“All Roads Lead Home: Exploring the Artwork of Willie Birch”, Baltimore City Paper

All Roads Lead Home

Exploring the Artwork of Willie Birch


Photo courtesy of Contemporary Arts Center

When you ask Willie Melvin Birch, “How did you get here?,” you want to ask him in every sense: how did he get here, as well as how did he get here. The Maryland Institute College of Art alumnus journeyed a curiously circular road to being a fall 2006 artist-in-residence at his alma mater with two showcase exhibitions. He has traveled far and wide, but he has always returned to the places that are home. He returns to MICA more than 30 years after his graduation for his retrospective and post-Katrina-focused exhibit, Celebrating Freedom: The Art of Willie Birch and Willie Birch: Exodus, Revelation, and Reality, just as he has always returned to his beloved hometown of New Orleans during key points during his career.

Birch is seated in the very center of his temporary Baltimore studio space, clad in overalls, lovingly doing restorative work on one of his signature papier-mâché sculptures. He carefully places it down when I enter the room and rises to greet me. His smooth, unlined dark brown face offers no hint of his 63 years. Behind wire-rimmed glasses his deep-set eyes are round and wide, almost like a child”s. He is a slim man with an expressive face, and his smile is wide and welcoming. Still preparing for the opening of his exhibits, colorful, powerful artworks line the room, and the status quo-challenging spirit that fueled his days in the civil-rights movement is evident in every one.

Born Nov. 26, 1942, this child from the projects had a talent for drawing that was noticed early. At age 11 “a rich black lady created an art program for me and nine other kids,” he recalls. He attended Southern University and became a member of the Congress of Racial Equality. Birch participated in sit-ins and demonstrations, and had some run-ins with those opposed to the movement. After earning his bachelor”s degree, he enrolled at MICA, studied general fine arts, and graduated in 1973. His artistic journey traveled through “just about every medium, trying to find my own voice,” he says. He settled in New York after graduating, pursuing woodcarving and painting, but due to health concerns–wood dust, etc.–he wanted to find another medium. A trip back to New Orleans in 1984 caused him to discover an unlikely direction to take.

“I”m walking around the French Quarter [and] went into the St. Louis Cathedral,” Birch remembers. “And there was this incredible crucifix. I walked over to it, and it said papier-mâché. It was 15th century–that”s where the transition began [for my work].

“I was ready to go back to New York. I began to apply everything I knew to paper–because it”s paper you can play with it like it”s clay. I went to Puerto Rico and studied papier-mâché under mask makers there. I studied techniques from China, Spain, Guatemala, Mexico, any place where people were doing papier-mâché seriously. And New Orleans is a serious papier-mâché town.”

A trip to Egypt signaled to him that he was on the right path. “I saw the papyrus stuff, and I realized paper had been around and survived for 5,000 years,” Birch says. “So this idea of something that was not durable, something that had no value, became very important. It became part of the metaphor for what I wanted to create.”

Papier-mâché”s status as an insignificant, lowly medium in terms of serious art was now a part of Birch”s ongoing challenge of social constructions about who/what is held in high regard and who/what is not. The medium itself became as much a social commentary as his subject matter. “Here I was this formally trained artist who was doing these little crazy-looking figures,” Birch says. “But the nature of the creative process in terms of America is about being inventive, so it brought enough notice to where people had to pay me some attention.”

It garnered enough attention that his work created a nexus challenging what is considered of value–whether it be materials, objects, or people. “We like to think of metal, stone, wood [as valuable],” he says. “And here I was questioning all of this idea of what was precious, particularly as I saw America.” And to Birch”s mind, life and the world itself eventually revealed who and what this country values. “I like to believe that 9/11 and Katrina validated all that I was trying to say.

“I”m just a facilitator to let these things evolve from wherever they evolve,” he continues. “The idea to me was that if it fit into your survival, and you thought it was important enough in terms of recording or documenting something that you thought was important in your development as a human being, then somehow it”s incumbent upon you if you have the means to make sure that thing survives.”

