Art for Life’s Sake


Paul Von Blum


ince the 19th
century, African American artists have devoted extensive attention to
storytelling in visual form. Their paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, and
photographs have chroni cled the hopes and struggles of their people, their
neglected African heritage, and their social and political life in the United
States. Their artworks have often focused on the long and dishonorable legacy of
racism, providing a remarkable body of art that simultaneously expresses
resistance to oppression and a vision of a more humane society. In the 20th
century, the finest representatives of the African American creative community
have added thousands of visual works to the powerful tradition of humanist art.


Los
Angeles in particular has been the locus of several unusually productive members
of this community. A major figure for over 30 years is Raymond Lark, an
acclaimed and versatile artist whose work is infused with the accumulated
experiences of his own life.


Born
in Philadelphia in 1939, Lark grew up under extremely trying personal and social
circumstances. The son of a domestic worker and a policeman, he lived in a
vermin-infested tenement building at an early age. His personal recollections of
rats and roaches and of eight families sharing the same toilet facilities left
an indelible impression. His mother’s mental illness and hospitalization
forced him into a dreary succession of foster homes and reform schools. Lark
earned money collecting and selling junk, shining shoes, and killing chickens.
He also found work as a messenger, a stockroom clerk, a packer and shipper, a
typist, and a secretary.


At the
age of four, Lark recalls being fascinated by a drum majorette in a Philadelphia
Thanksgiving Parade. Returning home, he recreated the image to the immense
appreciation of his relatives. He realized then his powerful urge to become an
artist. A visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art a few years later reinforced
his desire. At the age of nine, he began formal art training by taking classes
at the Museum School after school and on weekends.


 

orking full
time during the day, Lark also continued his educational pursuits. At Temple
University Evening College, he continued to study art even while earning a
bachelor’s degree in business administration. In 1961, Lark moved to Los
Angeles, seeking avenues to achieve success as an artist. Like many new East
Coast arrivals, he saw California as a glamorous alternative, glistening with
opportunity and excitement. Continuing his artistic training by studying
technical illustration at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, he also prepared
to earn a living in the commercial world in order to devote time, eventually, to
his passion for drawing and painting. Shortly after settling in Los Angeles, he
worked as a supervisor at Lockheed Aircraft Company. Here too he encountered the
racial hostility of the times. Racial jokes and invective directed against
African Americans were commonplace.
He
continued to work during the day, finding administrative jobs in business,
education, and law. Actively producing his art in the mid to late 1960s, Lark
achieved increasing success and recognition. In the early part of his artistic
career, he painted portraits earning handsome commissions for his efforts. He
also obtained several exhibitions, showing his works highlighting several
themes. In several cases, he refrained from attending gallery openings,
concealing his own racial heritage from owners and prospective customers.
Although he began to make a substantial living from sales of his work, he also
recalls that the checks stopped coming after he disclosed his African American
identity.


Distressed
at the egregious omission of African American artists from official art
histories and their difficulty in obtaining museum and gallery exhibitions, Lark
studied his people’s impressive cultural legacy. Even earlier in Philadelphia,
he had discovered the pioneering scholarly work of Alain Locke and James Porter,
key figures in bringing African American art to broader public attention in the
early part of the 20th century.


Lark’s
emergence as an artist coincided with the vigor and energy of the modern civil
rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Reflecting the era’s spirit, he
participated in the Los Angeles area arts activism that blossomed in the wake of
the Watts rebellion of 1965. That year, he participated in an art exhibition
dedicated to the victims of those traumatic and violent events. He undertook a
strong leadership role, moreover, in helping other black artists to achieve
professional recognition. In 1967, Lark joined Art West Associated (AWA), a
black arts organization in Los Angeles and San Francisco that promoted cultural
discussion, organized educational programs, and agitated for recognition and
participation in mainstream art institutions. Members were committed to the
broader goals of racial justice emerging from national civil rights activities
during that time. Among others, such African American artistic luminaries as
Charles White, Ruth Waddy, Samella Lewis, John Riddle, Alonzo Davis, and others
were participants.
During
that time, Lark volunteered considerable time in assisting his fellow artists in
organizing exhibitions and encouraging their future development. Like his
dedication to education, his community service commitment has similarly endured
to the present and has powerfully influenced the thematic development of his own
artwork. By 1971, he decided to pursue his artistic career fully.


In a
dramatic work from 1987, “The Ghetto” (Figure 1), Lark uses his favorite
medium, a pencil drawing, to reveal the horrific conditions of urban life for
millions of unfortunate residents in America. Reminiscent of his own youthful
experiences in a decaying Philadelphia tenement building, the drawing highlights
a gigantic rat towering over the urban landscape. Deliberately exaggerated, this
ominous rodent unnervingly conveys a child’s sense of danger and fear.


