2020: Learning from those who Passed Away
We can learn from people who passed away, even if we don’t always know what. Every life offers multiple perspectives on how to find meaning. To improvise on a theme from Wallace Stevens, twenty people dying are one death with something to teach us, and also twenty deaths with twenty things each to teach us about the value of a single life, or about all of life.
To begin: You are here. You are reading this. You are breathing, and you are alive, and you are lucky.
Since CAN Journal began publishing, we have noted the passing of artists who had significant regional impact, or whose deaths had something to teach us. The first of these was a 2012 story about the discovery of an artist’s work after his anonymous passing: that of Ronald Carvel Meaux. Born Ronald Moore, he had been a high school art teacher and was living in East Cleveland, and no friend or family member even came to claim his body. But after he died, someone cleaning out his apartment to begin getting it ready for the next person discovered his art. That’s when his story became known.
Through the years we also noted the deaths of Randall Tiedman, Roy Bigler, Dwayne “GORK” Pigee, Levent Isik, Dan Tranberg, and Julian Stanczak. Writing this post provided the occasion to read through each of those remembrances, and to reflect on all the people who historically have contributed to the fabric of art in Cleveland. But it feels like there never has been a year when the Cleveland art scene lost so many lumenaries as in 2020.
Chappelle Letman (December 21, 1950 – January 15, 2020)
Cleveland knew Chappelle Letman, Jr. as a sculptor. However, he had lived his life as a painter before losing his sight. As Douglas Max Utter wrote, “Chappelle Letman Jr.–an African American artist born in Brooklyn, New York, who became totally blind when he was 41 years old–went on in the remaining three decades of his life to develop the skills and great patience needed to find his way through each day.
“In part he accomplished this feat by chipping into, around, and through the blocks of alabaster and limestone that formed a new basis for his artistic journey. … [The] stocky, handsome man in wrap-around shades was notably sure-footed, climbing confidently into buses and friends’ cars, walking—usually alone—around the neighborhood where he lived on Cleveland’s West Side. He seemed at ease even in galleries and cafes he’d never entered before—rarely faltering, never afraid.”
“As a very young man, Chappelle Letman showed outstanding artistic talent. He attended Albert Pels Art School (in the historic Ansonia building on New York’s Upper West Side), then moved on (at age 14) to the Pratt Institute. By 1969 he had attended classes at the Art Students League in Manhattan, and in 1970 he was an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem. In the early 1970s, Chappelle travelled to California, where he studied visual art, earning a BA from California College of the Arts in 1973. Later in that decade, he travelled to Fairbanks, Alaska, and worked for several years as a sign painter at nearby Army base Fort Wainwright. For the rest of his life, he remembered days hiking in the mountains and nights camping in a tent. He watched the Northern Lights, unfurled like a magnetic flag, vibrating across the sky like sound made visible.”
When artists deal with blindness or anything else perceived as a disadvantage, there is a tendency among writers or anyone describing or interpreting their work to say the disadvantage was central to the creativity. Utter went on to quote Letman’s friend and teacher Kim Bissett: “He did not make these sculptures, do all these things, from lack,” Kim insists. “He wasn’t compensating for anything. He was deep, he was funny, and his work was about the power of choice-making, was proof of it. He was a warrior.”
Chappelle told [Bissett]: “There are no walls, I’m working in the Universe.”
Stephen Bivens (December 6, 1967 – June 1, 2020)
Stephen Bivens always loved photography, but as his friend and neighbor Daniel Gray Kontar wrote, “it is not hyperbole to describe his full-time pursuit of the craft as a dream deferred. Right after high school, Stephen enlisted in the Marines and served in that branch of the armed forces for ten years. In 1996, he returned to Tampa Bay, where he was born and raised, and worked for both Time Warner and Progressive Insurance. He was transferred by Progressive to Cleveland, where he met Jennifer Madden.”
They married in 2008 and moved back to Tampa so that Stephen could be closer to his daughters. But that same year, Stephen quit his job to pursue photography full-time. In 2012 they moved back to Cleveland. And Stephen dove headfirst into becoming an artist.
“In 2016, Stephen was one of seven recipients of the North Collinwood neighborhood’s Ballot Box Project, where community residents voted for him to photograph local families, business owners, artists, and activists in the locations that most visibly revealed their connections to the North Collinwood neighborhood. In 2018, Stephen became an inaugural recipient of the Cleveland Arts Prize Verge Fellowship. The following year, Stephen was appointed as Twelve Literary Arts’ photographer-in-residence and became a photographer for Cleveland 20/20: A Photo Exploration of Cleveland—a partnership between the Cleveland Public Library and The Cleveland Print Room designed to capture images of everyday Clevelanders in celebration of the Library’s 150-year anniversary. … Bivens also taught photography to inner-city youth through The Cleveland Print Room. This was his greatest joy.”
