An Interview with Ernest Crichlow
Ernest Crichlow was born June 19, 1914, in Brooklyn, New York. He has been associated with many other artist, during his long, distinguished career including Charles Alston, Romare Beardon, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, and Charles White. He has taught and exhibited in many institutions, but has spent much of his life painting and teaching in Brooklyn, where he is considered a regional treasure. Also, he’s one of the great American painters of the 20th Century.
ENGEL: What was it like to be in the WPA especially as a black artist?
CRICHLOW: Looking back, it seems that was a special time, the way we spoke of people, the kind of comradeship that people had. The respect that was given to the artists. We had a place.
The WPA really had a place for artists If you are speaking in reference to a time I think the spirit of earlier black artists they were just as separate as we are now. I guess anybody who went through that time [WPA], would find it difficult to come to a conclusion regarding the comradeship, the influences we had on each other. It’s hard to talk about a specific time or place, in retrospect, because, we can say "20th century," but that is a big space and it encompasses so many artists so many different people …
ENGEL: Did you feel that you were working with a group that had a common purpose the especially when at a time when black artists weren’t taken all that seriously.
CRICHLOW: I’m thinking, you just knew you were black, you weren’t going to get certain things, you weren’t going to go to certain schools, and while you resented it, it didn’t knock you out. You somehow had something, a belief or faith. I guess we believed in a better world, a better time. These were enjoyable times to me, when I think back. I was happiest especially in the WPA, the idea that being an artist was worthwhile. It’s unbelievable that there was a government that took an artist as someone of worth. Someone might look at a piece of paper and say "I am going to devote my time to just doing that" or another artist who might take a scene from the City and say "that is my contribution."
ENGEL: Did you meet artists, like Romare Beardon, you were later to be associated with…
CRICHLOW: Oh, no the black artists did not know how they got there. They would …
ENGEL: That’s what I mean, since you were all on the " defensive" in a certain sense, did you meet other black artists who felt that though you were doing different things you were all really together because people outside categorized you as "black artists." Did you feel camaraderie in that sense?
CRICHLOW: When you saw another black artist, you were excited and happy to see another brother there because you didn’t see them very often. You saw that things were changing, the doors were opening. That would happen occasionally. But somehow there was something always that would stop it and then all of a sudden the artists began to see that’s not enough…or if it is enough, why is it spreading for white artists, and not spreading for us? And it’s a funny situation, here we’re recognizing that there’s something other than the "Holy Ghost" that was settling these issues for us. The creation of the WPA allowed various organizations to know what we were doing. Certain artists who had "weight" would come out and see what we were doing. They were observing, but not telling us what to do, and that was sort of an unheard of situation at that time.
ENGEL: Okay, later on, the Beats, even though they were white, were outside society because of their lifestyles and ideas, so they were creating their own kind of art. Was that happening among black artists? You know, they are not going to be accepted in general by society so they are going to have to create organizations of their own?
CRICHLOW: What’s really very interesting was that at that time I don’t think the majority of black artists had thought about it in that way. We just were black or white and society said to us there was all these individual hopes, individual existences and there was time to recognize an artist only on an individual basis. That’s why it took so long or maybe why it was so hard for black artists, because I could be very friendly with you but then when we went outside, we had to have a different relationship.
ENGEL: Black writers were "in" before painters, why do you think that was?
CRICHLOW: Oh, that’s easy to figure out if you think about what a writer is and what a painter is. A writer has to go around and find his sources while a painter does the same thing in a totally different way. It’s easier to make a thousand copies of a book than a painting. A painting has to get into a show or museum.
ENGEL: Okay, now with musicians, Duke Ellington couldn’t get the kind of publicity that Benny Goodman had. The same with singers. Sinatra and others learned from and admired Bessie Smith yet Bessie Smith would never get that kind of publicity.
CRICHLOW: That’s how it’s always been in our culture.
ENGEL: But there was a point in the late sixties and seventies where it was "cool" to be black. An offshoot of "Radical Chic" and all that. I grew up in white suburbia. You were viewed like a rebel if you were black, just because you were black. What was going on in that period?
CRICHLOW: I think one of the tough things about being black at certain stages was the way others defined you. You are here one minute, then you are way over there and the next minute you are back here. You are almost swinging like a clock.
ENGEL: When I was a kid I wanted to be "black" like Mohammed Ali or Jimi Hendrix. Again, to a bunch of middle-class white suburban kids, it was "cool." I was fifteen when Reagan took office and something happened. By the mid-eighties something changed…did you see anything there?
CRICHLOW: Oh, sure, who didn’t. (laughing)
ENGEL: What? What was it? Commercialism? Either you’re Michael Jackson playing for Sony or you’re doing your own thing, scraping to get by. This is not too long after Jazz, Blues and their step-child, Rock ‘N Roll.
CRICHLOW: That’s a ticklish question because it’s like…the whole thing was a plastic plan…plastic swings. You get up so far and you swing back and get up so far and you swing back and get up so far and you swing back and every time you think you’ve got it made because you see one or two force their way in just by shear… you don’t want to call it luck because there is too much skill involved in these things. But you don’t know why this kind of thing happens. Because it has happened so many times but you don’t want to face it…because if you know why and you don’t do anything about it…
ENGEL: Okay, so we agree that, among some white people, especially kids, there was that time after the late sixties, when just to be black you were considered a rebel…
CRICHLOW: You’re not supposed to know some of these things!
