Quietly Soulful to Exuberantly Passionate: Moe Brooker
Moe Brooker (1940 – 2022), the first African American professor at the Cleveland Institute of Art, winner of first prize in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s May Show in 1978 and 1981, winner of the Cleveland Arts Prize in 1985, whose work is held in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and several other important collections, died January 9, 2022, at the age of 81. His friend Heike Rass reflected on his career.
Moe Brooker’s approach to his work has always been soul-centered, pursuing art as a spiritual practice. His brilliant rhythmic patterns and layered color juxtapositions, continuously-evolving interactions between line and color, are a reflection of his belief in the human spirit. New ways of making that visible are superbly conceived through a deep understanding of color relationships and human aspirations. As he put it, “We tell our stories with all the colors visible to our eyes. Color reaches deep down into our human psyche and collective souls; it makes visible our emotions and aspirations.”
From an early age, growing up in Philadelphia in the 1940s and 50s, Moe Brooker developed a talent and passion for the pursuit of art. One of seven siblings, he grew up as a “P.K.,” a preacher’s kid, discovering his earliest artistic inspiration in the church, where he would sketch various characters from the perspective of the pulpit. Brooker went on to receive a traditional academic training—starting at the nation’s first art school, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he received a painting certificate, then continuing at Tyler School of the Arts at Temple University, where he obtained a BFA and MFA.
Initially he was devoted to a figurative style, inspired by another Philadelphia native, the nineteenth-century painter Henry Ossawa Tanner. He was later introduced to the works and philosophy of Vasily Kandinsky, whose book Point and Line to Plane was “transformative,” Brooker recalled. “Reading it . . . and I still go back to it, for myself and when I teach . . . that’s when I went from being a realistic painter to an abstract painter.” A fellow painter, Raymond Saunders, told him that “abstraction is simply taking the elements that you use and using them perhaps in a unique way,” he once recalled.
While Brooker was stationed in Korea in the 1960s, he witnessed funeral ceremonies where mourners were wearing vivid, bright-colored clothing to celebrate the deceased person’s life. This further established his interest in color as a spiritual element and compositional force as he started to explore new approaches in his paintings. Color and abstraction became a way for the artist to channel a higher power, which also related to his life-long passion for Jazz music and in particular the work of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Charles Mingus. Key to his interest in Jazz, which Brooker considered an extension of spirituals, was the focus on improvisation: “spontaneity not as an impulsive choice, but a form choice.”
He understood that artists, both visual and musical, must master fundamental concepts before they can forge a unique way of approaching their own work, and also collaborate. Brooker stated, “Chord structures have long fascinated me. I began to discover that lines, dots, and shapes are like notes in that they make a visual sound singly, and when I began to combine the different elements, I could produce visual harmonies. In fact, a note, line, or shape is only understood in relationship to another note, line, or shape.”
Brooker’s desire to move to pure abstraction also tied to his interest in painting the vibrant and rich African-American culture. His awareness of African textiles and African American quilting, introduced by his grandmother, held a particular passion for the artist. African sensibilities for color selection and skills in textile production carried over during the transatlantic slave trade. Black women made various types of pieced textiles, patchwork, and appliqué and embroidered quilts during the antebellum and post-slavery eras. The alternate plain-weave and inlay designs in the patterns of Asante kente cloth transformed into Brooker’s chessboard designs and stepped diagonals, which appear again and again in his work.
While he rejected the idea of being described as an African American artist—instead, calling himself an artist who happens to be Black—Brooker embraced his place within the Black community. Graffiti and the energy and spirit of African American life are captured in many of his titles—Ask Your Mama; I’ll Trust Your Maybes; Don’t It Make Ya Wanna Holler; Kinda, Sorta; and Skipping Over the Jump—as well as in the frenzied, text-like lines overlaid on the blocks, bars, and splotches of color. At the foundation of this approach is “the grid,” a framework of vertical and horizontal lines that act as a skeleton upon which the flesh of his pictures hang. As the artist stated, “In a way the grid parallels the city. The buildings and the street, the steel and concrete structures, are an ordered environment within which people live their chaotic and emotional lives.”
In 1974, Brooker started to turn to drawing as a way of experimenting with new media, including watercolor, oil pastels, encaustic, paint sticks, and spray paint. “The drawing allowed me to develop a new kind of image and process,” he remembers. Deeply interested in the materiality of oil, encaustic, collage elements, colored pencils, and pastels as they relate to one another, Brooker’s daily work and continuous layering, both physical and essentially metaphysical, provide many of his paintings with an unfathomable depth and movement between planes of color.
In 1976, Brooker accepted a teaching position at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he worked as an associate professor until 1985, becoming the first African American on the day school faculty. It was in Cleveland that his artistic pursuits launched a blossoming career, with his work exhibited and sold at several galleries, including a solo show in the Cleveland Institute of Art’s Ross Widen Gallery, DBR Gallery, Malcolm Brown Gallery, and The New Gallery of Contemporary Art. Brooker received first prizes the 1978 and 1981 May Shows at The Cleveland Museum of Art, adding his work to its permanent collection. In 1985, Brooker received the prestigious Cleveland Arts Prize.
In addition to the Cleveland Institute of Art, Brooker taught at the University of North Carolina, University of Virginia, Parsons School of Design, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In 1995, he joined Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia, eventually chairing the school’s foundation department. Brooker received many awards during his lifetime, including the 2003 James Van Der Zee Lifetime Achievement Award from the Fabric Workshop, the Artist of the Year Award from Governor Edward G. Rendell of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 2010, the 2011 Legacy Award from The African American Museum in Philadelphia, the 2010 Hazlett Memorial Award for Artist of the Year, and the 2014 Philadelphia Sketch Club Medal.
The artist’s work is included in collections across the country, including those of the Ohio Arts Foundation, Cleveland Public Library, Cleveland Foundation, The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Studio Museum of Harlem, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and The African American Museum in Philadelphia.
Moe Brooker once told me that he considered himself a successful artist merely by the fact that he painted every day. This echoes views held by painter Norman Lewis, whom Brooker greatly admired, who stated that working in your studio every day is a radical act for an African American. Brooker lived his life with undiminished purpose, always connected to the present moment, learning and growing as an artist and a person. Perhaps his greatest legacy is the way he embraced all new possibilities, forever forging a path from being to becoming, or as he described it in the title of one of his works: Everything Is On Its Way to Somehow.
Heike Rass is an art publicist, strategist, and consultant, helping visual artists and arts organizations reach new audiences. She has worked at various art institutions, including the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where Brooker studied and taught for many years.
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