Two Black Men Speak on Survival in the Arts
Interview with Lou Jones, photographer, and Michael Thorpe, quilter

Q-Lee Hope

Lou, your photographs have spanned such a wide range from death row to Africa to COVID, and more. Your cover photo “Mike Portrait” on our recent 2020 Winter Print Issue is the second Solstice cover photo from your pandemicBoston series. What drew you to do this series? For instance, you said, “I wish to show that I understand how people across all walks of life have been coping.”

A-Lou Jones

Solstice Literary Magazine Fall 2020 Print Issue

We were locked down, they took all my employees away, they took everything away from me. And we sat around for several weeks and thought, hopefully this is going to be gone in a week, a month, whatever. But as time went on it was clear that as a photographer, this era, this change in the world, this pandemic needed to be documented. And as photographers that is primary to do, so I had to go out. Now, stylistically, lots of photographers were photographing it. But most of them were basically taking portraits of people with masks on, which will, at some point, be important, but it wasn’t very interesting to me as photography. So, I went out and started photographing and looking and calling people on the phone and then getting them to agree to let me into their environment. That was very difficult. But that’s what attracted me. It was that we as photographers, as documentarians, had—have a responsibility to do something when these things happen.

 

Q-Lee Hope 

Yes, and that’s been a part of your oeuvre. You’ve been a documentarian. You’ve done commercial work, and also artistic photographs, such as in your fabulous panAfrica series. So you felt the need “to go out?” And you also included the photo of Michael’s quilts, an unusual image of another artist literally on top of his work. Michael, how did this portrait of you and your art come about?

 

A-Michael Thorpe 

Once I started making money from art and knew that it was a viable career, I had always noticed that artists that I liked always had amazing photographs of themselves from fellow artists who use the medium of photography. And I had always said to Lou that, like, once I become an artist, I’m going to have you take my photo. And because I was moving to New York and I wasn’t gonna be living down the street from Lou much longer, we had to expedite the process, which always is exciting for the Lou Jones studio. Because asking Lou to take a photograph is no small task.  He very much deliberately thinks about it very intently and makes every small adjustment.  But Lou took the photo of me, and then he said, “Oh, I’m working on this COVID project and would love to include you, so would you put on this mask?” That’s how that cover photo came to life.

 

Q-Lee Hope:

How about your mentor-student relationship? How did that develop into a friendship?

A-Lou Jones 

It was very organic. There was no intent. He came in for an internship, and then he did so well that I gave him a real job. So, he was here in the studio for quite a while from an internship to a full-time employee.

 

Q-Lee Hope 

And Michael, I realize probably you learned way too much to even talk about, but what would be a couple of examples of insights that you got from Lou?

A-Michael Thorpe 

The biggest was Lou as a lifelong mentor. Lou clearly has done more than I’ll ever probably do in my life. And so whenever something comes up that I have a question about good, bad, or ugly, I talk to Lou. And when I was working for him, I was always trying to pick his brain, so that when I did eventually start out on my own journey, I would have more tools than most people will get, because the funny thing is, when you go to school and you learn about art, it’s vastly different than making a career out of art.

And the biggest thing I think Lou taught me about art is about survival. It’s all about just continuing to make work. And by any means, you know, and it’s so fascinating, just to see how malleable it is to create a career. Some people say, Oh, I’m just gonna do this, and I’m just gonna sell it, and I’m gonna live off that.  But what are you gonna do if that dream doesn’t work? The worst thing you want, the last thing you want to do is to get a real job, you know, a nine to five, because then you stop working. And so the biggest thing that Lou taught me is that there’s always a way if you think hard enough.

 

Q-Lee Hope 

So, Michael, how have you managed to survive in New York by selling your work?  You have been selling quilts, correct?

A-Michael Thorpe 

Correct. Lou and I had many deep conversations about the factor of luck that nobody really wants to talk about. I was super fortunate to have my first show, my first solo show, right before the pandemic struck. February 29 of 2020. That was an amazing catalyst to my career and actually allowed me to get a gallery representation. So, you can make the art but can you make the work sell? Then there is also just filling in the blanks, like I’ve done a couple like modeling gigs, which is hilarious, but I was featured in Vogue online, and have had a few speaking arrangements that pay. It’s about creating a life for yourself.

