NONFICTION RUNNER-UP: THE KNOTTY ONE: Obscurity and the Black Male Artist

 

Knotty-head is the ugliest piece of art that I own. Yet you would not be able to pry him out of my arms for any amount of money. Originally sculpted out of rusted junkyard metal, he stands proudly in my living room like a defender spirit, ready to unleash his wrath on any unwanted interloper. Or at least that’s what his body language seems to indicate.

He is defiant, yet controlled. Cylindrical eyes protrude like a pair of small binoculars from his elongated tribal-mask face, and the peep-hole shape of his mouth suggests that he’d rather fight than argue. His indestructible two-foot-tall skeletal body carries that subtle grace of stance often associated with men of African descent—a loosely-held tension in the limbs, a slow-quick, don’t-blink, fluid changeability that holds steady under scrutiny. Although his long torso is essentially one uninterrupted stretch of iron about the width of a man’s wrist, his slender frame is surprisingly heavy to lift. The moment you pick him up, you are forced to reconsider the strength of his sheer bone-density. One blow to the head from Knotty could kill the strongest human being.

Knotty’s angular head is crowned with the metal chain that is his namesake. The name itself, Knotty-head, implies a person who is stubborn and perhaps hardheaded. Someone you’ve grown up with, yet know only by their nickname—a name that suggests a complete lack of regard for other people’s standards. Yes, the name says, my head is knotty. So what? Knotty-head: A strong name, one you would call if you were in trouble. One you might not want to call unless you were prepared for more trouble.

One thing I love about Knotty is the way people react to him. They are either instantly captivated by his tough, charismatic presence or they visibly shrink from him. No one ignores Knotty. Many are perplexed. Or they just point and laugh as if they recognize him but never expected to run into him at my house. This pleases me. “That’s Knotty,” I say quickly, letting them know he’s more than just an ugly face.

“Oh, you! It’s you, you funny man,” my niece Corinne once said to Knotty when she was about three. Knotty’s tree-stump pedestal rendered him almost eye level with Corinne. “Hello!” she chirped, ogling him with wide-eyed delight. “I like you.”

Seeing her brightly-ribboned head next to Knotty’s unleashed a rush of joy, reminding me of my own early years with him.

“His name is Knotty-head,” I told her. “Knotty for short.”

“Yes, he is short,” she agreed, nodding emphatically. At that time Corinne was the youngest in her family and perhaps happy to meet someone her own height. But more than that, I believe she saw in Knotty some intangible quality that resonated within her young soul. I think she instinctively recognized that he was more than someone’s carefully crafted leftover junk, and that somehow, he was both a part of her past and her future.

***

Knotty joined our family before I did. My father, now deceased, purchased the statue a few years before my brother Jesse and I were born in ’69 and ’70, respectively. As a child, when my parents would regale me with the tantalizing details of their early life together, it made me bemoan the lateness of my birth. I couldn’t believe they’d had so much fun without me—after all, Jesse and I were the undisputed stars of every household event. How dare they have a fulfilling and exciting life before us? It seemed disloyal, perhaps because the reverse was not possible.

Knotty-head was a product of the magical era when Mom and Dad owned Bunch’s, a soul-food restaurant on the Lower East Side, a few blocks from Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan. After dating for about a year, Mom, who is from a white middle-class Jewish family, relinquished her entire savings, about a thousand dollars, to bankroll the operation that Dad, a black artist from Philadelphia, conceived. “Bunch” Washington and Judith Mahl were at this time known to friends as Bunch and Judy, a quirky take on the popular puppet show by almost the same name. Their six-table eatery quickly became a gathering place for local talent—a tiny piece of home to enjoy while adrift in the big city. Jazz legend Charlie Mingus, after being evicted from his neighboring flat, kept a small upright in the side-room, and Sun-Ra, the controversial poet and musician, was a frequent guest. Ishmael Reed, Amiri Baraka, James Earl Jones, and Kathleen Neal (who later married Eldridge and became Kathleen Cleaver) were among those who stopped by Bunch’s to nosh on fried chicken, black-eyed peas, collards, and other Southern specialties.

When the inevitable flow of tourists began to flood the small space, the New York News, in a 1968 review, commented that “if a tourist or a member of the ‘uptown brigade’ would not be comfortable with a house-full of interracial couples, hippies, psychedelic people, rock and roll on the jukebox, and possible spontaneous dancing in the aisles, the proprietors would suggest they use the adjourning room, atmospherically adorned with wood paneling.” It’s fitting that Knotty’s first home was thus memorialized, albeit through eyes and ears that may have viewed the patrons as if they were the atmospheric adornments.

