by Wendy Powers
'If art is good, if art is working then art is speaking, and it communicates something about the human experience.' A gifted artist and an inspiring teacher, Lonnie Graham believes that art should contribute to the community. It should not be elitist and esoteric, understood and appreciated only by a chosen few. Instead, art should involve the sharing of ideas and experiences, and the artist should maintain a vital role in the community.
His life and work are about the continuity of life, sharing from individual to family to community to the world. 'There's a conviction I have about people, a passionate regard for life. I think I'm looking for some real, essential thing. And I'm very curious about that.'
Lonnie is the Director of Photography at the Manchester Craftsman's Guild (MCG), where he teaches photography to Pittsburgh high school students. In his teaching he goes beyond the mechanics, drawing on his life experiences. In high school Lonnie was not interested in algebra or biology, but his love of the Arts led him to earn both a Bachelor's and a Master's degree in Fine Arts. His belief that art is most vital and accessible when it communicates, or teaches, about the human experience has led him to teaching, at the MCG as well as Pittsburgh Filmmaker's.
Lonnie shares his insights with his students, young and old. He tells them that the hard part of photography is not mechanical, but 'the confrontation of self.' He stresses the origin of the camera: the small dark chamber pierced by a shaft of light that carries with it an image of the world outside. The photographer controls the shaft of light, and uses the camera to express how he sees the world. In this way Lonnie sees photography as an introspective process.
At the same time, 'It's my contention that the process becomes inclusive rather than exclusive, so that socially and politically, I believe that we're bound to reality--to that thing that we can know and see and feel, so that as a photographer and as a responsible artist, not only do I want to depict that reality, but I have a responsibility to that reality.'
Lonnie's work reflects his views on responsibility to reality and the communication of human experience. One of his more successful projects, Aunt Dora's Room, was an installation piece in honor of Dora Simmons, the aunt that raised him. The installation centered around a portrait that Lonnie had taken of his aunt when he was eight years old, and was surrounded by a faithful reproduction of Dora's living room. A similar installation, Conversations at my Father's Table, was a reproduction of his father's dining room with large sheets of deteriorating paper in the background, representing the effects of Alzheimer's on his life. These projects were very personal, and yet could easily be related to byLonnie's sense of responsibility as an artist is best exemplified by a project commissioned by the Three Rivers Arts Festival. Jeanne Pearlman of Three Rivers, asked for a kitchen, to go with the two previous installations. Thinking about kitchens led Lonnie to thoughts of gardens. 'The fact is that everybody's got to eat, and there's basically only one thing you can do to for food, dig into the dirt and help it come out. This is something that I noticed as I worked with Uncle Lloyd in the garden at my house, and in my travels to Africa. I recognized that both of these people were doing something similar, on complete opposite sides of the globe.' These thoughts led to the project becoming much more than a kitchen.
To start the project, Lonnie went to Homewood in Pittsburgh and 'found some people who were very interested in eating-- welfare mothers--because they don't have any food. They don't have any money to go buy food. So they had been digging in a little vacant lot with tablespoons.' Lonnie had a government agency deposit topsoil on the vacant lot so the women would have fertile soil. Then the women planted in the lot. 'They decided what they wanted to do, and they did it as a team, a group effort. Everybody worked on everything at once, like they do in Kenya. They didn't say ‘OK, this section is yours, this section is mine.' Everybody came and helped each other, which was exciting.'
'I wanted people to go further with this project; I wanted there to be a physical exchange, as well as an exchange of ideas.' So Lonnie arranged for Africans to come over to the United States, and everyone exchanged recipes and ways to maintain the garden. Soon he will be taking a group of Americans to Africa.
The garden is not the end of the project. Lonnie has enlisted the services of other artists in the United States to work with the women from Homewood. Iris Parker is producing a heritage cookbook with them, a collection of women's ideas and recipes from Africa and America. Another artist, Neil Russell, is going to paint murals in the Homewood gardens. And an African woman is coming to show the women how to make indigo, and their own fabric.
Lonnie explains, 'The idea is to keep these artists working, and to give these people an idea--a real idea--about the arts, and to show them how integral the arts are to their lives, to make it as vital as it can be, and to make it worthwhile so it's not some stupid esoteric exercise that some people do in a studio and it's all over.' The art is not aloof; it involves real people.
The African American project, as the garden project has come to be called, communicates something of the human experience. It opened up communication between people who would not have met otherwise, people with much in common and much to learn from one another. Beyond the participants in the project, it communicates to anyone who sees the gardens and murals, or reads the cookbook, about the lives, the human experiences, of the people involved.
'People have to understand how vital the role of the artist is. In the old days, artists would sit in huts and people would come to them. They were consulted. Art should involve sharing ideas. We all come with our own experiences. When we start to share all of this stuff we have, then we're teaching ... then we're learning. We're sharing experiences and insights through language and pictures.'