 

Q-Lee Hope 

Lou, you have said that you were “treated so badly, especially as a Black man, you don’t have the right money, the right education. But Michael had the foresight to go to an art school and start asking questions, and he was asking the right questions.”  What are some of the right questions that you might ask as Black male artists?

A: Michael Thorpe

I feel like the first one is, what does it mean to be a Black male artist, specifically in America? I was curious about that with Lou. Because you get to see behind the curtain. That is a question that to this day I work on. Then the second one, and I think this is also an open-ended question—how do you make it work? How do you, like, survive? And that was the hardest question. That’s the question that Lou can give all his tips and tricks, but like it was only a matter of me getting on the bus.  Lou has this great metaphor about getting on the bus in the arts.

A-Lou Jones 

I attributed the story to Arno Minkkinen. It’s a long story, and as I like to say, and as Michael knows, and everybody that works for me knows, I have no short stories.

A-Michael Thorpe 

I think this one’s pretty short. I think this one’s pretty short.

A-Lou Jones 

It’s shorter than most. Arno says that being an artist is like having to get on the bus. He says you go to the center of town, and there are dozens, hundreds of buses, thousands of people going all different places, which is art. Yeah, everybody gets on the bus to go where they need or want to go. You get on the bus with dozens of other people and you go out toward your next destination. At a certain point, your bus stops, you get off, and you wait for the next bus. There are far fewer people at the next destination. And you wait and you wait. And then when you get on the bus, you’re with fewer people. And then you go a little further, you get off the bus. There’s just a couple of people. You’re out there getting further and further along in your career. There’s just a couple of people that you may compare yourself with to get any kind of inspiration, a way of seeing becomes more narrow. And eventually you get on the bus that takes you and you’re the only one out there. That’s what it’s all about. That’s the metaphor.

 

Q-Lee Hope 

Would you care to talk bit more about adversity you have faced as Black male artists, or as what you see is the scene today? Are possibilities really expanding? Or do you see opportunities now contracting for the Black male artist?

A-Lou Jones

Well, Michael’s heard me tell the long stories again, like where I was when I was starting out, being naive, stupid, but also, I needed to make a career. I would go and show my portfolio at all the ad agencies and design studios and magazines. I would call anybody, and lots of them said, “No.” But when I would show up with my little portfolio, my little hat in hand, sometimes I’d get through the front desk of an ad agency, and usually, not to be sexist, but it was usually a woman at the front desk, and she’d say, “Oh, you’re dropping off something?” She thought I was delivering. So, I would say “No, I’m here to see so and so,” on and so on. I had a very pat answer because it happened so often. When they would say, “Are you are you dropping something off?” I would say, “No.”

 

Q-Lee Hope 

And then what would she do?

A-Lou Jones 

She’d say, “Well, well . . .  Alright, oh, you have an appointment?” And I’d say, “Yes.”

Those were the kind of obstacles. I had a cute little routine where they would take me into the conference room, and I would set up a slide projector. They’d say, “I can’t see the slides.” But I had it so I could literally set up the projector in thirty seconds, and I would start showing pictures. And I knew to get through maybe five or six slides. And I’d hear, “Oh, can you hold a minute. I want to get somebody else in here.” And I knew I had him. Here’s the hook. Because they were saying, this is not just some little nigga walking in here with some bad wedding photographs—I gotta get some of my other art directors to see this stuff. So that that was the kind of thing we were facing, the obstacles. It was the sign of the times. So it was something that I just did.  As Mike said, talk about survival. How do you survive those kinds of situations?

 

Q-Lee Hope 

Aren’t they still going on?

A-Lou Jones 

Absolutely. Absolutely. I still have the same being discounted. I would have an assistant, and usually the assistant was white. As soon as we would walk onto the location, we would get there carrying all this equipment and dropping it in the middle of the floor, and they would walk up to my white assistant as if he was the photographer.

 

Q-Lee Hope

Michael, what are you experiencing now, have you had these experiences?

A-Michael Thorpe 

I definitely haven’t had those experiences. We’ve got to take into consideration that I’m, like, a hot ticket in town right now, and some people want to be adjacent to me. But there have been situations that I actually haven’t talked to Lou about, and it’s a testament to exactly what he’s saying about the level of racism—what you put up with just to get shit done. But you also see how Black artists position themselves and are positioned in the greater landscape of the art world.

