Artist of Color
A vibrant exhibit at the KMA and a month of celebration shine a light on Beauford Delaney, Knoxville’s visionary and troubled painter, and his relationship with the writer James Baldwin.
by jesse fox mayshark • february 7, 2020
left, "Portrait of James Baldwin," by beauford delaney, 1944; right, Baldwin and delaney in paris, ca. 1960. (Images courtesy of the Knoxville museum of art.)
Brandon Gibson moved to Knoxville with his family when he was in high school. Their first address was on Dandridge Avenue. Gibson graduated from Austin-East High School.
A gay African-American artist from East Knoxville who followed his own vision.
Beauford Delaney was born and raised in East Knoxville a century before Gibson arrived, and his family lived on Dandridge Avenue. Generations of Delaneys graduated from Austin-East and its segregated predecessor Austin High, Knoxville’s first high school for African-American students.
“I never heard anything about him at all,” Gibson said.
Later this month, Gibson will sing the part of Beauford Delaney in a new opera, ShadowLight, being premiered by Marble City Opera as part of a month-long celebration called The Delaney Project — Gathering Light.
The events focus on Delaney’s complex relationship with the writer James Baldwin, who was close to him for 38 years. The overarching goal is to reintroduce the visionary painter to his hometown and build on a burgeoning international interest in his life and work.
Gibson, who is also managing director of Marble City Opera, said, “I applaud Knoxville for wanting to do this now.”
The centerpiece of the celebration opens to the public tonight, in a wide-ranging exhibit of Delaney’s paintings at the Knoxville Museum of Art. Spanning nearly the artist’s entire career, they weave together a story of Delaney’s closeness to Baldwin and the influences they had on each other.
More importantly, they give a rare opportunity to see a large selection of Delaney’s work in one place, 48 paintings that evolve from early portraiture to pure abstraction, most of it full of bright, vivid colors.
There is a scholarly component to the month, with a symposium Feb. 20-21 at the University of Tennessee, bringing together academics from across the country.
And the Beck Cultural Exchange Center is hosting an evening with the Knoxville Opera Gospel Choir at the Bijou Theatre on Feb. 24 called “The Art of Delaney: Redeeming, Reconciling and Healing.” The center has purchased the former Delaney family home, which is right next to its headquarters on Dandridge Avenue, and plans to restore it.
With his warm, smiling face lining Gay Street and other thoroughfares this month on banners hung from lamp poles, Beauford Delaney has never been more visible in Knoxville.
Sylvia Peters, the arts patron who is chair of the Delaney Project, said, “I hope that this project and all that’s going on at the museum will open the eyes and the minds of people” — both to Delaney himself and to the richness of Knoxville’s cultural heritage.
Peters added, “These things form a sense of place and a sense of feeling grounded somewhere.”
‘Out of the Darkness’
The museum exhibit includes a display case of items from Delaney’s archives, including sketchpads, photographs and correspondence. One letter is from Baldwin to a prospective benefactor, touting Delaney’s talent and seeking support for him.
“He comes out of the darkness of Tennessee, which was conceivably darker then than it is now,” Baldwin wrote of his friend and mentor.
Delaney was born in Knoxville in 1901 and grew up in and around the city — his father was an itinerant preacher — and attended what was then called Knoxville Colored High School. He and his brother, Joseph, were singled out by their principal, Charles Cansler, for their artistic talents. Cansler sent them to study with established Knoxville artist Lloyd Branson.
Delaney moved to Boston in 1921 and had success as a portrait painter. He then moved to Harlem, where he was soon joined by Joseph, and the two became part of Harlem Renaissance arts and culture scene.
Baldwin was 15 when he first met Delaney, who was 38 at the time. Baldwin wrote, “I walked through that door into Beauford’s colors.” (That fact and several others here come from the exhibit catalog, edited by KMA curator Stephen Wicks, who worked for years to assemble the exhibit and has long been a champion for Delaney’s work and legacy.)
"I hope that this project and all that’s going on at the museum will open the eyes and the minds of people.” – Sylvia Peters, chair, The Delaney Project
Baldwin and Delaney had much in common, despite the age difference. Both were preacher’s kids — Baldwin’s stepfather pastored a church — both were black men with artistic ambitions in a society that did not encourage them.
Both were also gay, which has led to speculation over the years about whether they were lovers. There is no evidence of that, although some archives in both estates are still closed. But the depths of the two men’s affection and respect for each other is clear.
David Butler, the KMA’s executive director, said, “It was an intense, meaningful friendship that kind of sustained both of them.”
Baldwin credited Delaney with opening his eyes to art and culture and a way of living in the world. Both were big music fans, and the exhibit includes several Delaney portraits of prominent jazz artists. Baldwin was the first to move to Paris, and Delaney followed him, settling in as an expatriate for the rest of his life.
Baldwin became one of the best-known African-American writers and public intellectuals of the Civil Rights era, traveling widely but always maintaining contact with Delaney. When a long struggle with schizophrenia eventually incapacitated Delaney in the 1970s, tormenting him with voices in his head, Baldwin and a group of friends paid to hospitalize him in Paris. Delaney died in an asylum there in 1979.
Delaney painted the whole time, leaving behind a large and varied body of work with many evolutionary phases. But he remained obscure for decades, partly because his estate was tangled, leaving much of his work inaccessible to museums or collectors.
With legal issues resolved, recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in him. A New York Times article in 2016 called him “one of the most important African-American artists of the 20th Century.”
The article also said, “he has remained largely unknown in his native Knoxville, Tenn.”
Peters had not heard of Delaney when she and her husband moved to Knoxville from Chicago in 1992. They were art collectors, with an interest in overlooked African-American artists of the Works Progress Administration era.