In
“Hunger” (Figure 2), produced in 1975, Lark focuses on an aging white man
foraging for food, seeking physical sustenance in a society that relegates its
poverty-stricken elderly to the status of old junk. Hunger crosses racial and
ethnic lines in the United States and elsewhere. For Raymond Lark, what matters
above all is the human suffering. The focus on a white victim reinforces an
understanding of this deplorable reality and again reveals the breadth and
cross-cultural perspective of the artist’s vision.


In
“Frustration” (Figure 3), a young black man holds his head in despair as he
grapples with the problem of unemployment in his community. Significantly, the
subject has spread out on his bed the help wanted ads he has devoured in a vain
attempt to find work. Countering traditional stereotypes of African American
laziness that still pervade American consciousness, the artist makes it clear
that the young man wants desperately to work.
Lark
has also used traditional oil painting to provide incisive artistic commentary
about African American life in the United States. An impressive example is
“Henrietta” (Figure 4), created early in his professional career. A young
black girl sits alone on a chair with her toy doll. On the surface, the image is
adorable, featuring a timeless portrait of a child and her doll. For African
Americans, however, the painting reminds them of a poignant reality with
significant implications for racial self-identification and personal identity.
Until relatively recently, black children could play only with white dolls,
subtly reinforcing the widespread perception that only whiteness could be
considered acceptable and beautiful.
In
“Looking for Trouble” (Figure 5), the figure’s facial expression
summarizes the inner feelings of most African Americans, whatever their relative
economic position in the United States. Tired of violence and betrayal, the man
is a veritable time bomb, waiting for just one more unjustified stop by a white
police officer or one more racial affront in a restaurant or department store.
Lark’s particular subject had served in the U.S. Army, devoting years of his
life to a country seemingly incapable of decency and reciprocity.


Lark’s
1982 drawing, “One Day” (Figure 6), adds an unusual dimension to this major
artistic theme. He depicts a young boy’s arduous struggle to master a
difficult musical instrument. Whatever frustrations he experiences, he is
determined to overcome any obstacles to his musical objective. As usual,
Lark’s artwork tells the story of a young boy’s struggle to master whatever
skills they need to achieve the life satisfaction and fulfillment that all human
beings seek. Historically, black people are not “supposed” to play or enjoy
classical music. Neither are they “supposed” to excel in academic pursuits
or other areas historically reserved for the racially privileged.


Like
his many artistic colleagues, Lark has created a visual tribute to the civil
rights movement. His serigraph entitled “The March” (Figure 7) captures the
spirit of the times, revealing the vigor and determination of African Americans
and their supporters to narrow the huge gap between American ideals and American
realities. The central figure, firmly grasping his walking stick, marches
resolutely toward the promised land; whether he arrives or not is unimportant.
Those who follow him will continue their quest for freedom and opportunity.
Their American flags, conspicuously displayed, signify that all Americans have a
stake in this struggle and that the elimination of racism ultimately benefits
everyone in a democratic society. Wearing the traditional clothing of a southern
black sharecropper, the man reflects a more basic truth about the civil rights
movement.
“I
Want To Live” (Figure 8), a graphite drawing from 1989, chronicles the last
days of David Lee Scott, whom the artist met while volunteering at Long Beach
hospice for people with AIDS. Only 39 years old, Scott had been a vigorous man
with a distinguished athletic record. Lark befriended him during his final
deterioration, observing the massive emaciation and disability that Scott and
other AIDS victims inevitably endure. The drawing records the tragic end of
Scott’s life, portraying how his new friend tried desperately to retain some
dignity in the face of his impending death.
The
artist adds to his overall vision with the hands surrounding the dying patient.
These images are symbols of hope and compassion, signifying the human touch that
rejects the ill-informed moralism that consigns AIDS patients to the status of
modern lepers. The healing hands, on the contrary, seek to protect David Lee
Scott from social exile and dehumanization if not from the HIV virus. Viewers
should not avoid the implicit message of “I Want To Live”—that AIDS has
increasingly brought devastation to African American communities.


Throughout
human history, some artists have used their work to gain wealth and status by
responding to the demands of privileged patrons and connoisseurs. Others have
used their paintings, drawings, and sculptures to explore new dimensions in
spirituality or aesthetics. Still others have sought to create art for the sake
of art. Over the centuries, a smaller number of artists have sought instead to
create art for life’s sake. They have chosen to produce work that augments our
collective understanding of history and the human condition and that encourages
our heightened sensitivity and compassion. Raymond Lark has chosen to contribute
to this latter group of talented men and women. In the process, he has imbued
his own life with enduring meaning and value. Equally important, he has brought
high honor to his professional artistic community.
                       Z


The author gratefully acknowledges support from the UCLA Institute of American
Cultures and the UCLA Center for African American Studies for this article.