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The Matter of Black Lives for Jon Lockard

The breadth of black power motivated the rich and exemplary career of the artist Jon Onye Lockard, in Detroit and Ann Arbor, Michigan. His career included support from local business, universities and community colleges, and national respect...yet not from Michigan's white art establishment.

Mike Mosher

I. Black Lives

On the occasion of the death of Jon Lockard (1932—2015) in March, I could not help but think about the life of this eminently political artist in the context of ongoing protests against police violence against black people in the United States. Something that evidently has long been going on has been brought to the attention of the white majority in the United States by the vigilance of people with cameras in their pockets immediately filming these police crimes and abuses.

Jon was proud of the name Onye, bestowed upon him by a traditional leader in Africa, which means "traveler". When his travels in the 1960s took him to London, the black man from Detroit asked a London bobby how he could police a busy city without carrying a gun. "What, Sir, and risk the life of a British citizen?" was his reply. Whether or not West Indian or south Asian immigrants there were policed more roughly, it was nevertheless rarely fatal. Now London Metropolitan police carry guns, and the police killing of young Mark Duggan in 2011 sparked significant urban riots; nevertheless, it was January 2015 before the officer in that case was returned to firearms duty.

Jon Lockard died in a year when the bodies of black people, largely but not exclusively men, killed by police piled up and gained public notice. About a year after the "neighborhood watch" vigilante's shooting of teenage Trayvon Martin in Florida, there followed police killings of troubled Milton Hall in Saginaw, cigarette-vendor Eric Garner in New York as he cried "I can't breathe", college-bound Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the homeless man called "Africa" in Los Angeles. Walter Scott was shot in the back in South Carolina after a traffic stop.

Since then we've watched citizen videos of teenage girls in bikinis brutalized by a cop at a pool party, then learned of the death of Sandra Bland following her traffic stop, who like Freddie Gray in Baltimore, died in police custody. There was the weird winter slaying of Aura Rosser in Jon Lockard's own Ann Arbor, Michigan, after Rosser had called police because of a domestic dispute and ended up shot dead in her apartment by the officer who answered her call. I catch myself reciting this litany of horrors, names reminiscent of the list of martyred Saints from whom the sinner requests intercession, at the beginning of the old Catholic Mass in Latin fifty years ago.

I have thought about Lockard, his visual activism spurred by injustice. How he might generate a response to the wave of (or perhaps, at long last, public scrutiny of) police killings of African Americans. Though not shot by police, in June 2015, nine parishioners were shot in the Charleston A.M.E. church. To those with long memories, it evoked the church bombing that killed four girls in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963; that event helped inspire Lockard’s painting and print of an angry Aunt Jemima, a fist emerging from the box of her patented recipe baking mix.

I have also thought about the materiality of black (and all, but especially black) people in this artist’s artwork. To do so means to also revisit the artistic context in which he worked, and the dominant apolitical (that is, ruling class-affirming) currents he stood firm against. In an era of depoliticized, abstract art, his aesthetic was one of dis-ambiguity: assertively defined African American people represented in full dimensionality, lighted to display dark skin and muscular, sensual form. That materiality runs counter to dominant tendencies in post-WWII American art, still prevalent and only beginning to erode in universities in the 1970s when I was a student forty years ago. I will also veer into discussing artists my own age to give context to the world in which Jon Lockard taught. And recount his exhibit at, and visit to, my own university in 2008.

II. Aesthetic Crimes, Political Ends

Abstract, non-objective (imagery-less) artwork did not begin with the New York School, but its US policy-driven hegemony from the 1950s into the 1970s certainly made it seem so.

During the 1930s there was a rich debate between artists in the United States' Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Federal Arts Program, where Stuart Davis—a card-carrying member of the American Communist Party (CPUSA)—argued lustily with “regionalist” romantic history painters for abstraction's progressive role. Diego Rivera, who had painted in a cubist style while in Europe, and the Mexican muralists all provided a model of populist public painting, and their influence found favor in the US as it embodied post-capitalist solutions to the Depression.