Peters said some people refer to those artists as “outsider artists,” and she corrects them. “It wasn’t outside art, it was done by some of the best African-American artists in the country.”
She said there has been a tendency to see black artists’ marginalization as a reflection on their skill or training rather than as the institutional racism it was. She discovered Delaney through Wicks, after she joined the KMA board of trustees.
At the time, Joseph Delaney — who lived out his later years in Knoxville — was better-known locally than his brother. A prolific and respected artist himself, in a more realist mode than Beauford, in the 1980s he was a visiting artist at the University of Tennessee.
As the KMA’s mission evolved over the years to a focus on East Tennessee art, so did the museum’s interest in acquiring work by major regional artists. Beauford Delaney remained elusive until the museum reached an agreement with his estate in 2013 to house his archives.
Since then, with help from a wide array of benefactors — including the Aslan Foundation and, with Peters’ urging, the Knoxville chapter of the Links — KMA has built the world’s largest collection of Delaney’s art.
In 2016, Butler received an invitation to a Delaney exhibit in Paris, organized by a French Delaney enthusiast named Monique Wells. He asked Peters if she wanted to go.
“I said, shucks yeah I’m going,” said Peters, who also invited some of her friends. They were all blown away both by the exhibit and the respect accorded Delaney in Paris.
“We went to the exhibit and decided while we were there that we had to do something to bring the essence of Beauford to Knoxville,” Peters said.
The Delaney Project was born. The museum built interest with a 2017 exhibit showing a limited number of Delaney’s works alongside selections from his papers and sketchbooks. It acquired 12 more works in 2018, giving it a total of 16.
Last year, the museum received a $40,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to help fund the exhibit opening tonight, which is called “Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin: Through the Unusual Door.” The title comes from a song that Baldwin reports Delaney often sang: “Lord, open the unusual door…”
"He had great memories of here, but I think there were really painful ones too. Knoxville represented oppression and segregation. It was a complicated, layered thing.” – David Butler, executive director of the Knoxville Museum of Art, on Beauford Delaney.
Peters, an abstract art aficionado, said she especially loves the near-psychedelic colors in Delaney’s later works, which she says still feel forward-looking.
“I think it points to the future of where we’re going,” she said.
Peters said that Delaney, who lived in poverty most of his life, might have made more money if he’d stuck with his early line of portraiture.
“Beauford was a master at mixing color,” she said. “He could have made a very good living doing realistic things, but the brother was interested in abstraction.”
Letters and Songs
Amy Elias, a professor of English and director of the Humanities Center at UT Knoxville, volunteered to organize the symposium. She won a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities to help underwrite it.
“Plus UT is so excited about this idea that a number of (academic) units also contributed internal money,” Elias said.
The response was equally eager when she put out a national call for papers: “I have 26 people coming in who are essentially the biggest scholars working on Baldwin and Delaney today in the United states.”
Among them are David Leeming, a former assistant to Baldwin who has written biographies of both Baldwin and Delaney; and keynote speaker Fred Moten, a poet and theorist who has helped raise academic awareness of Delaney. (Also appearing at an invitation-only reception is New Yorker critic Hilton Als.)
Elias said the roster is heavier with Baldwin scholars than Delaney scholars, because until recently there was very little Delaney scholarship. That is changing both because the recent surge of interest in Baldwin has shone more light on Delaney, and because as a gay black artist from the South who moved in the legendary artistic circles of his time, he is a singular figure.
“It’s a really exciting time to run this symposium,” Elias said. “I did it because I was plugged into the scholarly conversation to some extent, but mainly I just wanted to help out with this project and give something to the city.”
She said it was a natural partnership between the university and local institutions and organizations, something UT has been deliberately seeking more of in recent years.
Another partnership came from Peters’ determination that the celebration include music. “I said to people, we have to have new music, we need an opera,” she said. She found a librettist in Emily Anderson and connected with the Marble City Opera, which in turn contracted with composer Larry Delinger.
Marble City Opera, which calls itself a “chamber opera,” has a mission of performing new works, in English, in unconventional spaces. The idea is to make opera accessible rather than forbidding. Venues to date have included a church courtyard, a bar and Blount Mansion. ShadowLight will be performed Feb. 28 and 29 at the Beck Cultural Exchange Center.
Gibson said the opera is about an hour long and surveys Delaney’s life retrospectively from its end, with particular emphasis on his friendship with Baldwin. He said the form is a fitting tribute to the artist.
“His entire life, he loved music,” Gibson said. “A lot of his work, especially in New York, was jazz singers and musicians he was a fan of.”
This month’s events are the start of what all involved hope could lead to the establishment of a permanent Delaney center in Knoxville, which could house his archives and highlight his work and maybe that of other Southern African-American artists. It’s unclear which institution might accommodate that, but the connections formed in working on the Delaney Project will probably help.
Butler said the celebration of Delaney’s life and work in his hometown probably would have gratified the artist, who had plenty of negative associations with the segregated city. The voices in his head telling him he was no good, he was queer, he should kill himself, many of them were echoes from his early years.
“They were Knoxville voices,” Butler said. “Those were the voices of his childhood, so he kind of carried Knoxville with him.”
Still, he came back to visit several times through the years.
“He loved his family,” Butler said. “He had great memories of here, but I think there were really painful ones too. Knoxville represented oppression and segregation. It was a complicated, layered thing.
“But I think this would mean something to him. To see his face up and down Gay Street, it’s a pretty awesome thing.”
Peters said when the banners first went up on the lamp poles, she went to see them by herself.
“I just had a little cry,” she said.