Tuesday, July 5, 2011


Whenever I count the blessings in my life I always make sure to include the fact that I had the pleasure and privilege of knowing Jacob Lawrence, one of the greatest American artists of our time, and his wife Gwendolyn Knight, an equally outstanding painter. He arrived at the University of Washington in the early 1970s, just a few years before I was hired. Jacob and Gwen were two of the most gentle, immensely talented, unpretentious, down-to-earth, and beautiful artists I've ever known (along with Seattle artist Barbara Thomas, a former student of Jacob, who is now executive director of the Northwest African American Museum; one of her paintings is proudly displayed in my home). Just being in their presence would make you smile. They would make you happy and thankful that two such luminous human beings walked and mingled among us.

     I have fond memories of a night in the 1990s when Elliot Bay Book Company's Rick Simonson and Barbara Thomas invited August Wilson, me, Jacob Lawrence, our wives and one other couple over to their house for dinner. Our dialogue that night was vigorous, free-wheeling, alive, with the evening melting away so quickly we were surprised to see 11 PM arrive. As we gathered up our coats to leave, Gwen said, "That was a lovely seminar." Jacob agreed, adding that he felt it was "excellent."

 On another occasion, the University Book Store hosted an event by Willa Shalit to promote her book Life Cast: Behind the Mask (Beyond Words Publishing, Inc., 1992). She has made "life casts" of the faces of Richard Nixon, Muhammad Ali, Richard Burton, Federico Fellini, Sophia Loren, Paul Newman, Sammy Davis, Jr., Marcel Marceau, Louise Nevelson, Isaac Stern, Whoopi Goldberg, Rosa Parks, Ronald Reagan, Robin Williams, Jimmy Carter, Stevie Wonder, Alvin Ailey, Clint Eastwood, the Dalai Lama, Branford Marsalis, Wynton Marsalis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Amy Tan, Ted Turner, Dizzy Gillespie, and many others.
That evening Ms. Shalit made a life cast of the faces of first Jacob (his face was already covered with alginate gel when I arrived), then me before an audience. Some months later, she sent me the finished life casts for myself and Jacob, which I dutifully and immediately took to his apartment. My life cast hangs on the wall here in my study---an uncanny three-dimensional mold of my face (didn't we once call these "death masks"?) that gives me an idea of what I will look like, eyes closed, in my coffin. (Actually not, though. My plan is to be cremated, with my ashes strewn by plane over the Pacific Ocean.) I have no idea what happened to Jacob's life cast.
 Given our admiration for Jacob Lawrence, it was natural, then, for writer John McCluskey Jr., and I to contact Francine Seders Gallery in Seattle to arrange for his artwork to appear as the introduction for each of the essays in the book we co-authored in 1997, Black Men Speaking. As fine as the work is by so many of our writers, that book would have been poorer without examples of the visual imagination of Jacob Lawrence.

1 comment:

  1. Dearest Charles,
    I well remember that evening with you, Jacob, Gwen and all whom you've mentioned. I biggest worry was how I could even think of having seven or eight people to dinner given I'm no cook. Lordy! My worries were groundless. You and August took the floor and and all sense of time was lost. I haven't since seen or heard such robust, sincere engagement. Rick was in high form providing reference material to prove or disprove one of your points. There are no pictures just memories. Thank you, thank you