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Portraits are about far more than pencil or paint.
But for most of our nation’s history, Black Americans were denied that public honor.
Now, with a collection of 145 portraits of America’s iconic and unsung Black heroes — one artist is setting out to change that.
Today, On Point: Painting Black Americans back onto our nation’s canvas.
George McCalman, artist, graphic designer, and creative director. Author, illustrator and designer of Illustrated Black History: Honoring the Iconic and the Unseen. (@mccalmanco)
Liz Andrews, executive director of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art. Co-curator of the exhibition Black American Portraits at the LA County Museum of Art, which will tour the country starting this February. (@mizlizthebizwiz)
On the process of creating ‘Illustrated Black History’
George McCalman: “The making of the art of this book was just pure magic the entire time. It was a very, I’ve called it in my internal life, a very spiritual experience of communing with these pioneers, most of whom have passed. But there are several that are with us now. And I’m also the writer of the book, and the designer of the book. So it was a really all-consuming process.
“And the art basically took me through the entire thing, I made the entire book in four years. And it just became this mission. I was dogged. I just did not let it go. It was my full time job the entire time. And communing, making the art, sitting with the subjects, getting to know their accomplishments, their hardships, their challenges, their essences, that carried me through this entire experience.”
On how he chose the subjects of this book
George McCalman: “As I was making my list initially, I had close to 500 names. And it was overwhelming at first to think about how I was going to pare it down. And my publisher basically said, you decide. This is your book. You should decide on that. And it was a very difficult process at first, but it became easier because it was a really organic, emotional process. I kept looking at the people whose stories I was drawn to, whether they were well known or whether the audience would be learning about them for the first time.
“There was something in their telling, in their hardships, in their joys and pains, their accomplishments that I wanted to reveal, I wanted to dig into. And so it became just a very emotional and intuitive process. You know, this book reveals some of my own internal biases. This book has more women than men. There are quite a few more artists than another person would have selected. But what I wanted to say, it was part of my personal philosophy in the making of this book that artists play a really important role in defining culture wherever they are.
“And in American culture in particular, Black Americans have contributed a disproportionate amount of what defines American culture. And so I wanted to show my awareness of that, also the range of vocations and backgrounds in this book is astonishing. It is in every possible field. But I kept coming back to what is it about this person that I want other people to know about?”
On the importance of reflecting Black Americans in portraiture
George McCalman: “That is a really beautiful question, because I thought about it. I thought about it every day in the making of this book. This book is notable for a few different reasons, but one of the most interesting things about this is that every portrait in the book is rendered in a completely different style. And this book might look, if you didn’t know it, it might look like there are 17 different artists who have made this.
“And in doing that, I was assigning an individuality to each person. I was saying that basically no two accomplishments are alike, and that I was trying to render the emotional aspect of the subject on the page. I want you to feel something as you’re looking at them. And Black portraiture in Black art is a really huge form of that. We are always telling our stories and we’re always telling each other’s stories. And portraiture and the eyes and expression and personality are really, really important in Black art, of assigning and defining our perspective on the world.”
On future books illustrating the Black experience
George McCalman: “I don’t want this book to be the only one of its kind. I hope that this is the start of many other books championing the pioneers of American culture through different perspectives. There is so much room there. This is still so much uncharted territory. The other reason that I wanted to do this book is that I have seen every February the commodification of Black History Month, and it’s usually the same 5 to 10 people in the form of quotes, in the form of uplifting quotes, that doesn’t really show the under layer of their accomplishments or the impact of their accomplishments.
“And what I wanted to show is that there is an ocean, an absolute ocean underneath that iceberg that you can see on the surface. That there are so many stories … and people who impact the layering, the strata of our everyday existence, that everyone should know about. I want this book to be in every home in America because I feel like it is absolutely necessary for more people to know about this.”
Images from “Illustrated Black History” by George McCalman
Excerpted from Illustrated Black History: Honoring the Iconic and the Unseen by George McCalman. Reprinted with permission from HarperOne/HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2022.
George McCalman reflects on his portrait of James Baldwin:
“With James Baldwin, I have what’s called a diptych. There are two portraits of him, at two different periods of his life. And I showed him as a younger man, and I showed him a little bit older. And what I wanted to show was his complexity and the fact that Baldwin is lauded as one of our greatest American writers.
“But one of the theories that I have had is part of the reason that he has been so adept at speaking to the American experience is because he was gay. And that is rarely discussed as one of his superpowers. And I actually think that it is one of his superpowers. He was able to sit in the complexity of what it meant to be Black, of what it meant to be gay and basically shunned by both communities.
“And he, in his writings, showed a deep love and reverence for all of what it makes us as Americans. And I wanted to really reveal that this man had so many different personalities and so many different personas. He was funny and he was gregarious, but … also he had one of the most lucid perspectives on what it means to be a Black American in this country.”
Black Lives Matter
George McCalman reflects on his portrait of the founders of Black Lives Matter:
“I live in a part of the world where a lot of American movements, a lot of progressive American movements start. And so, you know, honoring the women who created Black Lives Matter, it was a no brainer for me. I know the power locally of what they have created. But I also wanted to show globally what they have created in the last couple of years, especially around the the epicenter of the murder of George Floyd.
“The rallying call of Black Lives Matter took hold and spread across the country and across the planet. And, you know, to know that these Oakland women created a rallying cry for what is still a basic and fundamental task. It’s a really simple thing, but that it is still resonating with so many people, and has created a movement. Has created a movement that has just spread, that is in the fabric of everyday life now, is astonishing. And I just wanted to give them, to show how much their stewardship has created.”
The 54th Massachusetts regiment
George McCalman reflects on his portrait of the 54th Massachusetts regiment:
“There were many different points in history that I could have focused on the military. But what I wanted to focus on was the original. Just thematically focusing on the civil war would allow me to dedicate how tirelessly Black Americans have fought for the freedoms in this country. And I really wanted to show it.
“And as you can see, it takes up the entire spread that it is on. I really wanted to dedicate and show that it wasn’t just a few. That there was a volume. That there were so many Black Americans who have fought and died for the values that we take for granted in this country. And I really wanted to shine a spotlight on that.”