Dad first encountered Knotty idling on a street corner amidst a bunch of other Knotty-like figures. His maker—a young black man with the unusual (and probably self-bestowed) name of Brahim ben Denu was a street vender who staked out a stretch of sidewalk not far from Bunch’s. The exact amount Dad paid for Knotty is unknown. Nor was it relevant, from Dad’s perspective. He was supporting an artist. Not just with words, but with cash—something the man could put in his pocket and use to buy a ham sandwich or a dozen eggs. I would wager that Dad probably threw in a few free meals at Bunch’s to seal the deal. After rescuing Knotty from the streets, Dad transported him back to the restaurant, where the statue became just one more interesting character hanging around the place.

Years later, Mom was reading one of comedian-turned-civil rights activist Dick Gregory’s books—she doesn’t remember which, maybe his autobiography Nigger or his memoir Callus on My Soul, and she stumbled across Brahim’s name in the acknowledgement section. She was pleasantly surprised. (Gregory was a regular at Bunch’s, and a friend of Dad’s.) The next time she saw Dick, Mom asked if Brahim was a good friend. No, he said. I hardly know him. I just figured I’d mention him since he’s the kind of person who might otherwise never see his name in print. Indeed, Gregory may have been right. Today, there is no sign of Brahim on the Internet or anywhere else a person might think to look. Knotty’s creator seems to have vanished without a trace.

***

I didn’t know any of these things about Knotty’s past until recently. He was just there, his ugliness as much a part of our family as the other artifacts in our midst, like our decorative West African masks and our Mexican folk art and our Persian calligraphy and the colorful prints and lithographs given to us by my father’s mentor, the great Romare Bearden, now known as one of the preeminent American artists of the 20th century. My father, a towering, reed thin, dark-dark skinned man with broad shoulders and large, powerful hands, was the grandson of Southern sharecroppers who’d moved North during the Great Migration. While in high school, his portfolio won him a scholarship to the Philadelphia Museum School, but he withdrew in his sophomore year after clashing with an instructor who insisted that Egypt was not a part of Africa but instead “a Mediterranean country.” Fortunately, he found a home as a student of the Barnes Foundation, a fascinating institution whose prolonged legal battles over control of its multimillion-dollar art collection has made it the subject of several recent films and books. Besides his own work in oil, collage, bas-relief, watercolor, polyester resin and sculpture, Dad also put together a critically acclaimed volume about his mentor, Bearden, that was at least twenty years ahead of its time—it was the first major book ever produced about an African-American artist: The Art of Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual (Abrams, 1973).

Oddly, now that I think about it, there is a similarity between Bearden’s work in collage and Knotty’s face and body. Although Knotty is too skinny to be a Bearden figure manifested in metal, both feature an assemblage of angles and lines that capture something essential about the black American experience. Like Knotty himself, many of Bearden’s geometrical human collage-figures are not quintessentially “beautiful.” Yet his characters are instantly recognizable, eerily familiar, and entirely beloved—at least to some. Often, they have disproportionate limbs, patchwork faces and stitched-together bodies, as if they are made of so many places and events and experiences that their very skin has become a roadmap of endurance. In much of his work, his people seem impossibly crowded into small spaces, big-city style. Looking at them evokes the same feeling as riding the Uptown C during rush hour.

We recognize his humans not by their individual features, but by their easy elegance—the tilt of a hat, the slope of a shoulder, and other gestures too subtle to pinpoint, yet strangely comforting. Perhaps this has to do with being a “minority”—until you find yourself in the company of someone who reminds you of home, you didn’t realize you’d been yearning for it. And if that someone happens to be made of bits of cut-up paper and glue, or in some cases, rusted-up metal, so be it.

When I first met the man who is now my husband of three years, a native of Benin, West Africa, who’d at that time been in the U.S. for little more than a year, he was quite surprised to encounter Knotty during his first visit to my apartment. He, too, recognized that Knotty was more than just a statue. “He could easily be one of the symbolic representations we use at home to remember our ancestors,” he’d remarked, his French-accented timbre making the idea even more compelling. Until then I hadn’t considered that Knotty’s appeal might be cross-cultural. I’m often surprised to find that certain things I think of as distinctly African-American are in truth just plain old African, like our exuberant handshakes and greetings, our affinity for call-and-response speech patterns and songs, or even the way we might adjust the angle of a hat to reflect how we’re feeling—optimistic, humorous, morose, or anything in between. Which is one reason why the tilt of Knotty’s head-piece evokes a feeling of territorial defense.