And it’s fascinating, especially since we are in two different mediums, textile art and photography. They’re both uphill battles. Neither of us is a painter or sculptor, so we’re already behind the eight ball. So it’s fascinating to see how things operated in the past.  Lou talked about the bus stop and getting to that point where they are only gonna need one Black artist, and so all your contemporaries are all fighting for like the same spot. And it’s so interesting to see how people navigate. Lou gave me a little warning about how there is a little animosity among fellow Black artists because we all know that there’s only one spot. And so that’s a new interest.

 

Q-Lee Hope 

Why is there one spot?

A-Michael Thorpe

How it works? I don’t know. I don’t know how to answer that. I wish…I wish…I wish I knew why there was only one spot.

A-Lou Jones 

But at one point, there were no spots.  Now remember, we are in the middle of Black Lives Matter. And that’s an important issue. But Michael and I are artists, we’re trying to make art. So, survival, the snubs by people… But the uphill battle is that those things are finally irrelevant. Every artist has problems getting his or her art in front of people. So, we are just trying to make art. And we have the same uphill battles. Right now I’m with a group that Archy LaSalle is doing called “Where Are All the Black People At?” And he’s trying to get our Black art into museums, no museums have any collections. They have the token, few Black artists—just like Michael said, there’s one spot—you know we need diversity, so let’s find some Black person to be in our show. But we’re not going to have five you know. So, he’s saying that none of the Museum of Fine Arts, the ICA, have Black artists in their collections. Now every white artist can say I have been snubbed by the art community because it’s such an uphill battle. But in our case, it is intentional. You know, it’s intentional, they want to make sure they keep that out. What was the thing that recently somebody said?  All of these amazing…Great Wall of China and all of these things were being built around the world, and everybody’s saying we can’t figure out how they did it. In Egypt, with the pyramids, we can’t figure it out. But it’s all got to be aliens, aliens came down and helped these Black folks out. They’ll figure it out any kind of way. But Michael and I talked and asked the right questions. Michael was asking how do we navigate this minefield of obstacles that these people in the art world are putting up, the fact that there is only one spot, the fact that they will only show our work during February, during…

 

Q-Lee Hope 

Black History Month.

A-Lou Jones 

Black History Month. It’s you know like the pyramid thing. You know, why comedians say February is Black History Month…they gave us the shortest month of the year, only 28 days long. That kind of crap. So anyway, Michael and I are two generations trying to do very similar things. And the obstacles are very different and are the same. They continue, they paint them differently, so that they look different now. But they’re the same obstacles.

 

Q-Lee Hope 

Michael, what about Lou’s comment about Black Lives Matter not mattering?

A-Lou Jones 

The question is, everybody’s saying, “Oh, it’s changing.” And Michael may say, “Yes, it is,” because he’s seeing a really wonderful movement. But in my case, it’s business as usual.

A-Michael Thorpe

That’s what I was gonna say. I’m definitely in the Lou Jones school of thought after working with him for so many years. It really does come down to when the dust settles, what are we doing? I was reading an article from 1968 Sports Illustrated about the story of the Black athlete, “A Shameful Story”—that was literally the title. It was fascinating to see how little has changed in over fifty years. And to Lou’s testament, you have events like the Civil Rights Movement that supposedly came and went, and you look at our positioning in the world now. And you’re like, so is this just a new civil rights movement that’s going to come and go.  And exactly to Lou’s testament, once it’s gone, we’re still here making work. We’re still here trying to get stuff done. And so yeah, Lou is a little bit more crude about it. But it is a thing I talked to him about all the time. The mere fact of survival isn’t just about making money. I don’t really go to protests because I can’t put my life in jeopardy. You know, there are people who are meant to do that, but I’m not one of those people, because you have to really think about the strategies of surviving life as a Black man, not only as a Black male artist in America.

 

For more of Lou Jones’s work, please visit:
www.fotojones.com
www.panAFRICAproject.org
www.IronCladPhoto.com

To order the panAFRICAproject book: http://panafricaproject.org/panafricaproject-store/

For more of Michael Thorpe’s work, please visit: https://www.laisunkeane.com/michael-thorpe

 

(Note: This interview has been lightly edited to fit into the space.  L.H.)

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