Luther E. Vann (1937-2016) was an artist born in the American southern city of Savannah, Georgia, but who enjoyed the benefits of learning his craft from artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance in New York City. Among his well-known instructors and mentors were Charles Alston and Romare Bearden. A number of indirect influences involved much more, including the music of jazz and various philosophical thinkers. Below is the second article in a 3-part series on Vann, creative inspiration, and histories of erasure. It is presented here in honor of the artist’s unique connection to the Harlem Renaissance and the amazing body of work produced over the course of full productive life:
In his introduction to section two of Luther E. Vann’s Elemental the Power of Illuminated Love, contributing writer Bill Dawers makes this statement:
“Even those already familiar with Luther’s work are likely to find the images collected here startling. (Doubly startling, I imagine, since so many of the works are still in the collection or the artist.) Certain thematic and structural elements are visible across the decades––the presence of the spirits, the grids, the convergence of multiple realities, the exploration of human interaction in public spaces.”
In the decades following his move back to Georgia, the month of May became one in which Vann’s life and career saw numerous milestones. It was May 1991, and again in 1994, that the city of Savannah’s Beach Institute hosted critically acclaimed exhibits by him. Although the historic Elemental show opened at the Jepson Center for the Arts in April 2008, the book launch occurred May 29.
Moreover, the legendary Barn Studio and Gallery show took place May 24, 2014. It would seem appropriate enough, then, to consider at this time the implications of the work that remains.
Visionary Artists and Thinkers
The synthesis of Vann’s cultural, spiritual, and philosophical perspectives within his paintings and sculpture––what Dawers referred as certain thematic and structural elements–– make him something of an anomaly in African-American art. He eschewed what could have been, for him, the easier path of producing––or, more accurately, re-producing–– popular images cast in a Southern motif.
He chose instead to make visual statements aligned with the observations of visionary artists and thinkers with whom he felt a kind of metaphysical kinship. Influences like Italy’s 15th-century Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci, Spain’s 16th-century Renaissance painter El Greco, and African America’s 20th-century Harlem Renaissance talent Beauford Delaney probably would not surprise many people. Certain others might.
Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing
British author Doris Lessing’s novel, The Golden Notebook, was one of Vann’s favorite reads. He easily related to what it portrayed about a creative individual’s attempt to bring intellectual order to the fragmented landscape of her inner being by working with a collection of four notebooks to produce one definitive Golden Notebook. Those who might question such a link between Nobel Prize for Literature winner Lessing and Georgia Arts Festival winner Vann need only do two things: first read The Golden Notebook, and then study different images in Elemental, the Power of Illuminated Love.
Just as Lessing’s character Anna Wulf drew on different aspects of her imploding biography to compose a more wholistic representation of herself, Vann fused personal spiritual meditations with more objective public observations to paint his evolving theories on humanity as “One.” This oneness was organic in the sense that our physical activities inevitably impact each other’s lives and our spiritual dispositions, or the lack of such, color the nature of our relationships.
The concept of conscious unity is important to the artist because these intertwining dynamics (what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called “an inescapable network of mutuality”) occur quite paradoxically within a universe that is actually a multiverse. While Doris Lessing’s novel may be described as an innovative work of feminist fiction, it contains numerous passages descriptive of experiences in Vann’s life and the place art occupied within it. Moreover, in Lessing’s introduction to the 1971 edition of the novel, she discusses how opposing characters reconcile their different perspectives:
“…They have also reflected each other, been aspects of each other, given birth to each other’s thoughts and behavior––are each other, form wholes. In the inner Golden Notebook, things have come together, the divisions have broken down, there is formlessness with the end of fragmentation––the triumph of the second theme, which is that of unity...”
Lessing’s aesthetic declaration could be applied to many of Vann’s masterful works, such as “The Widow Remembers” or “For the Love of the Poet,” and prompt the viewer to discover how dominant and sub-narratives flow in and out of each other on their way toward wholeness. The freedom allowed by such a strategy could produce what Lessing referred to as “delicious intoxication” leading to “the recklessness of infinite possibility.”
For Luther E. Vann, Infinite possibility meant painting outside the lines of aesthetic and cultural assumptions. Even as he relished celebrating his adored African-American community on Millen Street in West Savannah, when it came to making some of his more profound statements either on canvas or off it, he reached so far beyond his earthbound surroundings that commentators often referred to him as a visionary.
Carl Jung and More Benevolent Consciousness
From the Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung’s mapping of the human psyche the artist extracted an operational template which influenced the language he committed to paintings. You could say it helped him both to literally paint his place in the world at a given time, and to shape the purposes that defined his life as they unfolded throughout adulthood.
Jung’s teachings allowed him to view and embrace human beings beyond categories defined by racial, political, or social constructions. In Vann’s multiverse, whether lost in shadows or made radiant by grace, all living souls are on a mission to manifest and serve a self-contained, higher, and more benevolent, consciousness.
NEXT: The Jazz Factor: Chronicling legacies of black artists in Savannah (3 of 3)
Author of The American Poet Who Went Home Again
co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
Kinamore: What purpose do you hope a book of this caliber will serve in the context of contemporary issues we face?
Aberjhani: Readers of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance should recognize that many of the issues identified in the 1920s and 1930s are still issues now. Racism is a reality today just as it was a reality back then. The question of the degree to which Blacks control their economic, political, social, and spiritual destinies around the world was relevant back then and is relevant now. The validity that society affords art and the value that society does or does not place upon the lives of creative artists working in any given medium was very much an issue during the renaissance and is very much an issue now.
Doubts and concerns regarding leadership were voiced back then and are concerns right now. I would therefore hope that Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance encourages people to, first of all, confront whatever issues they are facing in their lives with honesty and then to establish some form of public dialogue, if needed, regarding the issues. I would hope this book would inspire them to establish creative solutions to the various challenges in their lives.
Aberjhani (cont.): As much as we already know about the Harlem Renaissance, we are still discovering it and likely will be discovering it for some time. Names and events that were previously overlooked are surfacing every day. And it’s important for us to heed that fact because what W. E. B. Du Bois and Arthur [Arturo] Schomburg pointed out in the last century remains true; namely, that much of what we refer to as Black American history is, in fact, the history of the United States. With that in mind, this first edition of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance should be considered one step toward that greater discovery.
West: It is so important for our people to see, through books like the Encyclopedia, that history repeats itself but, as ever-evolving resourceful human beings, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to challenge and to change. It is also a delight to re-read and be able to re-enforce through this book, as Hughes wrote in his essay The Negro and the Racial Mountain, that “... we are beautiful and ugly too.” Honesty is empowering. One of the mandates of the New Negro Movement was to “uplift the race.” I know that the book does its job to uplift. I just hope, now, that the people who read it feel the power.
Complete List of Titles in the
Supporter of principles advocated by PEN American Center and the Academy of American Poets, Aberjhani is also the Choice Academic Title Award-winning co-author of the world's first Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.