I am pleased to open a new series of Black Paris Profiles with the story of fellow Texan Ealy Mays, a brilliant, prolific artist and a long-time member of Paris’ African-American expatriate community. I have been intrigued by his work for years and am particularly enamored of his “Mama” series, inspired by Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.
© Discover Paris!
© Discover Paris!
Part I of my interview with Ealy delves into what drives him as an artist.
ETBP: What is / are your goal(s) in painting?
Ealy Mays: Like Balzac, I would a liar if I said that I did not paint for the money. But the realities of the contemporary art world are such that when I left the US over three decades ago, I probably left the chance to realize real money from my art anyway. The truth is that I paint out of the pure passion for painting. It is pretty much all I know how to do, and all that I have ever done. The goal of a true painter will always be the creation of work with which she/he is satisfied and not at all the pursuit of money. True artists pursue compositions and creation of original forms. The art market pursues money.
ETBP: What or who inspires you to paint?
Ealy Mays: Richard Wright once expressed that writing enabled to him to live and to breathe. Painting for me is much the same way. It is my oxygen. I breathe through painting and expressing the world I see around me, albeit with a paintbrush or through mixed media composition.
As for those who inspire me, the list includes Mexican muralists Diego Riviera and José Clemente Orozco; Franz Kline, Rufino Tamayo, Max Parrish, Jackson Pollack, Herbert Gentry, and Ed Clark, among others.
ETBP: Which media do you prefer to use when you paint and why?
Ealy Mays: No preference. I started off as a child with acrylic and did my first oil painting at about age 10. Many other forms of expression are sometimes more appropriately conveyed in varying mixed media, so for me, the artistic medium varies with the images and messages.
2005 Mixed Media: Acrylic on Wood Panel
Image courtesy of the artist
ETBP: Of all the series that you have created, which is your favorite?
Ealy Mays: One was "Search for Spartacus," which was a series examining the search for the leader of one of the most notorious slave revolts in the history of mankind. Unfortunately, this series of over 16 paintings was stolen by a man who was presented to me as an art agent in the late 90s. He ended up taking my paintings to Germany, never to return them. I successfully had him arrested by Interpol in Paris, and he was jailed for some time and forced to make restitution, but he never really paid up fully for the paintings and I never retrieved my paintings.
Another of my favorite series was the "Crucifixion of Nzinga," painted when I lived in Mexico. Nzinga was the queen of an African kingdom who tried to keep Christianity out of her land. Hers was a free kingdom where slavery was not practiced. By the time of her death, she had been given a new Portuguese name, "Anna," and it was then falsely claimed that she had "willingly" converted to Christianity. This is highly doubtful, but it just goes to show that making history is not good enough. We have to write, paint, and otherwise document our own history.
Most of the paintings in this series were of black women on white crucifixes. This was too much for the sensitivities of a Catholic Mexican society, and one day, the Mexican army arrived, branded the artworks "decadent" (much like the Nazis did in WWII for the works of artists such as Max Ernst). They seized all of the pieces. I was later told that many of them hung proudly in the home and office of a Mexican general involved in the seizure.
ETBP: Your Web site bio indicates that Jacob Lawrence described you as the best narrative painter he ever met. Tell us what a narrative painter is.
Ealy Mays: Much like a writer who writes short stories or a documentarian who captures and presents historical events, a narrative painter is an artist who tells a story. An example of this is An American in Paris II: Island of Hallucination, which was recently auctioned for $7500 at a charity event for Evidence, A Dance Company in NYC. The event was chaired by Spike and Tonya Lewis Lee and Reginald Van Lee (no relation), and hosted by actress Lynn Whitfield.
This painting tells the story of the treachery that engulfed the African-American expat community in the 50s, culminating with the Gibson Affair. Its title is borrowed from the title of Richard Wright's last (unpublished) novel, Island of Hallucination, and it features some of the principal characters of l'affaire Gibson. But it also fuses subtexts of race and gender interplays within the larger American community in Paris. On March 25, 2013, not only was a piece of artwork auctioned for a good cause, but a piece of African-American history in Paris was also disseminated to an entire ballroom of dignitaries and celebrities at the Plaza Hotel in NYC.
2009 Oil on canvas, Mixed Media
Image courtesy of the artist
ETBP: What does Lawrence’s description mean to you?
Ealy Mays: To be recognized by a black artist of such a stature was an affirmation then of what was my lifetime as a painter. I did Skowhegan with Jacob Lawrence on my return from Mexico. This was after my graduation from UAG (Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara) and after a decision against a medical internship. It was a definitive march forward ahead as an artist and not as a doctor. Receiving such an affirmation from the man who had done the "Migration" series - on African Americans moving from south to north, as well as the "Hiroshima" series, capturing a cultural experience (Japanese) that was not his - was quite a moral boost for me. Lawrence’s affirmation told me that it was OK to be an African-American painter whose work reflects his own community as well as captured experiences of other cultural backgrounds.
ETBP: You have no formal degree or training in art, yet you have been painting for over 30 years. What do you advise youngsters who want to become artists regarding the pursuit of formal training?
Ealy Mays: I have actually been painting for over 40 years. In fact, my first art show was at the White House in a show called Art for Kids with President Lyndon Johnson in 1967.
I would advise young artists to follow their passion, knowing well that their destinies will be affected by others in the form of critics, galleries, museums, the art market, etc. But they should not ever be deterred by any of the aforementioned. Critics do not hold the key to the soul, nor to an artist’s ability to express. The art market might deny you money in terms of the true worth of your talent but it will never deny you your talent.
ETBP: Tell us about the business of being an artist. How much time to you spend on the business aspects of your career?
Ealy Mays: Almost none. I focus on painting. I do engage to sell my work locally and internationally but in doing so, I could never really realize the real value of my work in monetary terms. Selling ones work is not really "dealing with the business of being an artist," since that business is done through galleries, agents, art advisers, art brokers, auction houses, etc. I have a painting entitled The Writer, Actor, Producer, and Director, which speaks alternately to needing the middleman as well as to cutting out the middleman.
The reality is that most artists are not equipped to do both art and the business of art as well. If we were good at business, we would have gotten MBAs. Paul Sinclair (my agent) deals with the business of art. Ealy Mays deals with being an artist.
Visit the blog next week for Part II of this interview, which explores the personal side of Ealy Mays.
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