Black artists focus of event at River Raisin Battlefield Center
“We are all artists,” Darin Darby said. “Go and find what your art is because someone is out there looking for it.”
Darby is a self-taught artist, and one of the featured speakers at the “Robert Seldon Duncanson’s Legacy: with Detroit Black Artists” event at the River Raisin National Battlefield Park Visitor Center Saturday.
The Robert Seldon Duncanson Society hosted a lively and energetic evening celebrating Black artists of history and today. The event, part of a series of events being held throughout February to honor Black History Month, was a well-attended event that boasted a packed theater and many artists.
Dr. Kojo Quartey, President of the Monroe County Community College, emceed the program. He began the presentation by honoring the late Robert S. Duncanson, an artist who lived in Monroe and was famous for his landscapes and beautiful imagery.
“Robert Seldon Duncanson was the best landscape artist in the country,” Dr. Quartey said.
Patrick Barley took a few moments to give a brief biography of Duncanson, his connection to Monroe County, and his entrance and influence on the art world.
Duncanson, born circa 1821, moved to Monroe as a child. When he got older, he moved to Cincinnati to pursue art but struggled in large part because he was black. Rather than quit amid struggles, Duncanson self-taught and proved that he deserved a place in art history. In addition to being the first professional artist (of any color) to hold a one-man art show, he also has pieces featured in the Smithsonian Art Museum and inside the White House.
“When you stand in front of it [Duncanson’s paintings] you could stay there a long time,” Barley said. “There’s incredible detail. He would spend 18 months on a single painting.”
In addition to the program of the night, there was an exhibition featuring several Black artists from Detroit and surrounding areas. The exhibition will remain displayed throughout the month of February, and give visitors the opportunity to experience the rich and detailed pieces up close and in person.
The influence Duncanson had on artists is undeniable, and Dora Kelley wanted to ensure that his legacy would never be forgotten. In 2019, Kelley worked with the Duncanson Society, in Monroe and the Detroit Fine Arts Breakfast Club to locate and mark Duncanson’s previously unknown grave in the Woodland Cemetery.
In her presentation, Kelley discussed her efforts to find the grave and the excitement in the art community when it was discovered. The Breakfast Club hosted an art auction to raise funds for the marker designed by LeClair Monuments, and the Detroit Institute of Art displayed the marker among his paintings for months before it was permanently installed at his gravesite.
Henry Harper, founder of the Breakfast Club, began the group with the idea of helping artists learn how to market and sell their work. He coined the term ‘artrepreneurs’ for this purpose.
“We encourage artists to get out there and practice what they do,” Harper said.
“Education is not just for the sake of education, and art is the same.” Dr. Quartey observed. “Hopefully the artists will go out and transform the community.”
One of the keynote speakers of the program, Walter Bailey, spoke about his experience in the art world and what the difference is between being an artist and being a Black artist.
From a very young age, Bailey was encouraged by his teachers and family to pursue art. His first passion was landscapes and seascapes, and that was his primary focus and inspiration. As an adult in the 1960’s, he came across a book about the KKK. He claims that as the reason he transitioned from an artist to a Black artist.
“That book changed everything,” Bailey said. “These are the experiences that shape your mind and set you on the right road.”
Bailey is an acrylic artist and credits years of practice and patience to his skills and success today. It is important to him that he uses his personal experiences as influence in his art. After transitioning from nature, Bailey focused on the Black artist inside.
“I painted afros…red, black, and green,” he said.
Darin Darby, the final speaker of the night, said the purpose of his art is to express love and create meaningful conversations. Similar to Duncanson, Darby is a self-taught artist. Darby’s focus is in using layers of paper, wood, and other materials to make detailed pieces that oftentimes credit the unsung heroes of history.
Darby was recently commissioned by the Henry Ford Health System to create a series in honor of the medical workers that have stood at the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic for the last two years.
One of the many people who attended the event was Aurora Reynolds, President of the Art Club at Monroe County Community College. In the past, she has attended the Plein Art Paint-Outs with the Duncanson Society, and hopes to attend more of their events in the future.
“The event tonight was absolutely lovely,” Reynolds said. “I’m glad I could make it and that we have this in Monroe. Hopefully I can use some ideas from tonight for future art shows at the college.”
The exhibition will be on display and open to the public until Feb, 28 at the River Raisin National Battlefield Park Visitor Center. The center is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Katie Tibai is a contributor to The Monroe News.