John Berger (in The Success and Failure of Picasso), Serge Guilbaut, newspaper columnist Thomas Braden (who had been recruited by the CIA in the 1950s to support cultural projects) and others have all sufficiently documented the intentional marketing in the postwar US of Abstract Expressionism as a weapon of US foreign policy. A "New York School", of gestural, painterly "pure paintings" was posited as a symbol of the total freedom of the artist in the United States—a freedom to paint unrelated to any social causes or political conditions—became hegemonic in the US, and (with sufficient funding) the ambitious bourgeoisie in allied or non-aligned capitals around the globe. This displaced the influential social realism of the Mexican muralists, flexibly adapted and extended by diverse postwar American figurative painters like Anton Refrigier, Paul Cadmus, George Tooker, Ben Shahan, Peter Blume, Robert Gwathmey and Hiram Williams. Barnett Newman might have made the rare political piece "Lace Curtain for Mayor Daley", in barbed wire after the police riot at the 1968 Democratic convention, but can one look at one of his works today without seeing it as establishment weapon in the Cold War? Did Adolph Gottlieb’s canvases keep hidden Mossadegh's overthrow in Iran, Allende's in Chile? Did Helen Frankenthaler’s gauzy liquid pigments unwittingly fuel the B-52s napalming Vietnam? Regretfully, it still all looks like that to me.

A result of Abstract Expression dominating the New York galleries and museums was de-emphasis of traditional western figurative painting and life drawing techniques in American universities. This de-skilling, however, did not take place in historically black colleges and universities (HBCU), whose faculty was largely shut out of the NY gallery axis to begin with. The 1950s saw the stylistic maturation of Charles White (who, like Rivera, created a body of early work indebted to cubism) and John Biggers, both artists distinguished by their humanism and careful observation of human form. These artists influenced the younger Black Arts Movement artists that came of age in the late 1950s and 1960s, including Jon Lockard.

III. Lil’ White Panthers, Michigan Kids

I’m a white boy, but I can be bad too.

—MC5, improvising upon John Lee Hooker’s song “The Motor City is Burning”, 1968

When I arrived in San Francisco in 1978, I heard that there was a new wave of corporate support for art. Supposedly the only rule was "no nudes or politics". I wondered, what else is worth the effort of making artwork? But let me bring to the discussion the most eminent, and financially successful, Michigan-raised white artist of my generation, also an emigrant to California in his early twenties.

Perhaps the single most savvy and trenchant artwork by Mike Kelley (1954-2012), who grew up in Detroit suburb Westland and received a University of Michigan Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1975, was the complaint for child abuse, an official form, made out to accuse Hans Hoffman, the influential abstract expressionist painter. He blames hegemonic Hoffman for the de-skilling of his Art professors at University of Michigan, a deficiency in traditional painting technique pedagogy the "abuse" he suffered while there. The Abstract Expressionists who influenced a generation of academics in American universities tenured and still prevalent in the early 1970s when Kelley encountered them at Michigan, thus abused students through a failure to transmit methodical representational skills. When Kelley (with his Destroy All Monsters collaborators) wanted large multi-figured panels prepared for an exhibit in the Netherlands that were then exhibited in Detroit in 2003, he hired highly-skilled professional billboard painters in Holland, whose craft he enviously respected.

And regarding Hoffman, I recall my own first visits to the UC Berkeley Art Museum, where the butt-ugly compositions of unmixed out-of-the-tube orange and green rectangles by Hoffman contrasted unfavorably with a virtuoso, swashbuckling 19th century "machine" by Emmauel Leutze of George Washington, on horseback, galloping in to relieve a spineless general of his command.

Mike Kelley and Jon Lockard were oblivious to each other. In a private email correspondence about a decade ago, in answer to my inquiry, Kelley said the political black art that had most impressed him was Emory Douglas' cartoons of porcine police in the Black Panther newspaper, sometimes reprinted in the Ann Arbor Argus and Ann Arbor Sun. Lockard, however, was more vexed by another artist my age, Tyree Guyton of Detroit. Guyton had turned an entire city block full of abandoned houses on Heidelberg Street in his neighborhood into an art installation, to the consternation of his neighbors and city officials, yet appreciated by the city’s art establishment. Berger wrote of the Spaniard Picasso as a “vertical invader” in Paris, celebrated for his untamed wildness; Lockard felt the educated Guyton’s faux-naive style (comparable to his New York contemporary Jean-Michel Basquiat) was disingenuous, and that he garnered press and media attention that should have gone instead to—or been shared with—many other black Detroit artists.

