Artist and art educator Richard Sutton has been based in Bermuda for over ten years. When he first moved to the island from the United States, he was struck by how the art he saw exhibited in local galleries only reflected one aspect of the Bermuda he knew and did not tell “the whole story of the people that lived on the island”.
Having been confronted by systemic racism and “violence against Black bodies” for many years whilst living in NYC, he came face to face with gang violence shortly after moving to Bermuda when one of his students was directly affected by it. His early work explores this reality, whilst the series he is currently working on provides hope for where he wants to go.
As America comes to terms with the fate of Ralph Yarl and Richard prepares to teach a six-week charcoal drawing class at the Bermuda National Gallery, we caught up with him to discuss why the freedom to create openly and honestly has not always been there and how art can help us tell our stories if we are brave enough to tell them.
BNG: You are both an artist and an art educator. Does one affect the other and if so in what ways?
RS: I have been an artist and art educator for 24 years. It is only within the last 7 that have I juggled both consistently. Teaching during the day affects my art in several ways. The most obvious is that my energy level to create my own work is decreased. After a day of teaching, I usually push through to find mental and physical energy.
After working for 4-5 hours of painting, I hit my sweet spot and want to keep going. By that time, I usually have to stop painting and get rest for the next day. On average, with teaching and creating artwork, I can easily have a 13-hour workday. It also means that I have less time to consider what to do next, or to develop a concept for a painting. Lots of mental energy is given to guiding students on their work.
My schedule does not lend much opportunity for a balanced life. I have not been able to pour into friendships, or myself, as I desire because of the goals I have with my own artwork. All in all, I create less work because I am both educator and artist. But I am proud to say that I practice what I teach.
BNG: Your artistic practice is focused on large scale paintings which explore the realities of systemic racism and the violence facing many young Black men. You have, in the past, spoken about how as a high school teacher in NYC you came face to face with gang violence, which affected your students. Sadly, the same has been true of your experience in Bermuda. Can you please tell us about this?
RS: My earlier work stems from violence on a whole in the United States. In my first year of teaching in New York City, I learned of the unfortunate story of Amadou Diallo. This was the first time I learned of this type of police shooting. The incident with Abner Louima being mistreated by the police followed shortly. All echoed back to the song Strange Fruit that I had learned about a few years earlier while at university. Then, September 11 happened. I had so many questions and distrust of what we were being told. It forced me to look at the idea of “America” and its history.
Throughout all of this, my students were telling me they were being stopped and frisked by the police on the way to or from school. Please understand that my students dressed in uniform exactly like they do here in Bermuda. They were stopped for being young and of African descent. The nature of the United States is a violent one. My earlier paintings have dealt with that violence on “Black bodies”.
When I arrived in Bermuda – paradise – I learned of the gang problem. That was 2014. Unfortunately, it got pretty close to me at some point. For three years, I visited the galleries and museums on island. I noticed that most of the work in Bermuda focused on the beauty of the beaches, birds, turtles, ships, cottages, etc. Not much told the whole story of the people that lived on the island. The people that built the cottages. I personally wanted to see work that challenged. I suppose that was my activist side manifesting from my earlier experiences as a young educator in NYC. My first painting seen in Bermuda was La Pieta which means The Pity. I wanted to tell of the story of the gang violence on island. I wanted to paint the image of a mother holding her son’s body as large as possible so that it would be hard to ignore. There is so much to discuss in art.
BNG: In what ways have experiences such as these shaped your artistic practice?
RS: These experiences have shaped my artistic practice in wanting to create work that helps to tell a story. In the visual arts world, it has only been recently that the opportunity to everyone’s story is accepted more readily. When I had my first show in Bermuda, I was told that images of black people do not sell. The freedom to create openly and honestly has not always been there. Langston Hughes wrote an article The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain in the early 1900s which echoed what I was told and seeing around me.
As for my views and my practice, I am now creating a series of hope and enlightenment as I have grown. The growth I have attained is from my own search for understanding of who I am and where I come from. It is an education that the system never afforded me. Although it is not part of my experiences, it provides hope for where I want to go.
BNG: How can art help us to tell our stories?