The era that produced Knotty is linked with my father’s struggle to publish his book on Bearden—a book that took him five years to complete, and eventually became a collector’s prize sometimes pricing in the thousand-dollar range. Dad’s work on the project was threefold: writing and editing the content, designing the layout, and finding a publisher, no easy feat back then. The final product was an eight-pound masterpiece full of Bearden’s art, alongside my father’s lyric essay on Bearden and an introduction by the now-famous John A. Williams, whose 1967 novel The Man Who Cried I Am first put him on the map. A few years later Williams wrote about his efforts to collect the pay he’d been promised for the Bearden piece by the original publishers, Chelsea House. In “Flashbacks: A Twenty-Year Diary of Article Writing,” Williams says that he was given the first half of his check, but after getting the run-around from the publishers about the balance, he’d “bopped” over to their Bryant Park office to “pull [his] Black Power routine, ie: ‘I’m gonna burn this mother… down,’” to no avail. Later, when Chelsea House folded entirely, and it seemed the book wouldn’t be published at all, Williams describes Bearden as being “disgusted” with the whole thing and mentions the “many years [Bearden had] worked without recognition …” He goes on to describe how against all odds my father found another publisher and finally got Williams the second half of his check, minus the European rights he’d been promised on the first go-round. He says,

The three of us, Bearden, Washington and myself, were thoroughly soured … I felt very close to Washington and Bearden as a result of our experience. For in microcosm, what happened to us was what was happening every day to artists, and particularly black artists. Here you have a first-rate book designer, a world-famous painter and a struggling writer, all black, walking the plank together.

 

I recently came across the original contract between my father and Chelsea, written longhand on a yellow legal pad. After years of hearing Dad grouse about how he’d been underpaid, and when Bearden’s fame had skyrocketed, overlooked by scholars who’d written him out of Bearden’s history, I wasn’t surprised to see that Dad’s fee was worth less than half a dozen good-condition copies of the book itself. But I was somehow surprised to find that Williams had received only a thousand dollars for his essay. And although my father had laughingly told us how much Abrams paid Chelsea to purchase the rights to the book, it was still shocking to see the amount written on yet another contract, this one typewritten and a bit more official looking: One US dollar.

It suddenly struck me that Dad had undoubtedly paid more for Knotty-head than Abrams gave Chelsea to publish the work of the now iconic Bearden. It mattered not that Bearden came from a socially prominent family with close ties to the Harlem Renaissance, or that he’d traveled the world studying art and was privileged enough to meet with artists like Picasso, Brancusi, Hélion, Braque, and Richel—in spite of this, he was fifty-five before his artwork generated enough income to keep him afloat. After weathering several prolonged artistic droughts, one of which resulted in a nervous breakdown, Bearden stuck with his canvasses for the same reason all artists do—no other life will suffice.

***

For most of my life, I didn’t think about the exact nature of Knotty’s significance, he was just a non-detachable part of home. I say “home” rather than “house” because we moved a lot. It was Mom, not Dad, who was the breadwinner in our family. During my childhood, she held various low-wage jobs (kindergarten teacher, waitress, secretary, etc.) with the idea that she was simply holding things together until Dad’s art career became at least marginally profitable. Mom eventually took a long-term job in Brooklyn as a social worker—not a profession known for high salaries.

As the years passed, Dad’s artistic aesthetic, along with his swelling library and his ever-growing plants, continued to fill our homes with that certain something you never stop to consider until you leave the family nest. No matter where we happened to be living from one moment to the next, our abode was a montage of moving and growing colors, shapes and textures, and all manner of striking objects lived and breathed silently alongside us. Knotty was just one of the crew, his surly demeanor perhaps a fitting stance against whatever injustice he had been made to endure in his life. After all, he was from a junkyard.

In 1995, I was a recent college graduate with no job and not even a hint of a plan. My brother, who’d just been promoted from reporter to night editor at the Associated Press, helped me look for an apartment near his in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. He even promised to pay my first two months rent, although I don’t know how, since he was also helping to support Mom and Dad. We were thrilled when I landed a place in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, not far from his apartment. Montgomery Place is an opulent, tree-lined, one-block street, tucked away between Prospect Park West and Eighth Avenue. Miraculously, rent-control laws rendered my second-floor walkup affordable (the tenant before me had been there ten years). No matter it was roughly the size of a bagel shop in Midtown. It had lovely wooden floors. The interior was trimmed with swirls and flourishes that reminded me of icing on a wedding cake. And who needs furniture when I had art? I couldn’t wait to showcase Dad’s work somewhere classier than a college dorm. It took several sweaty days to hang the art, but no gallery or museum curator ever took as much care with an installation. I accented the space with large floor plants and an array of daisies and carnations that sprouted jubilantly out of dollar-store glass vases. The result eclipsed my highest hopes.

Just as I was admiring everything, the phone rang. It was Dad, calling from my brother’s place. Before I could invite him over to see my gallery effect, he launched into a very disturbing monologue. It was about Knotty-head.