When I visited Jon Lockard at his drawing class (listed as Black Studies, not Art) at Washtenaw Community College in 1980, two years from when I’d last studied with him, his student Jimmy Green asked “Are you going to show Mike the show of black art by white artists?” Incensed, Lockard felt that to call it that reduced and pigeonholed his hardworking students’ work—some European-American ones inspired to address historical themes like racist lynching after encountering it for the first time—that was largely an exhibition of observant life drawing from a model who, that semester, happened to be African-American.

Though honored with a gallery space in the University of Michigan African and African American Studies Department that bears his name (and a memorial symposium there in October, 2015), Jon Lockard was never affiliated with, or acknowledged by, the UM College of Art and Design.

IV. Lockard at Saginaw Valley

There was a fine 2008 retrospective exhibition in the University Art Gallery at Saginaw Valley State University, curated by 1980 University of Michigan Painting MFA David Littell.

The sentimental "All God’s Children", with a benign black Christ-like figure with yin-yang ear labrets, beads encircling his face and surrounded by babies of all races, was visible through the glass facing the central hallway of the Arbury Art building. “The Warrior Then and Now” depicted the Detroit Pistons’ Isiah Thomas juxtaposed with a traditional African ready for battle. “Our King” is a 1995 acrylic with a strong, central portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King, crowned in gold, wearing a Kente-cloth collar. Nearby, a dual-headed ax of Shango and a ring of paperdoll-like figures with placards. “The Blues Singer” has a grand exaggerated neck like the neck of his guitar, a battered brass guitar slide, emitting a red electrocardiogram squiggle of sound, lost in his own music.

The matriarchal grandmother of “A’ma Raise This’n Myself”, strengthened by her chuch (stained glass window) and culture (African fabric) behind her wipes the small child’s tears with a lavender hanky. Nearby, a group of strong depictions of younger women: “The Three Graces”, of African, European and Asian ancestry, effervescent as if bursting from a champagne bottle; “The Queen of Spades”, with big cowrie brooches; “The Queen of Hearts”, a “Nude” in acrylics like polished wood with soft folds on her torso, breasts collapsed under the weight of her arm; “Sonyana” with long strong legs, wide hips, brass rings around her neck. His vibrant, sexual "Life Dance", a dancing woman, muscular and voluptuous, hands and feet lovingly rendered with a lover’s attentiveness. A beautiful face, points of light on her nipples, atop a checkerboard with symbols, patterns and facets of the woman (eyes, lips, pubis, buttocks) in muted tones

Other works drew on Christian Scripture and African American church traditions, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”, “Simon of Cyrene” and “Solomon and Sheba” illustrated with distinctly-muscled or regal black figures, while ornate backgrounds and patterned fabrics adroitly flatten the space. It was in this exhibition that I appreciated Jon Onye Lockard as an Afrocentric Gustave Klimt, akin to the Vienese artist who took his inspiration from Byzantine patterns. Lockard, along with student Lacresha Lincoln, was interviewed by Linda Holoman's "Soul Issue" television show from Delta College's local PBS affiliate, as he spoke to a gathering of students in the Gallery.

It was a fine exhibit of work by a major Michigan artist with a national reputation; a year before, he'd served on the committee traveling internationally to select the sculptor for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington DC. Yet I'm also left feeling that, on one part of his visit, I betrayed my old teacher by inaction. I failed to stir a debate that could have proved the richest experience for a generation of Saginaw Valley art students.