His conviction was validated when the Metropolitan Museum of Art first purchased several pieces in 1993, and to some art-world denizen it was as if Birch had tricked the contemporary art world into believing his papier-mâché work was important. Birch admits to being a jokester–but never without purpose.

“I”m always playing with you,” he laughs. “I”ve been challenging the whole idea of high and low all my life, once I began to understand what this art-making means to me. Creating art is therapy. This is just my vehicle to say what I want to say and also have fun at what I do.

“I figured it would take a long time for my ideas to take fruition, because I use Egypt and Africa as my base, not European art,” he continues. “The idea that I am messing with the paradigm immediately set me apart from most of my peers. But my training tells me in the end that if you have a very good formal education and you can apply technically what you need to what you”re trying to do, [your art] will get its shot.”

He put papier-mâché aside for a time during the mid-”90s while on a Guggenheim Fellowship and traveling between New York and New Orleans doing huge drawings depicting life in his hometown. Some of these pieces are on display at MICA, and they crackle with palpable energy–you experience them with all your senses, feeling the life force move through them. “The beauty of being in New Orleans is you don”t differentiate too far between life and death,” Birch says. “They both have equal play. When a person dies we rejoice. When a child is born we cry, because they”re coming into this strange place.

“Given the context of New Orleans in terms of life and death, there is something about creating art that allows me to put things in perspective. One of my definitions for creating art is we take chaos and create art out of it. So we”re making sense out of the reality of our existence.”

Creating these works motivated Birch to move back to his home city. The recurring theme of returning home resurfaces–coming back to Baltimore yet another example. “I was asked to do a show” at MICA, Birch says. “And they don”t bring too many artists in–especially African-American artists. Then when [MICA exhibitions director] Gerald Ross saw slides of the work, he became enthusiastic. He suggested I do a two-gallery show, and the two-gallery show turned into a residency.”

The works around the room wait to take their places in the galleries, and I find my eyes continually drawn to a spirit figure of hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur atop a long cylinder-shaped object. Birch says he witnessed the sadness many young women and men felt at Shakur”s death and set out to find out more about him. After doing so, he created this tribute. Birch explains that the cylinder object represents a West African rhythm pounder. “When somebody dies, the ladies walk and they just pound the earth with this object rhythmically, to welcome this spirit into the next life,” he says. “On some levels Tupac seemed like he was tormented, so as an elder this was my way of giving this brother my concept of what he was due and helping his spirit find rest in a better place.”

Another sculpture, “Twins,” features two figures closely huddled together, hovering over each other. Birch was returning to New Orleans from New York as Hurricane Katrina approached, and ended up in Mississippi as it struck. “I remember looking at television at the convention center, there were all these mothers hovering over these babies, and people really trying to protect and hold onto each other,” he says. “That kind of aura, that same kind of isolation, that same kind of feeling of abandonment I wanted to evoke with this type of exhibition. So they [“Twins”] were perfect.”

Birch leads me into a larger adjoining studio and leaves me with his art–to “deal with it on my own,” he says with a smile. I have a thousand quiet epiphanies as I admire what he”s done with his life–it surrounds you and whispers to you. His gift for creative social commentary–for interpreting his experiences and, in doing so, interpreting the experiences of others–has created a force as powerful as any hurricane.

And Birch knows it. “I enjoy life,” he says. “I don”t think all of this stuff is just going to disappear by itself. Hopefully in my short time on this earth I have made a contribution. I”ve left enough here so that my grandchildren and other children get the sense that this experience does have meaning, and that life is a precious moment. ”

Then, for a moment, Birch the irreverent joker joins the sage artist. “The fact that this crazy old man makes these little figures and some people pay mucho dinero for them–and some of them do–is a joke,” he says. “But who determines whether or not Tupac is someone we should do a piece on? Who defines you for you? Who defines what is valuable to you?”