Knotty, Dad said, was being held captive by a guy who owned a car repair shop in Flatbush. Dad’s version of the events leading to Knotty’s captivity was rich with intrigue and a level of complexity unfathomable to anyone not familiar with the thought process of a frustrated and unemployed artist. The salient details of the story were this: Dad had borrowed money from the shop owner, who was holding Knotty as collateral. The amount? Twenty dollars.
Twenty dollars for Knotty-head?! I was stupefied.
I couldn’t believe Dad would give Knotty to a stranger for any amount. And if he did by some stroke of madness—decide to … to sell Knotty (the word “pawn” was not something I could mentally link with Knotty, Dad, or a Brooklyn mechanic) … why would he choose a place as mundane as an auto shop for a betrayal of this magnitude? And what kind of mechanic would pay twenty dollars for the likes of Knotty-head? I mean, seriously. Did they haggle over the price? Did the mechanic start at five dollars and let Dad nudge him up to twenty? And worst of all, was Knotty at that very moment being used as a glorified ashtray in some obscure grease shop in Flatbush?
Dad was not even apologetic. He blamed the mechanic. In a world-weary voice he issued his final pronouncement on the situation: “Elizabeth, the man is trying to steal Knotty-head. If we don’t get him back soon, we will never see him again.”
That was about all I could take. I had to rescue Knotty. At all costs.
Which subway stop? What block? Uptown or downtown? Between what and what? I tried to concentrate on decoding the important parts of the address before I left, or else I could get hopelessly lost, even within five miles of my own house, in the city of my birth. Hidden beneath a jumble of ups, downs, and in-betweens, an inner-borough destination could mean anything.
I left the house with a high level of resolve. Thirty minutes later I was standing in the car repair shop, the only woman in the place, maybe even in the world. I was glad I’d worn my baggiest sweats and a baseball cap.
After a terse conversation with the owner, a short, muscular, Spanish-speaking man who refused to believe that English was my first (and only) language, or that I could possibly be the daughter of the personage who’d left Knotty in his custody, the man reluctantly agreed to release the statue in exchange for the crumpled twenty-dollar bill I produced from the innermost layer of my gym sock. I don’t remember the exact conversation, but what I do recall with alarming clarity was my first glimpse of Knotty standing on a shelf—he was high, high above everything else in the shop, and he was almost unrecognizable because … from the top of his knotty head to the bottom of his flat-footed toes he had been painted—entirely black.

Knotty—a glossy, slick, oily-looking black! Had my then-85-year-old Jewish grandmother suddenly waltzed into the garage in a pair of sequined high-heeled evening slippers and a backless gown I would not have been more shocked than I was the moment I first saw Knotty’s new look. His natural color—no, not even color, his natural self was a red-brown self, made out of rusted metal … neither slick, glossy, nor black. He just looked so … wrong! Like he had been stripped of an essential part of his identity. Poor, poor Knotty!
On the subway ride home, I clutched Knotty awkwardly, full of gratitude and oblivious to the strangeness of our first public appearance together. From that moment on, Knotty became my exclusive property. I took him to my new apartment and found him a place amidst his contemporaries. Dad, immensely relieved, had only one comment: “Thank God.” When I told him about the paint, he fell silent.

Later, Mom reported back to me that Dad returned to the garage to try and wrangle some sort of explanation out of the mechanic for defacing Knotty. The man insisted he hadn’t meant any harm, he just wanted to “spruce him up” a bit. He sincerely didn’t understand all the fuss. Dad tried to explain about art and identity but nothing he said made any sense to the mechanic, who eventually called Dad “loco” and asked him to vacate the premises. Which I imagine he did, albeit rather haughtily.

Knotty-head still wears the heavy black paint on every part of his body. It makes me sad that people who meet him don’t know who he used to be. In fact, now, more than fifteen years after his abduction, and five years after my father’s crippling bout with homelessness and his eventual death one summer morning on a park bench in Queens, Knotty’s natural color is such a distant memory that I can barely conjure it up in my mind. He is still belligerent, though. In any home I live in, you will see Knotty, manning his corner of the living room faithfully, his face turned toward the front door, poised for defense, eternally vigilant.

 

2 Responses to “NONFICTION RUNNER-UP: THE KNOTTY ONE: Obscurity and the Black Male Artist”

  1. Liz de Souza

    Hi Leslie–thanks SO much for reading and commenting. Although my father suffered a lot in his life, he also did great good. I’m happy this story about Knotty has been published during the same time I’m exhibiting my father’s art at the Phillips Museum at F&M College. Images of the art are here:

    http://www.bunchwashington.com

    Thanks again,
    Liz

  2. leslie Lawrence

    Striking for its lucid prose, originality and understatement. I ache for what you, your father and Knotty suffered.

Join the discussion

  • (will not be published)