Lockard made an appearance in the evening Painting class, taught by Art Professor Matthew Zivich. Though stricken with a nasty, debilitating winter flu, Lockard came to Saginaw Valley, but was transported around campus in a wheelchair by his son. I knew Lockard was tired after a long day, so I thought I was being respectfully merciful to the ailing old man in the wheelchair by not intervening in the conversation, stirring debate. Lockard asked the Painting students why they wanted to study art. Zivich had no questions of him, stood patiently waiting for the scheduled interruption of his class to end. Yet this was a meeting of Michigan’s two most important history painters in 2008, one for whom history remained central, incessant in its lingering horrors and musty attitudes, the other for whom history is an ironic topic, only one more of the artist's infinite choices. Lockard viewed history as crucial, an explanation of exploitation and its continuation, marked with unforgettable horrors in our nation like racist massacres. And have I mentioned police killings?

In a January 2009 interview with Janet Martineau of the Saginaw News, Zivich said of a painting based on a poster for Sergei Eisenstein's Russian movie of the mutiny on the battleship Potemkin, "The title refers to a ship famous in Socialist history, or is it an icon to a famous movie? Or is it a turn of phrase about a false front as in Potemkin Village? It could be any of those or all of them. If it's an icon to the Soviet system then it can't be a Potemkin Village, can it? If it's a metaphor for a work of art (an illusion) then it's a statement about making art and has nothing to do with a social statement." Linking these interpretations with an “or” instead of an “and”, he presents them as contradicting each other. Yet by enumerating the interpretations, we also intuit that the piece could be all of those things, operate on multiple levels, and that's what makes his artwork interesting.

Zivich chooses images of past wars and its hardware with amused distance, and interweaves them to complicate the picture plane and space the figures inhabit. He chooses his color palettes to highlight the artificiality. Zivich has occasionally based paintings upon Civil War motifs, and at the time of this meeting, Zivich had recently based one upon an 1885 print of the April 12, 1864 Battle of Fort Pillow. At Fort Pillow, surrendering troops who mostly escaped black slaves who had enlisted in the Union Army, were summarily massacred by Confederate Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest, later first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The April 24, 1864 New York Times reported "The blacks and their officers were shot down, bayoneted and put to the sword in cold blood... Out of four hundred negro soldiers only about twenty survive! At least three hundred of them were destroyed after the surrender!" Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs, written nearly two decades later, lament the loss of "upwards of five hundred dead".

I wish Lockard and Zivich had discussed that painting, and the greater purpose of images and art; the only way that would have happened was had I initiated the discussion. Seeing my tall teacher folded into a wheelchair, I now see my deference to Lockard’s temporary infirmity as being patronizing, not letting grand old lions confront each other, argue out their aesthetic and philosophic differences. It does no honor to a lion to treat him like a lamb. That night I fell down on the job, failed to do the best for SVSU's students, and now so regret failing to ignite what could have been the best debate, Zivich's individualist aesthetic vs. Lockard's socialist one, that any of us would ever witness.

About nine months later, that Fall I exhibited my own "Visual Engineering" paintings, the work of my sabbatical and after, in the University Gallery. Incorporating imagery of the Afghan and Iraq wars, female nudes plus much else, laced together with my "schematoid" electronic circuitry symbols. I suppose I attempted a synthesis of Lockard's relevance and Zivich's distanced irony…but with results probably to the satisfaction of neither.

The day after his Painting class visit, Jon Lockard presented to a classroom full of students, a few faculty and the Dean of the SVSU College of Arts and Behavioral Studies from his wheelchair. I was about to introduce him, to give an introduction I had thought about and practiced. At that moment, he thrust me a typed paper and said "Here, read this". I did, and was shocked to be how self-aggrandizing and embarrassingly, defensively full of superlatives it was. It was as if he was expecting a critical and confrontational crowd, and needed to prove his bona fides. My Dean could see me hesitate and wince, as I tried to shape it on the fly into something more temperate and appropriate. I was saddened to feel my teacher didn't think me qualified to sum up his achievements and lessons on my own, didn't trust me to properly summarize his career to this audience.

