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Carved From Civil Rights Movement, Joseph Pearson Still Wields Paintbrush As Weapon

Matt Peiken | BPR News

Even in his early days making paintings, Joseph Pearson understood there was no place in and around Gulfport, Miss., for Black artists.

“There were no artists that I knew in the neighborhood who were doing anything,” Pearson recalled. “If there were, of course, they would have been white artists and we wouldn’t have had contact because of segregation.”

Pearson emerged from the 1960s of the Deep South with two compulsions: Learn from Black artists and make paintings addressing racial injustice.

“Every book I could get my hands on, I’d look for artists who primarily looked like me,” he said.

After training his hand by mimicking fashion illustrations in the Sears-Roebuck catalog, Pearson discovered expression through revered if unheralded Black artists such as Charles White and Hughie Lee-Smith, along with the photography of Gordon Parks. Inspired by photos in Life Magazine, Pearson painted images addressing America’s war in Vietnam.

“My knowledge, one, came from reading about these artists, especially the artists of the WPA, most of whom were social realists,” Pearson said. “That is, they believed in using the power of art to effect social change … I saw a parallel between what was going on when I was growing up. I wanted to use my art the way they used theirs, to try and make a difference.”

Pearson moved from New Orleans to Asheville in 2015—his wife is from this city— and today, at age 74, he’s still prolific. He’s contributed work to 15 solo and group shows and murals locally since moving to Asheville. A wide body of recent paintings is on view through March 12 at Upstairs Artspace in Tryon.

Pearson’s next project is an ambitious one. “Women of Distinction” is an homage to Pearson’s last living aunt. The exhibition opens March 20 at Delta House in Asheville and moves to other venues well into the summer.

It’s a stark contrast, Pearson said, from his experiences a half-century earlier along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.

“When I was looking into galleries, I found that galleries weren’t particularly looking at me,” he said. “Owing to the nature of my work—social/political—they didn’t quite fit into what they felt would sell, and eventually I just came to the conclusion ‘forget galleries.’”

In Mississippi and later in New Orleans, Pearson painted murals from public art commissions and created art programs for women’s shelters and after-school initiatives. His own studio practice, though, languished until a visit from an artist friend.

“He took a quick look around, less than a minute, and then he says, ‘Where are you?’ I knew exactly what he meant. It was all superficial crap. I did it just to try to make money and none of it sold.” Pearson recalled. “That really hit home and I decided I’m not doing that. I paint my heart. I paint what means something to me.”

Pearson’s paintings aren’t revolutionary fireballs. Rather, they’re quiet, intimate portraits of daily life in Black America. They often spotlight a single figure against backdrops of hyper-real color, dotted with symbolism, reflecting both despair and resilience.

“The passion is still pretty much the same. The vision is still the same, that is, using art as an effort to effect change, to make a difference, to voice my opinion, to be a voice for the voiceless,” he said. “Some folks say art imitates life. I say there’s no separation. Art is life.”


Matt Peiken was BPR’s first full-time arts journalist.
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