ENGEL: So then there came this myth that everyone’s equal there’s no more racism –
CRICHLOW: You’ve got to be crazy if you think that…
ENGEL: But they will point to Colin Powell and say "oh look, a black man is Secretary of State, everything is okay now…"
CRICHLOW: What has he done, what is he allowed to do?
ENGEL: Yet at the same time, life for most black people has gotten worse…
CRICHLOW: You sure can’t say it’s gotten better.
ENGEL: Well, you’re either a "good black" and you’re working in a corporation somewhere, or you’re a "bad black" and end up in jail. There are more blacks in jail right now than there has ever been.
CRICHLOW: Than there has EVER been. I’d say it’s pretty true. All you have to do is walk down the street with a white person and watch the way the average person who drives by looks at you, and watch how blacks they are treated or watch how a white person in a black area will stand by the police officer.
ENGEL: When I lived in the East Village it was mixed…
CRICHLOW: Yeah, I lived down there…
ENGEL: And then I moved up to the upper West Side, a little less mixed but it was still not as obvious as the time my wife and I took a "hometown vacation" on the East Side. I noticed there were no black people except cashiers, security guards, waiters and waitresses and – not joke — elevator operators. It seems like right now New York is as segregated as Boston where all the black people live in Roxbury. Do you see this?
CRICHLOW: How can I help but see it?
ENGEL: Veering off that subject a bit, who influenced you as an artist?
ENGEL: Past and then among your peers.
CRICHLOW: I would say, of course, Titian, Rembrandt, the great portrait artists. My colleagues and I influence each other in so many ways, it’s difficult to name a particular person in that regard.
ENGEL: We’ve been talking about the past a lot, I want to ask you about the future. It seems to me that all art whether it’s drama, literature, painting or music has given way to commercial entertainment. You’ve taught for many years, you dealt with young people who were coming up. What would you say to a young person committed to creating art that might not have "commercial" value?
CRICHLOW: I never say "art," I say "life" because that’s what my art is. It’s everybody’s art whether they realize it or not. That’s what art is, it belongs to everyone. But one thing I do think that is really important is that your art reflects what is important in your life. Whether you are a writer or a musician or a painter, where are you getting your creativity from? What I mean to say is that I don’t think [modern students] see it as part of their life. They have a tendency to separate. Like "this is what I do for a living," as opposed to "this is my life."
ENGEL: Okay. This kind of goes to what we were saying before. You know, how it was "cool," among some white people, mostly naive kids like myself, to be black. It seems that the artist who goes for the money is but the artists who goes for the truth…the artist who makes art his life as opposed to his livelihood would not be considered a "success."
CRICHLOW: You know you get a part of yourself looking at art and how it’s used. I guess it comes down to this: how I express my art is either is going to make me very proud of myself or sick of myself. That’s what it all comes down to.
ENGEL: Okay. Going back to the pendulum idea. Ralph Ellison wrote "The Invisible Man" fifty years ago. Blacks were "invisible," then they became very visible, now it seems that many if not most white peoples experience of black people is like they’re not really there.
CRICHLOW: I don’t know if it’s that. This is an unusual time to be alive. I guess we could say that about every time, but what I’m saying is that this kind of racism where you have a few black celebrities and the rest are invisible has always been there, but we’ve never had the experience to recognize it…that’s what I think is. Things that may not have been apparent are very apparent now. And it didn’t last very long, maybe ten years, that black people were supposedly gaining equality and it’s not there…it’s not happening at all. You have a few like Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, trying to be white, Colin Powell, but in general you look at a magazine and you see that model you see white people. This vision of equality might have been there all along, but now it’s just an idea. I think instead of fighting for the real thing we’re settling for a picture of it.
What we’re trying to do is be white select a new whiteness. Say you get 70% seventy percent of this "whiteness," you can take that 70% and make it appear like you’re on their level and this is the point to get to and it will satisfy you for quite a while…I think that we are doing something like that…
There was a point in the 60’s or 70’s where, we thought we were getting there. Take Miles Davis, who was respected, because he said, "This is the way I am…I’m black."
But now I can walk down the streets and hear the music of black men, but very rarely do I hear it where it can be felt. You used to go to these places and hear music and you’d say "that’s Miles" and you’d say "that’s jazz, that’s blues." You don’t hear that now. You just hear loud sounds.
ENGEL: Okay, you were always your own man.
CRICHLOW: Pretty much.
ENGEL: What if you were coming up today…what if you were 30 years old right now? Would there be a lot of pressure to conform?
CRICHLOW: I think so, because growing up involved so much of fighting against it that gave me a lot of strength. It also gave me a love of certain things that I still have now, and its so very important. It was the fight to be you and part of your culture as opposed to now.
ENGEL: What about museums now? Are they accepting of black masters because they are masters or because …
CRICHLOW: No. They throw money at them. It’s about …if we can make money, then we’ll do it.
ENGEL: Right. How can those who see art as life instead of livelihood survive? Do you think there will be art in the future?
CRICHLOW: Oh, yeah. Even if it’s only a group of friends making art for themselves and each other. They’ll be there.
ADAM ENGEL can be reached at email@example.com