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
This post was originally published as part 3 of the article series 3 Poems for Poem in Your Pocket Day 2013:
Jazz and poetry have been close cousins in creativity ever since the music provided the classic soundtrack for the prohibition era of “the roaring 1920s.” It is therefore appropriate that both Jazz Appreciation Month and National Poetry Month are celebrated during April. It also makes a jazz poem (see below) the most suitable for the third Poem in Your Pocket Day title featured in this series.
Readers acquainted with the definitive 1925 Harlem Renaissance anthology titled The New Negro, edited by Alain Locke, are familiar with its inclusion of Langston Hughes’ jazz-influenced poems, “Jazzonia” and “Nude Young Dancer.” Those titles arguably marked the debut of what is now known as jazz poetry (sometimes referred to as “jazzoetry”) and additional works published in Hughes’ The Weary Blues in 1926 further established the genre. The relationship between jazz and poetry grew even stronger during the Beat Movement of the 1950s and the Black Arts Movement in the decades that followed. It remains strong in modern times.
For the Love of Jazz
One reason April was elected Jazz Appreciation Month––and subsequently April 30 tagged as International Jazz Day––is because it is the birth month of numerous jazz musicians. These include, just to name a few: the great Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Alberta Hunter, Herbie Hancock, Hugh Masekela, Carmen McRae, and Ella Fitzgerald.
Often referred to as “the First Lady of Song,” Fitzgerald recorded more than 200 acclaimed albums, including her celebrated American Songbook collections. The third poem for this special Poem in Your Pocket series, “Jazz Harlem Renaissance Babydoll,” is a tribute to the musical artistry of the singer and that of other women whose talents helped to make jazz the great world treasure it is today. It is from the manuscript for Collected Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black:
JAZZ HARLEM RENAISSANCE BABYDOLL
Jazz Harlem Renaissance Babydoll
does the music mold your face
like a mask of mink desires
and rainbow butterfly wings
or does your face
shield the heated heart of the music
when your lips diddly-be-bop-sweet
like Ella Fitzgerald swing-singing
back-up and up-front, catching
God’s Coltranic future love supreme
as if making it up yourself?
Jazz Harlem Renaissance Babydoll
I saw your favorite saxophone strip you
naked. And what was love gonna do
except beg to lick those crazy solos
straight off your throat. I saw you
twirl A-flats like swords
on the tip of the tongue of your tears
until E refused to equal MC squared
and Einstein’s gorgeous silver afro
crackled “Blow your soul-horn Jazz Babydoll
and don’t you take jive for no answer!
Said swing that horn and take not jive for thine answer!”
Jazz Harlem Renaissance Babydoll
you inhaled seven known planets
and out of your creation came
four billion heavens.
Each time you exhale a star
I recall a previous life
and I comprehend flawlessly
the trigonometric bolts of rhythm
that shoot from your hips to your lips.
Shall we do the be-bop Lindy-hop waltz
and dance Josephine Baker
laughing out of her grave?
Let’s do the be-bop Lindy-hop waltz
and give all these poets something to rhyme about.
author of The River of Winged Dreams
and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
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.