Two painters talk about the challenges of being a black artist

Atlanta-born black artist Roy Woodruff, who recently returned to exhibit a series of watercolor paintings on the subject of a 1965 civil rights march, drives a taxi 50 hours a week in New York.

Bennie Andrews, one of the better-known black artists in the country, says only a few people have purchased his paintings here in his hometown of Atlanta.

Being an artist is not easy. Being a black artist is even tougher, says Mr. Andrews, a former visual-arts director for the National Endowment for the Arts.

And it doesn't seem to be getting much easier, according to several people involved in selling and exhibiting works by black artists.

''There just seems to be a lack of interest in their work'' on the part of many major museums and galleries, says Mary Schmidt Campbell, executive director of The Studio Museum in New York's Harlem. It makes it hard for black artists to become known and have their works purchased, she says.

''Galleries and museums are opening their doors more than they have'' in the past to works by blacks, says Crystal Britton, owner of an Atlanta gallery that bears her name and which specializes in the sale of art by blacks. But, she adds , ''I don't think that door has opened very much.''

One result of all this is that much artwork by blacks is being ''lost'' to society as it stacks up in the artists' own studios, says Andrews, who now lives in New York.

Andrews suggests several reasons for the difficulty that blacks have in selling their art.

''There's almost no tradition of collecting art in the black community,'' he says. But gallery owner Britton says this is changing among affluent blacks who buy art as part of their ''upward mobility'' and among some less affluent people who truly love the art.

Art using blacks as subjects ''was never popular with the masses,'' Andrews says.

A painter like Mr. Woodruff, who describes himself as not well-known, faces an additional challenge, according to Andrews, who knows both Woodruff and his work. Woodruff, who began painting seriously in 1972, has most recently chosen the violence of the 1960s civil rights era as a subject.

With few exceptions, people don't buy that kind of art, although some museums do, says Andrews.

At the Britton gallery, where some of Woodruff's works were on display, he explains why he chose such a topic. ''Art need not necessarily be about something that's nice,'' he says. But, he adds of the violence in that era, ''this is not a myth; this really happened.

''I think most people are good, by and large,'' he says. But he believes it is important to depict the era's violence so people don't forget.

(The Mississippi State Historical Museum in Jackson recently opened a permanent exhibit of relics of some of the violence of the civil rights era.)

Woodruff also says, ''I wanted to make some money, establish a reputation,'' and to show that ''it is possible for an artist to tackle such a subject and be successful.''

So far, his series of 30 watercolors on the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. - a march that met with considerable police force - has not been selling very well.

Catherine Fox, art critic for the Atlanta Constitution and the Atlanta Journal, said after seeing several of the works in the series: ''He seemed to turn the march into something as graceful and delicate as a ballet. It gave the images some grace, but sucked the power out of it.''

Woodruff's father, Hale Woodruff, was a well-known black artist who depicted violence as well as other themes concerning blacks in American society.

''Violence and the depiction of violence has been a continuing thread in American art, certainly since the mid-1930s, says Theodore Wolff, art critic for the Christian Science Monitor.

But some black artists have chosen to interpret violent events through nonviolent works, says Dr. Campbell of the Studio Museum. ''Many of the best artists were getting at the deeper issues,'' she says.

An exhibit to be shown at the Studio Museum Jan. 22 - June 30 (Tradition and Conflict: Images of a Turbulent Decade 1963-1973) features mostly black artists' whose works shows very little violence, Campbell says.

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