He once began an Artist’s Statement for a 1970s exhibition “I been ‘buked and I been scorned…”, but at this university he was now an invited notable. I was puzzled by both Lockard's image of himself and of me. I now realize, at the time I'd not yet published (and shared with him) my summary of his career and impact in my 2011 Ann Arbor Observer story of SVSU students shown his masterful murals on the African and African American experience at Wayne State University's Manoogian Student Center in Detroit. Nor had he heard my presentation on him, as part of a panel on mid-western black artists, at the Midwest College Art Association, in Detroit in 2012; after that presentation, which he attended, he had only minor corrections, so I guess he felt his past student could be trusted to do him justice.

IV. Jon's Fight

I studied with Jon Lockard at Washtenaw Community College, during as semester off from Dartmouth College, and then for a year after I'd graduated. In his classroom in 1977-1978 you could expect to hear the political songs, Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam" and Les McCann and Eddie Harris' "Compared to What", as well as the radio tuned to the smooth jazz of the era like Grover Washington, Stanley Turrentine and George Benson. For this was the aural context of his own art, and hence, his pedagogy.

He discussed with his class Mao Tse-Tung's "Talks at the Yenan Forum", where the Chairman calls for art that "serves the people", rather than exhibits in galleries in hopes of purchase by the wealthy. When I was studying with him, I brought in a magazine essay on painter Joyce Treiman called "The Figure is Central". Ah, yes, he asked, but which figures? Lockard’s angriest images—defiant young man on the corner, Aunt Jemima's punching fist, or the agony in the grand panel of the African-American experience in his Wayne State murals—are balanced by his weeping Christ, and calm pieces celebrating curvaceous femininity, strong motherhood and global brotherhood.

His lessons have left me committed to carrying forth a version of his methodical construction of the figure from the inside out, teaching the centrality of the figure, supplemented with still lives, interiors, architecture and objects in landscape, in any drawing curriculum. Space is important, but as a theatre of human activity. In my recounting of Jon Lockard's stand counter to his time's dominant American art history, my simplification ignores the complex history of black abstract painters in America, Africa and the African diaspora too. We would probably both praise any artwork that attempt much and falls short, over those that comfortably fail to dare at all.

The breadth of black power motivated the rich and exemplary career of Jon Onye Lockard, in Detroit and Ann Arbor, Michigan. Negotiations in his career included support from local business, universities and community college, and national respect...yet lifelong indifference, even opposition, from Michigan's white art establishment in UM and the Ann Arbor Art Fair. His position at University of Michigan, and Washtenaw Community College, were in their African American Studies programs, pointedly not their Art ones. In the academy, Lockard was patronizingly viewed as an expert at being black, not at creating significant artwork, nor for excellently teaching his art-making skills.

The Black Arts Movement of Lockard's generation rescued African Americans from previous invisibility, or from only appearing in American magazines, movies or television in limited roles: in sports, entertainment, or subservient waiters, sleeping car porters, and maids. Or presented as criminals, who were too often promptly lynched before trial. Lockard materialized, gave substance to African Americans and Africans, their matter, their strength, athleticism, muscular or curvaceous, in agonies or affirmation, regal figures in robes and adornment, under dramatic lighting, for the drama of their lives.

In the London Review of Books, Adam Schatz pointed out how far civil rights have regressed that African Americans now have to affirm their very right to exist in the phrase Black Lives Matter when confronted with police (state) violence. It harkens back to the civil rights marchers’ placards carried fifty, sixty years ago I AM A MAN.

Black lives matter. That message must not be dimmed or diluted. As do the lives, the real lived experience, of all Americans in 2015, not that distortion which corporate media deceptively sells them at high interest rates, or tries to blame on the Other, outside, inside, or at the border. I am lucky to now be in a position to remind students that their lives do too—so do their ideas, philosophy and worldview—and with the proper drawing and painting skills, they'll convince everyone of the fact.

Thank you, Jon Onye Lockard, for your lifetime of reminding us of that.

Mike Mosher, member of the Bad Subjects editorial group since 1994, is a Professor of Art/Communication Media Administration at Saginaw Valley State University, where Large photo of Manoogian Center mural at Wayne State University by Akia Bell, 2010; other artworks from

Copyright © Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.