It’s easy to buckle under pressure of attaining some form of success, whether it’s financial, social, emotional, or otherwise. It’s especially difficult to be convinced to pursue a career in the arts. Following such a dream is often beset at every turn by unrealistic expectations, self-doubt and nagging suggestions about monetary stability. It can be hard enough for adults to face such problems, nevermind children, whose ambitions might not withstand these same pressures.
To this end, organizer Michael Williams and painter Lamar Whidbee address the issue of individual success as part of their work in the Black on Black Project. Williams and Whidbee recently came from the Triangle to Wilmington to discuss the ideas with local kids. It’s culminated in a collaborative art exhibit, “Declarations of Success,” on display at DREAMS of Wilmington.
“I think art is the most powerful tool because we consume it every moment of our lives,” Williams says. “If used in certain ways, we can have an influence on teaching people about the issues we face, understanding perspectives about those issues, and opening up our minds to new ideas and ways of trying to find solutions and tackle issues we face.”
Williams spearheads Black on Black Project, a nonprofit organization under the umbrella of VAE Raleigh. It seeks to curate artists interested in race, ethnicity and identity form American culture. Well aware of the baggage associated with its name, Williams insists on an inclusive approach to discussing social issues through art, and uses the term “black on black” to invert negative connotations.
“Most people, when they hear the phrase ‘black on black,’ they think about black-on-black crime,” he comments. “The whole idea of the Black on Black Project is flipping the misconception on its head. We are people of color who are telling our story from our perspective, using historical fact to help illustrate it. We have the agency to declare what our success will be.”
Certainly, Williams isn’t trying to divide everyone, but trying to bring together people, despite differences in background or belief systems. It’s all about community.
“It is impact first,” Williams explains. “In what ways are we going to have a positive impact in the community we serve wherever we are? That’s what our community programming is about. Any of us can put together a show and put art on walls, and it can be gorgeous to look at, but what does that work do for a kid who may be uncomfortable in a museum? Or a member of our community who’s never felt like these spaces are safe for them? In the history of this country, we know there have been lots of things that have separated us as far as race, sexual orientation and economic status. What we seek to do is put all those different groups in the same space and have a dialogue.”
Through the Black on Black Project, Williams has hosted several exhibitions of artists throughout the Triangle who focus on topicslike social justice and environmentalism. His most recent project brought him to DREAMS where he hosted a class for local teens about the nature of success. By discussing success in its various forms—from public figures to hometown heroes—Williams instills a sense of individualism and empowerment in youth who may have lacked encouragement. He questions whether kids truly receive the support they need, from school, family, the community, or society as a whole.
“I don’t know if a lot of the youth today get that,” he wonders. “They may get the lip-service, but do they see the actual examples? Do they believe they have the agency to do so? A lot of idols of youth happen to be famous, and there’s nothing wrong with being famous, but what about the guy next door who’s a dentist that looks like you? Or the guy that owns a trucking company that lives around the block? To me, those are people who we can look at and say they are successful. There’s not one way to define success.”
Unrealistic expectations often convolutes the idea of success, with super-stardom being the ultimate outcome. Williams considers it only one example of accomplishment. He teaches kids it’s not wrong to pursue different paths through open dialogue.
“We tried to walk them through defining success,” Williams recalls. “I want to hear if you think it’s Lebron James and we’ll dissect why. If you say your mom is successful, that’s really good, and we talk about why. We had them document thought processes and then declare how they will be successful. ‘What do you want to do? How will you get there?’”
This is where Whidbee comes in, whose innate desire to be an artist overruled the path he was expected to take. A lifelong athlete, Whidbee was accepted to North Carolina Central University on a football scholarship, but he chose a career in the arts over professional leagues, after falling in love with portrait painting. He graduated with a master’s in fine arts from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and began exhibiting in the Triangle area. This led hom to eventually crossing paths with Williams, and he’s been part of Black to Black ever since.
In “Declarations of Success,” Whidbee took part in the same discussions, and explained his background and accomplishments he gained by following his own dream—despite pressure to continue what seemed to be a much more financially lucrative path. The conversation culminated in drafting a contract written on a rice-paper scroll, and outlining the teens’ pursuit of success and happiness—not unlike the Declaration of Independence.
“They came together and wrote this declaration of how they can be successful as a unit,” Whidbee reminisces. “[They said] ‘forget what society says I am, forget what they say I can’t be; this is what I’m going to declare about myself. This is who I am, this is who I’m going to be.’ It was amazing! Experiences like that are the reason I create and do shows, in the first place—going into the communities, learning from these kids, understanding their experiences and how our lives correlate. Being able to share with them, helping them to grow, and writing their own narrative … that’s what I live for!”
In addition to broadening a sense of understanding in himself and new communities, the excursion gave Whidbee a chance to flex his artistic muscles. After the kids found their personal visions of success, they were asked to pose for a portrait as the future selves they envisioned, all done by Whidbee. His portraits are painterly in their realism, citing Barkley Hendricks’ attention to rich skin-tones, but placed within bold compositions that push the sitter’s face to the forefront.
Whidbee’s paintings exude personality without effort, and capture the nuance of facial features in layers of bold, confident brushstrokes that evoke newfound confidence of teens who took part in the class. Between their air of determination and Whidbee’s mastery of oil paints, it’s enough to make viewers forget the portraits are painted on discarded cardboard.
“How do you see cardboard?” Whidbee asks. “I wanted to portray students who wanted to make something of themselves, but the school sees them as trash in a way. That’s how society sees you if you come from certain neighborhoods. So I painted all these smiles, pride, and poise on material that many view as ‘nothing.’”