the museum of americana

a literary review

Interview with Primitive Author Janice Harrington

Editor Ashia Lane talks to Janice Harrington about American folk artist Horace Pippin.

To start, I have to admit that Horace Pippin was off my radar. So you can imagine that along with reading and studying your collection, I also got a good dose of research in. Can you share the reason you landed on Pippin as a suitable historical character for a collection? Are you a long-time fan of his work, or…?

Thank you for your interest in Primitive.  My study of Pippin’s life began as a children’s librarian at the Champaign Public Library.  I co-wrote a grant with a local art teacher to make curriculum kits on African American artists for teachers and the general public. One of the artists was Horace H. Pippin.  I liked his boldly-colored paintings, especially, The Domino Players, a memory painting that draws on Pippin’s childhood.  The painting reminds me of my mother’s stories about growing up with her family in the rural south.  The larger reason that drew me to Pippin’s life and art, however, is that Pippin had every reason not to make art—poverty, the fierce racism of the 1930s and1940s, lack of an arts education, a physical disability—and yet he made art.  I deeply admire his confidence and his commitment to his way of seeing people, daily life, and history.

There is a ongoing dialogue about African American art. Your collection, Primitive: The Art and Life of Horace H. Pippin, begins by questioning commonly used monikers and descriptors right from the title. The collection then guides the reader deeper into the current conversation, using quotes from art critics, philosophers, reporters and more, current and past. Some of the language used by Pippin’s own peers can now be deemed…untoward. How did surfacing these quotes and examples affect your own responses and contemplations?

It jarred me to read the descriptions of Pippin and his work in the media of the time. Fortunately, scholars now see the inventiveness and sophistication that Pippin brought to his work.  As Pippin said, “I paint it exactly the way it is and exactly the way I see it:” a remarkable confidence and affirmation of his work as an artist.

The market attaches labels to the work of any artist.  This is not a singular struggle, but I like Pippin’s approach.   He made his art.  He painted what he knew to be true.  He pleased himself.

The general, lingering impression of Pippin is that he was a humble man. Do you think that attitude was intrinsic to the person he was? Or is it a projection that we commonly attach to black folk artists from the turn of the century?

From this distance, it’s not possible to describe Pippin’s personality accurately. I’ve read his writings, and I’ve studied his paintings. The best way to understand who he might have been is to study his self-portraits and to study photographs of him: a Sunday suit, well-groomed, looking straight at the viewer, strong and dignified.  Reading his war notebooks, readers will find a proud soldier, brave, honest, hard-working, and forthright.  In newspaper accounts of Pippin, I see a savvy arts promoter who understands what the American public expects of African Americans in the 1930s.  He wears the polite social mask that African American of the time were forced to wear.

But Pippin knew about racial violence, and he addressed it subtly in his art.  In The Holy Mountain III, Pippin drew a picture of a lynching, not in the foreground, but in the background.  He knew about the violence against Black men, and he wanted his viewers to see the lynching.  Like any artist, he found a way to take his own stand and to speak for change.

Your collection covers a broad swath of Pippin’s experiences. He is presented as soldier, painter, husband, subtle advocate for human rights, sexual being. Did your research uncover a side of Pippin that is not included in the collection? Did anything you found surprise you?

Pippin’s entire life surprises me.  Mostly, I found myself frustrated by the scholarship about him: confusions, misinformation, and racial stereotyping.  Unfortunately, my book was in press before Celeste-Marie Bernier’s Suffering and Sunset:  World War I in the Art and Life of Horace Pippin.  She corrects the easy misconception that Pippin’s grandparents were slaves.  In fact her research indicates they were free men and women.   She even found a handkerchief that belonged to Pippin in the West Chester archives:  how did I miss that!  I recommend her book and am pleased that I had a chance to review it. [see link below] Another pioneering book that I strongly recommend is I Tell My Heart by Judith E. Stein.

Researching Pippin’s life makes me wonder about other lives that have been forgotten, overlooked, or downright lied about.  I want to know more about the Black soldiers of World War I.  Their bravery and achievements after the war laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement, which means that all Americans are in their debt.

(https://academic.oup.com/DocumentLibrary/ALH/Online%20Review%20Series%206/Janice%20Harrington%20Online%20Review%20Series%20VI.pdf)

Fire portrays Pippin destroying his own wartime notebooks, and notes the absence of self-regard, likely due to his lifetime’s experience of oppression and struggle. Do you think that the artist was able to eventually reconcile his own success? 

No, he destroyed the notebooks because they might have fallen into the hands of the German Army giving them information that would harm the war effort.  Pippin believed in himself and in his community.  He went after success and he absolutely believed in himself as an artist.

The war did injure his body, however.  It probably also left him with what today we’d recognize as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.  His wife said that he had blue spells.  He had trouble sleeping.   He struggled with shoulder pain, and he may have over-used alcohol.  In the midst of oppression—Pippin was a success!  The best well-known African American folk artist in America.  In his lifetime, he saw his work travel on a national tour, he gave shows in the premier museums and galleries of the time, and he even had Vogue Magazine fashion spread.

You weave your own imaginings into a subtext of sorts alongside Pippin’s experience, giving color to possibility. This is especially prevalent towards the latter part of the book. What was your hoped for intention with these imagined scenarios and ideas? 

 It felt right to attempt to merge the visual artist and the poet together.  After spending so many years reading about, pondering, researching, studying the art, visiting the locales of Pippin’s life, I saw connections between his art and my life.  I wanted to investigate those connections.  But my book is poetry.  It is not a biography or a treatise on the conditions of African American artists.  I wanted to break the frame of the book and of the poems so that readers could see that my poems are at best interpretations of Pippin’s art and life.

A major takeaway from Horace Pippin, expressed in Primitive, is that even the small things count— we need to pay attention to the details, the unimportant acts, the hidden gestures in daily lives. How has this lesson impacted your own life, and especially, your writing?

Yes, I loved how Pippin looked at things, his ability to see into the details, textures, backgrounds around him.  I returned to my family photographs (pictures from the 1930s-1970s) and looked carefully at the background.  What could I learn about my family or the times? In a picture of my mother that I had seen many times.  I suddenly saw a small figure in the background: me.  I had never noticed my presence in the picture before.  As far as my poetry, studying Pippin’s paintings made me more attentive. It made me look more closely.  It made me keep looking.

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Janice N. Harrington’s most recent book of poetry is Primitive: The Art and Life of Horace H. Pippin. She is also the author of The Hands of Strangers and Hollow My Body Made Is Gone, which won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. An award- winning children’s book author, her latest children’s book is Catching a Storyfish, a verse novel. She now teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Illinois

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