“Willie Birch: Transforming Identities”

WILLIE BIRCH: Transforming Identities

By Kalamu Ya Salaam  

The journey began when a precocious child talent was recognized by “my junior high teacher, Mrs. Maxine Daniels, who took her father’s insurance money and created an art school for talented kids at the YMCA. My mother was against it at first. She had heard about Van Gogh and didn’t want me to end up like Van Gogh. Mrs. Daniels came to my house and told my mother that I was going to be an artist. Mrs. Daniels and my mama went to war. I look at Mrs. Daniels as my mother today because of that.”

Fortunately for the world, Willie Birch’s second mother was not reticent about saying or doing whatever was necessary to teach and inspire him. Before graduating from high school, Willie Birch was painting pictures and, with the assistance of a high school friend, selling the paintings to members of his family, church and community.

Willie Birch attended Southern University in Baton Rouge, and after meeting Professor Jack Jordan, transferred to Southern University in New Orleans. At SUNO Birch came under the influence of Oretha Castle Haley. “That’s how I got involved in the Civil Rights movement. Oretha was the first person to tell me about the role of the artist in the revolution. She said, ‘Do you know, Willie, that in other cultures, people who are writers and visual artist are fighters and sometimes die?'”

Willie took up the cause. “I got in trouble with my mother because we got arrested a couple of times with the picketing and the sitting in. I was creating problems for my mother on her job. My mother was a cook for one of the commissioners of New Orleans in Mayor Delesseps Morrison’s cabinet. They were putting pressure on her to control me. Eventually my mother became frustrated with the police outside my door. My mother gave me an ultimatum-I guess she thought she was trying to save me. So anyway, she ended up putting me out. I slept one night at my sister’s and looked up and said to myself, you got to do something. It was February 1962. I knew I was going to be drafted, so I took the test for the Air Force.

“I was sent to Holland for three years. That was the first time in my life I was exposed to real paintings on the wall. At that time we couldn’t go to the New Orleans Museum because it was segregated. But in terms of looking at art and beginning to understand the power of painting, I had an incredible experience in Holland. I spent so much time in the museums in Amsterdam, with the Rembrandts, the Van Goghs, the Vermeers.”

After the Air Force and his autodidact investigations of early western art, Willie Birch returned to school at SUNO. “When I came back, I probably was more advanced than most people in that area. At SUNO there was an instructor named Arthur Britt, and he introduced me to contemporary abstract art. Britt was splashing paint on canvas. I was lost. But to show you his genius, there was this Atlanta art show they had. Jack Jordan used to win every year with his carvings and sculptures. Anyway, Mr. Britt did this found object piece. It was about the Birmingham bombing. It won first prize. That forced me to rethink the whole process of what was art. I started hanging out with Mr. Britt. We called him ‘crazy man,’ but he was incredible. He was daring.”

Mrs. Daniels started Birch running and Mr. Britt gave him wings. “Britt forced us to think about the intellectual aspect of the creative process in the 20th-century context using Blackness as our base. I remember as a junior at SUNO I won an art contest in Atlanta, but I remember Mr. Jordan coming back and telling me that everybody was raving about what I had done. I found out that I had been grounded in something that was real. I realized that we had something that was very unique about us.

“I went to graduate school at the Maryland Institute of Art where I got my MFA. I was influenced very much by Morris Lewis and Kenneth Nolan. There was a style called the Washington Color School. I kept trying to figure out what made this acceptable and my stuff wasn’t. So, what I started doing was taking a map of Africa, I’d draw a big map and then I would use color fields, ‘all over painting,’ so that you barely could see the map but you would see big spacious color fields. They became accepted and the reason why they became accepted is that they were good paintings in the tradition of color field paintings. But also it was because they didn’t offend; they didn’t threaten.