RS: Art can help us tell our stories by being brave enough to tell them. Not everyone is able to have the opportunity to tell these stories to help bridge any gaps in society. I believe a strong artwork provides opportunity to have discussion, deliberation, hopefully conversation. James Baldwin stated, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” I believe that the power of art is to create the opportunity for all to face anything. Horace Pippen, Jean Michel Basquiat, Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden found it necessary to have what they witnessed faced, remembered. I love that about art.
BNG: Your artistic influences are wide ranging – from Kara Walker, Edward Hopper, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera to the Old Masters. In what way do each of these inspire you and how do they come together in your work?
RS: Yes, I admire these artists and more. When I was a 20-year-old art student, I was told my work was reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s paintings. I had no idea who Hopper was and looked up his work. I believe it was his lighting, that the comparison was made. I was always drawn to strong contrast in artwork. Caravaggio is another favourite. I love that he used everyday people to tell his story, not to mention, his use of lighting is incredible.
At my tender years, I always wanted to paint like Renaissance or Baroque painters but tell my own stories. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera both told their own stories of personal experiences and championed the people. Rivera painted to teach the Mexican people their history. I really admire that. I saved Kara Walker for last. When I first discovered her work, I was in an airport, looking through a magazine. There was an article about The Sugar Baby (Sphinx). That led me to discover her silhouette art. I found her topics to be fearless. That encouraged me to paint what I wanted to paint. Her work encouraged me to say what I wanted to say as an artist. Additionally, Odd Nerdrum paintings of people defecating became my license to kill. I simply want to be able to create freely.
BNG: You will be teaching a six-week charcoal drawing class at BNG, beginning on May 3. What do you have planned for the programme?
RS: During the time I will spend with the class, I plan to teach them to not just shade, but see in a way that will allow them to more accurately render what they want, despite material. During the class, we will be focused on working with a charcoal drawing pencil.
Portrait painter, Harry Ahn, back in 1994 told me forget everything I know, and taught me to draw in an academic way. I will teach the students to draw in the same way I learned. The end product will have a similar finish as a painting.
BNG: You previously taught charcoal drawing as part of our Draw & Explore programme, and again at the City Arts Fest. What is it about the medium that you enjoy?
RS: I really enjoyed both experiences and I am excited to be teaching in this capacity. It was electrifying for both my model and me at the end of the City Arts Fest. Honestly, I absolutely enjoy drawing with charcoal or this particular drawing pencil. It is a material that is easy to handle and can create an end result that mimics the same technique as using oil paint. It is a great precursor to oil painting in my opinion. The end product is usually very strong because of the contrast and effect of the material.
BNG: What was your experience of the City Arts Fest?
RS: As mentioned before, I felt electrified. It was not just me that felt it. I saw it on the participants faces and several others shared that sentiment. My beautiful model, Zalika Millett was perfect. She sat till for 1.5 hrs. Absolutely still. I have never seen that before. She was dressed perfectly in African clothing. There was light Afro-beat music playing, and everyone was curious.
Many people stayed for most of the session which created a large crowd. Some had to maneuverer so others could have room to join. The skill set varied, but everyone was happy with their work. This is the reason I love to teach art. I love sharing my skillset with others. It was great working with adults. I have thought about it before, it is hard to say why the experience felt so electric.
BNG: How can we get more young people involved in the arts and why is it important to do so?
RS: It is important to get young people involved in art in order for them to understand that their voices are important to society. It is important for young people to be involved in the arts because understanding others work can possibly change the way they see the world, can change their perspectives on things. It is important for young people to get involved because they may have a career in it and have a future. It is important for them to be able to pass on the importance of it on to future generations.
If our schools, some educators, and some parents, only encourage the narrative of the importance of the 3 Rs – Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic, then we have a society that is not creative, not innovative. Design as a component of the arts allows us to thrive and to solve problems. Creativity, problem solving, and innovation, are a fantastic breeding ground for development in the arts.
Charcoal Drawing with Richard Sutton will be held on Wednesday evenings, May 3 – June 7 from 5:30pm to 7pm. The six-week programme is $150 for BNG members, $200 for non-members. Click here to register.