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Leslie King Hammond – Making Order Out of the Chaos

Leslie King Hammond  – Making Order Out of the Chaos
Betsy Curator, Dr. Leslie King Hammond (Senior Fellow at Robert W. Deutsch Foundation), PRIZM Curator, Rosie Gordon Wallace (Founder of Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator), and MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship Winner Deborah Willis (Author and Chair of Photography at NYU – at a Betsy Hotel Salon on her book Question Bridge – during Art Basel Miami Beach week, 2015. Photo: Dylan Rives, 2015, used with permission of The Betsy Hotel.

Betsy Curator, Dr. Leslie King Hammond (Senior Fellow at Robert W. Deutsch Foundation), PRIZM Curator, Rosie Gordon Wallace (Founder of Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator), and MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship Winner Deborah Willis (Author and Chair of Photography at NYU – at a Betsy Hotel Salon on her book Question Bridge – during Art Basel Miami Beach week, 2015. Photo: Dylan Rives, 2015, used with permission of The Betsy Hotel.

 

Lunching recently in the BLT restaurant at The Betsy Hotel, South Beach, Leslie King-Hammond paused in mid-sentence, mischief in her eye, “I’m an angry black woman,” she declared, smiling. The two white men at the table, one a reporter and the other Jonathan Plutzik, The Betsy’s owner, nodded in appreciation. But neither doubted King-Hammond’s seriousness for an instant, the jovial infectiousness of her energy notwithstanding.

For the fifth consecutive year, Hammond, graduate dean emeritus at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), in Baltimore, was in Miami Beach to curate the Art Basel exhibits inside The Betsy Hotel. Among them are a partial retrospective of the under-appreciated abstract expressionist painter Grace Hartigan, shadowboxes by the rising Trinidadian artist Christopher Crozier, and a photo exhibit, Rebuilding the City: Black Lives Matter.

Hammond loved every moment of the afternoon’s long discussion of her life and work. Her identity as an angry black woman harks back to the year she was 12. Inflamed by news of the murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi, and the fate of Anne Frank, whose book she had just read, King-Hammond wrote an anonymous letter of protest to her school. She objected to one teacher’s use of the phrase “primitive people.” Nothing happened.

“That was the last anonymous letter I wrote,” Hammond said. “If you’re not willing to stand up, don’t write it down.”

The oldest child of Barbadian immigrants, King-Hammond seethed under her mother, who disapproved of her political awareness. Her father, a follower of Marcus Garvey, quietly approved, but did not stand up for his daughter. At 18, King-Hammond cut off all her hair, bought a pack of cigarettes, and told her mother, ”This is who I am!” The following day, she had her ears pierced. Soon she read The Feminist Mystique and met Betty Friedan. Her radicalization expanded to women’s rights.

King-Hammond quit a good job at GE (“I hated it”) to accept a scholarship at City University of New York, Queens College. Her family thought she had lost her mind.  She followed this with a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where she earned an MA and PhD in art history. Since 1973 she has worked at MICA as a professor, administrator, artist, author, curator, and founding director of the college’s Center for Race and Culture.

Increasingly, she found her greatest power came in facilitating others to pursue artistic ambitions. She set about learning how to write, how to curate, how to raise money, how to meet and cultivate important people who might be willing to help.

“I never stopped being an artist,” King-Hammond said. “But it was not essential for me to establish myself. I may be an angry black woman, as I said. But I don’t tear things up. I channel that anger into projects to help other artists.”

That’s how King-Hammond met Plutzik’s sister, Deborah Briggs, now the Vice President for Philanthropy and Community at The Betsy. “She was my development person at MICA,” King-Hammond said. “I like Deb’s way of thinking, her chutzpah. Deborah understood the coding system, the system by which people of color and other suppressed people communicate with each other. We worked on projects that brought disenfranchised artists into the mainstream. We were kindred in another life. “

That friendship brought King-Hammond to The Betsy for Art Basel. “Deb called me up and said her brother had bought this hotel in Miami,” King-Hammond recalled. “She said they wanted to place an emphasis on arts and culture. I couldn’t think of one other hotel that was doing this.”