Malcolm Brown (August 19, 1931 – October 1, 2020)
Painter and art dealer Malcolm Brown had closed the gallery he ran with his wife Ernestine in 2011, the year before CAN started publishing. But his name continued to come up, including at the Cleveland Museum of Art. In addition to his career as an artist and gallerist, Brown was a teacher at Shaker Heights High School. People from all these threads of his life remembered him after his passing.
As collector and family friend Betty Pinkney said, “Their gallery created a community. It was a place to go, and to be seen, and to see people, and to learn. It was very enriching. They would have speakers come in, and artists come in, to talk and teach. Some of the artists were hosted at my home—major African American artists. Elizabeth Catlett was one who we had at my house. Romare Bearden was another. It filled a vacuum in the community, because it delivered art in a way I had not seen. It gave a presence to African American artists we may not have been familiar with.”
Sharon Milligan recalled similar joy, and also celebrated Brown’s impact: “Nothing was more thrilling than the artist Moe Brooker showing up at my Shaker Heights home when Malcolm and Ernestine Brown made an appointment to install Brooker’s artwork I purchased from their gallery.”
In 2003, 21 years after Brown had opened his gallery, “the Cleveland Museum of Art formed an affiliated group known as the Friends of African and African American Art, with the mission to celebrate, stimulate and encourage art by the African and African American artist,” Milligan recalls. “However, it was the Malcolm Brown Gallery that led the way in the Cleveland area to helping Clevelanders acquire the beauty and power of African American art, including Malcolm’s work. Moreover, Malcolm’s work is in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, and he is the subject of a photograph in the collection as well.”
Former students recalled the impact of having an African American male teacher, a role model which remains all too rare.
Most personally, his daughter Rhonda Brown, of Chicago, vowed to continue his legacy, painting in his honor, and signing, “Love you always, Daddy. Your buttercup.”
John W. Carlson (July 6, 1954 – December 20, 2020)
The most recent loss we’ll note is that of John W. Carlson, who died of an abdominal aneurism just before Christmas. We’ll remember John as one of the most prolific painters and frequent exhibitors of recent years, and also as one who loved to meet people and share ideas. This was evident in the many photos of friends and other artists taken in “the chair” in his studio, his ongoing friendships with artists who had visited Cleveland, and in many other ways.
Among his most recent exhibit highlights were a solo show, Blues, at HEDGE Gallery in February, 2020. In 2017 he had a solo show at the Massillon Museum. Other recent exhibit highlights included The Carlson/Standley Experience at Field Projects Gallery, New York, in 2019; Don’t Be Still (With Robert Banks) at HEDGE Gallery in 2018; The New Now, presented by Artists Archives of the Western Reserves at Tri-C in 2018; and CAN Triennial, 2018. His work is in the permanent collections of the Erie Art Museum (Erie, PA), and the Massillon Museum (Massillon, Ohio), and innumerable private collections.
Writing of his work, critic Joseph Clark said, his “images are ‘gestural’ in at least two senses; his brushstrokes are unconcealed and dramatic, and his subjects splay and contort their bodies to communicate operatic emotion. Painted with limited but vivid colors, the men and women of Carlson’s paintings grapple with existence itself. They sulk, wince, bare teeth, hide their eyes, crumple into the ground, and cling to each other. Their postures and gestures are raw depictions of struggle.”
His most recent works, however–especially after the birth of Silver Severovich–captured intimate moments between people, with joy.
He lives on not only in his work, but also in the lives of others, even beyond his circle of friends. John was an organ donor, and therefore has given several other people the gift of continuing life.
A public memorial is likely in Summer 2021, when more people will be able to gather outside, more safely. In the mean time, friends have organized a meal train to support his partner, Cleveland Print Room director Shari Wilkins. And watch for details next week about a scholarship to be set up in Carlson’s name.
Learning from those who passed away
One thing all those people seem to have had in common is that they valued their lives profoundly. The evidence is in the ways they spent their days, making, connecting, teaching. And that resulted in each of their impacts, and their collective impact: They inspired others. Of all the things we can learn about lives well-lived, that seems the most consequential. The Winter 2020-2021 issue of CAN has on its cover a mural by Osman Swimr Muhammad: it’s a portrait of the late Breonna Taylor, with a forward-looking message, urging every passer-by to learn from her example, to “value life like she did.” It’s something to carry forward into 2021.