WORKING IN THE UNIVERSE: Remembering Chappelle Letman, Jr. (December 21, 1950-January 15, 2020)
A sculptor works not only to shape a chunk of stone, but also to soften the terrible hardness of the world, downshifting the deeps of time and space toward human understanding. 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. Over time he became both brilliant, and nimble. Getting to know him, I learned that this 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. Sometimes I wondered if his hundred-pound blocks of stone were, for Chappelle Letman, maps of a kind, guiding and teaching him his fluency of response, making possible an acceptance of the world as it is, in darkness and in light.
The night I met him, he was on the arm of a woman who was perhaps his closest friend, fellow artist and model Tanya Cook. Tanya had told me about Chappelle and I was excited to finally meet him. The occasion was a show at the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve, and as I remember, one of his alabaster carvings was on display. It was a three-foot sculpture—a spare, elegant piece that seemed to hint of tall bridges, air travel, and absence. I thought the work was amazing: not because it had been hewn by a man who was completely blind, but because it was a work of great skill and beauty, conveying profound emotional experience.
Over the next fifteen years, Chappelle amazed and moved me many more times. Indeed, I came to expect some level of real inspiration from him. He worked at various studios around town, sometimes under the auspices of the Cleveland Sight Center, or at the Cleveland Institute of Art. There was even a period of several years when he and another remarkable sculptor, Tom Yody, were guests of Giancarlo Calicchia (one of our town’s most eminent and ambitious artists in stone) in one of his studio spaces.
But when Chappelle asked his friends to weigh in on a current project, that generally meant going over to the small, dimly-lit apartment near Fulton and Memphis Avenues, where he lived for the final decades of his life. I would shout out his name into the dark and wait, generally in the living room sitting on his couch, while he made his work. I tried to make out his latest creation in the deep gloom from where I sat. He worked on a sturdy table in the dining room. That’s where he spent much of his time, communing with large and small pieces of limestone or alabaster, using a mallet and chisels, plus other equally time-honored tools for sanding and finer shaping. Sometimes I watched for a few minutes as he worked tentatively along the edge of a nearly-completed sculpture. He suffered from arthritis; his hands were often swollen and aching, but his fingertips retained their sensitivity. His strong arms and shoulders added grace to the probing, evaluating motions as he felt the rock changing, and considered how to join the forces embedded there. I know he sat or crouched around the table for hours into the night, or all through the rainy days that he loved (as he often told his friends), driving the chisel one measured blow at a time.
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.
Chappelle was being treated for glaucoma (a common, still incurable disease of the optic nerve) in New York in 1992, when his beloved mother died. Blindness overwhelmed him very suddenly just two days later. Within a few months he was receiving specialized instruction in life skills for the blind in Los Angeles. Then in 1996 he travelled to Cleveland to be near friends, and soon began a long and beneficial association with the Cleveland Sight Center. It was with a CSC group that he visited the Sculpture Center in 1999—another day that changed his life. The exhibit at the University Circle institution was a show of Cleveland artist Bruce Birel’s twisting, curling, tubular stone sculptures. Most importantly, it was a hands-on event, and Letman could feel the textures and shapes, the life-like motion of Birel’s pieces as they redefined their patch of space. He writes that he wept at the revelation which these works communicated: His sense of touch was, like his sight, a tool that he could use to make art again.
Soon he enrolled in a class at the Cleveland Institute of Art and met a person of profound importance to his art and his life, Cleveland sculptor and educator Kim Bissett. In her class, he developed ceramic sculpture techniques. The other students were non-professionals—neophytes. Naturally Letman stood out in many ways. He was the only one who was blind, but it was also clear to Bissett from the first night of their acquaintance that he was a kindred spirit—lively, insistent, driven. Before the session was over, they were talking like old friends and laughing like mad. The other students’ jaws were on the floor. Bissett says, “I knew that I had a superstar!” Pure talent flowed from his hands, and he could do things that seemed almost uncanny, hollowing out tall works prior to firing in the kiln—real feats of balance and sensitivity, of attention and response to materials, to the poise of an isolated form.
After he began working in stone, often at Bissett’s studio, Letman began to receive some regional and national attention: two Ohio Arts Council awards (including the coveted Excellence Fellowship in 2007), exhibits in Key West and Louisville, Kentucky, shows at Lakeland Community College, HEDGE Gallery, and University Hospitals. Wider fame eluded him in life, but fame can rise from the grave of an artist as remarkable as Letman.
Chappelle Letman had many friends in the art scene here in town, including myself. Our mutual friend, Loren Naji, showed Chappelle’s sculptures in his own gallery. Others advocated tirelessly on his behalf. Ashley Menken curated several shows for him and is working now to keep his unusual genius in the public eye. But it may be that Kim Bissett was the confidante with whom he shared the most about his art and his fears. And there is one point that she stresses:
“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 her: “There are no walls, I’m working in the Universe.”
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