Banner [Virtual] Art Gallery
Paul Goodnight in conversation with artist Larry Pierce
Sponsored by MFA/Boston
This is the third in a weekly series presenting highlights of conversations between Boston artist Paul Goodnight and leading Black visual artists in New England. In this week’s podcast, Goodnight interviews Larry Pierce. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
A Bronx native, Navy veteran and graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York, Pierce is a painter and sculptor who believes art is a record of and testimony to every aspect of the human condition and should be accessible to all. In 2005, he created the AfricanWinter Gallery in Dorchester.
Paul Goodnight: There’s a piece that I can’t keep out of my mind, this sculpture that you were doing in memory of Art Tatum. Tell us a little bit about that.
Larry Pierce: He was one of the most phenomenal pianists ever. He was praised by classical musicians. Arthur Fiedler said when he first heard him on the radio, he thought there were three people playing the piano at the same time. That’s how good and how fast he was.
There was a series of paintings that you did called “When They Were Young” — I think you’ve done Dizzy Gillespie, Melnea Cass and some others?
I’m kind of a time traveler. And when you see Melnea as a young woman, people are shocked that she was so beautiful, but she was more than beautiful. She was a firecracker. She was the mayor of Roxbury. Just like Rosa Parks. Everybody thinks Rosa was a tired old lady who didn’t want to give up her seat. Rosa was a revolutionary as a young woman. I like for young people to know that these are people in their senior years and they’re successful at whatever they do, but everybody had a starting point. Everybody looked like you when you were 12, 14, 15 years old.
How many pieces did you do in that series?
It’s still ongoing. I’m looking for a really good reference for Billie Holiday. But I did Count Basie. I did Nelson Mandela.
That’s basically documenting our history, too.
Yes. It appalls me how poorly young people are educated, and now there’s an attempt by the powers that be to make them even less (familiar with) our history. I think that it’s incumbent upon artists of color, not just Black artists, to make sure that our history is alive and kicking.
I remember the one piece with Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.
I did a piece called “Bedbugs.” It has a double meaning because I have Trump and Vladimir Putin in the same bed together. Putin has on earphones, and they’re looking at each other, and at the bottom of the blanket it says Doral — (Trump’s hotel) in Florida. Remember, they were closed down because they had a bedbug problem. There’s a lot of meaning in that piece. It’s one of the most powerful pieces I’ve ever done, and it got kicked out of the show at Northeastern (University).
Don’t you think there should be artistic freedom — that whatever we hang, we shouldn’t have to apologize for our commentary?
You have to put it out there no matter what. If the powers that be can’t deal with it, OK. But at least I did my part.
Do you feel as though you don’t have to worry about what you say when you’re creating it?
Not yet. The Chinese have a curse: “May you live in interesting times.” These are very interesting times, because they’re trying to move closer to fascism. The orange man almost got us there. They go after the intellectuals and artists, and it’s our job to hold back that tide.
Do you have any preparation rituals?
What I do is dream very lucidly. I have had dreams where the image was so powerful that I would jump right up — I keep a sketchpad by my bed — and I would just do a quick sketch before that curtain of forgetfulness closes. That’s one of my processes.
Were your parents supportive of you growing up in the arts?
Absolutely. It didn’t really dawn on me until later that I come from a family of artists. My mother was a beautician. My father was a master upholsterer. My sister’s a fantastic interior designer, and my late brother Mike was a drummer.
What’s it like when you see your imagination played out on the canvas?
I hit the usual brick wall that a lot of artists do. I pull myself out of it through dream time and visual stimulation. For instance, I did a painting of a sister who was in the waiting room at Whittier (Street Health Center). She was in hijab, so you could only see her eyes. But she was talking on her cellphone. And I’m like, wow, this is the juxtaposition of that old culture and the future. I took a picture before she knew I was doing it.
Did you paint it?
Yes, I did. It’s one of my favorite paintings.