bad situation and make it good.”
She created a series of prints, drawings and quilts, all with text, Coming to Jones Road Under a Blood Red Sky. “I can’t let these people rein in my spirit and take me down,” she says. The series evokes the hardships of the African-American Diaspora, from emancipation to moving into suburban neighborhoods. A sample of the text: “…the time has come to walk to freedom. Nobody gonna stop you now. Wait till nightfall then go, and don’t leave nobody behind. Keep a comin’ till you reach the Palisades. Then turn onto Jones Road. Look for an old white farmhouse with your dead Mama’s star quilt on the roof. We be waiting for you. God be on your side. You as good as free!”
If all goes according to plan, the Faith Ringgold Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling will open in Harlem next year. Ms. Ringgold’s Anyone Can Fly Foundation helps to fund people conducting doctoral research on African-American artists.
To this day, Ms. Ringgold continues to work from the Jones Road studio. “I’m still doing everything I ever did, only more,” she says. “It’s not like dancing or acting or singing, where as you get older you lose facility. The older you get, the better you get. I plan to see until the end comes.”