It never occurred to King-Hammond that The Betsy would not welcome the Black Lives Matter exhibit. The show began as a project initiated by art students at Morgan State University, an HBCU (historically black college or university) in Baltimore. “It was a direct response to the Black Lives Matter protest movement,” King-Hammond said. For more than a year the students refined the project – photo portraits of themselves – under the guidance of Christopher Metzger, a MICA graduate who was teaching computer graphics and digital photography at Morgan State at the time.  (He now teaches at Stevenson University in Baltimore.)

 

Artist Christopher Metzger (Betsy visiting artist and creator of Black Lives Matter – the exhibit), with his son ZION, at a salon on Rebuilding the City: Image and Deed – at The Betsy during Art Basel Miami Beach, 2015. Photo: Dylan Rives, 2015, used with permission of The Betsy Hotel.

Artist Christopher Metzger (Betsy visiting artist and creator of Black Lives Matter – the exhibit), with his son ZION, at a salon on Rebuilding the City: Image and Deed – at The Betsy during Art Basel Miami Beach, 2015. Photo: Dylan Rives, 2015, used with permission of The Betsy Hotel.

 

“Chris called and said they needed a building to plaster these giant images on,” King-Hammond said. As it happened, she was already collaborating with the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation on “OpenWorks,” turning two abandoned Baltimore buildings into studios, “makerspace,” and an incubator lab.“ The foundation people immediately got excited. And so we did it.”

 

Photo used with permission of the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation.

Photo used with permission of the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation.

 

The timing, sadly, could not have been better. While Metzger’s students were in the final stages of preparing the outdoor exhibit, a young Baltimore man named Freddie Gray died in police custody. Days of rioting and civil unrest followed. “People were not so much outraged about Freddie Gray as the continuum his death is a part of,” King-Hammond said. But the impact on the community when the Black Lives Matter art project went up, plastering young black faces on a large blank building, was profound. “People would brake their cars in the street and get out for a better look,” she said. “Many had never seen black people publicly represented in that way.”

 

King-Hammond may be a strong advocate for black art. But she’s an equal opportunity facilitator, using her knowledge, skills, and contacts to benefit other marginalized communities. “I identify with anybody who is getting kicked down,” she said. “African Americans, LGBT, it doesn’t matter.” That commitment is evident in the Grace Hartigan paintings hanging in The Betsy’s lobby and bar.

 

Grace Hartigan, Picasso Woman, 2007. Pastel on paper. 34.5 x 27 inches. Photo used with permission of Rex Stevens.

Grace Hartigan, Picasso Woman, 2007. Pastel on paper. 34.5 x 27 inches. Photo used with permission of Rex Stevens.

 

“Grace is nobody’s idea of an outsider artist,” King-Hammond said. “Her early work in the ‘40s and ‘50s was taken very seriously. She was a member of the New York School that included Jackson Pollock. But she was a woman. And in the late ‘50s she started using recognizable forms in her abstract art, which cost her with the critics.”

After Hartigan married and moved to Baltimore in 1959, the Manhattan art world paid less and less attention. But she continued to paint, her style continued to mature. She worked at MICA from 1965 until her death in 2008. King-Hammond knew her well. “She is an exceptional artist,” King-Hammond said, “a fiercely dynamic woman who did not participate in the feminist movement, but whether she knew it or not, she lived it. For example, she made sure the incoming students at MICA were extremely diverse, long before diversity became an overused word.”

While Grace Hartigan, like too many creative women of her era, has “fallen between the lines,” as King-Hammond said, her reputation is likely to improve with time. But what of young artists today, grappling in a world riven by old hatreds thought buried, at a time when higher education seems intent on abandoning the humanities in favor of a hard focus on science, math, and technology.

“I’m passionate about the role of the arts in government and society,” King-Hammond said. “Artists have a definitive place in the 21st century. With all these challenges facing us all, the only ones who make order out of the chaos are the artists, the writers, the architects.”