Pamela Reed and I met with Willie Birch in early 2019. His studio is a small green shotgun cottage in the 7th Ward of New Orleans packed with beautiful artwork. Willie is a master at his craft and his studio is the place where he diligently brings all of his ideas to fruition. It was an honor for us to be able to spend a morning discussing art with him in his studio.
The driving passion that Willie Birch uses to create art is rooted in his experience growing up within the Magnolia Housing Project in heavily segregated New Orleans. Much of Willie’s youth focused on activism for African Americans in the Civil Rights era. As a young artist he was denied access to public art museums based on the color of his skin. In spite of this, he managed to find ways to beat the system and move forward in his quest to forge an art career that mattered.
Willie’s activism in the era of segregation made him and his family a target for police. At one point his mother even lost her job because of his reputation as an activist. Willie began looking for a way out of the dire situation he was in and found it through service in the military.
“I scored very well on my tests, so I was given the choice of where I wanted to be stationed. I chose Holland because I wanted to see all of the art that I’d read about in books.”
In 1965, Willie returned to the United States. He enrolled in Southern University of New Orleans where he completed his Bachelor of Arts degree. He received his MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland.
In the early 1970s, Willie moved to New York and had his first show. “Bill Fagaly (NOMA’s first curator of African Art) wrote the catalog for that show. I also received a full page in the NY Times! It was a major achievement.”
Willie was based in New York for many years. He also traveled and taught art around the world. However, the lure of New Orleans was ever present in his mind. In 1993 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him to return to his hometown and he has lived here ever since.
“Eventually I realized that the imagery I was interested in was that of contemporary New Orleans. New Orleans is vegetative. Things are constantly overgrowing. Life and death are constantly running into each other. It’s metaphoric, when you think of the way we exist. Everything here is based on the river, which creates a natural syncopation or rhythm.”
When Willie returned to New Orleans he settled in the 7th Ward. Much of the art he creates is inspired by that community and the scenes of daily life within his neighborhood. The themes in his work often address poverty and racial disparity within the African American community.
“I’m an antagonist! I like to force viewers to think about things. For me that’s the purpose of art. My whole existence has been challenging the system.”
“The visual artist is not thought of very highly in this city, but nothing great comes without pain and effort. My life has mostly been a fairy tale story, but there were struggles all through out.”
Willie is primarily concerned with being human and encouraging people to respect each other as human beings as well, regardless of their race or economic background.
“There’s too much sickness and greed within our society. I don’t believe that too many people have real money in our society. We live in a country of debtors.”
Willie’s artistic style is distinctive. He’s spent many years focusing on making art out of paper and papier mache’. He favors the delicate ephemeral quality of paper and the fact that he can transform something that has very little value on its own into valuable works of art. Willie has also chosen to create his pieces primarily in Black and White.
“The artwork I make is very complicated, but each piece is intended to look very simple. I use acrylics these days rather than oil. It’s all in the glazing technique. I want to get the transparency and illumination of oil, but lessen the drying time.”
When a viewer sets out to analyze Willie’s art, it becomes apparent that there are many layers involved: the execution, it’s meaning, and the subsequent interpretation. As Willie believes, “The more layers you can create in your art – without it becoming overly complex – that’s what gives your art the energy and the emotional aspect that you need to get your message across to the viewer.”
“An artist’s job is to interpret the times in which we live. Once a civilization stops producing art, it goes into decline. Art is an essential part of society. Every member of society wants to express that they are here or that they have been here.”
“As human beings we’re all connected, and the art each civilization creates reflects that. For example, when I went to Egypt, I was able to see how the Greeks and the Romans took the knowledge gained in building the pyramids to start their own building projects. We have to acknowledge that we all effect each other and learn from each other as human beings.”
Willie’s long career as an artist encompasses six bodies of work. Currently, Willie is finishing his 300 Tricentennial Series on New Orleans. The two works he had displayed for us in his studio during our visit were “Looking Toward Algiers” and “The American Dream: Myth or Reality? The White Picket Fence”.
“Looking Toward Algiers” is an image of a ship looking across the Mississippi river towards Algiers, Louisiana where enslaved Africans were held before being ferried over to be auctioned in the city prior to the Civil War. The sky in the image is foreboding and the subject matter is reminiscent of a J.MS. Turner painting. But the image is also a contemporary moment.
“The American Dream: Myth or Reality? The White Picket Fence” questions what we imagine as the American ideal. As Americans are we all supposed to aspire to having that perfect house with the white picket fence? Are all the people that live behind those white picket fences happy and content?
Willie has had opportunities to work as an artist in residence all over the world. A pivotal moment in his career happened when he was working in Nairobi, Kenya in 1992. The Kenyan Minister of Culture confronted him about the theme of oppression in his work. The artwork in particular had a black man with a boot on his head. Willie recalls the minister said, “If you weren’t an American, you would be in serious trouble. Do you get it?”
Willie said, ” It was at that moment I started to re-evaluate what this country does for me, regardless of how it has also oppressed me. It allows me to say what I want to say with my art. There are people here who will support me rather than put me behind bars and throw me away. That was an important moment! That was the day I realized I was an American!
“Great art comes from challenging the status quo. An artist must have the freedom to do that. Picasso’s Guernica was a great piece of art because of how it confronts the evils of Fascism. Picasso was making a statement about Spain and the impact that Fascism was having on his home country and the rest of the world. The artist is the one who makes sense of everything.”
“I’ve made a concerted effort that I will die or live on my own merits. My work is in every major museum in America. Now, at 76, it’s just about having fun.
“I hate that the art world has turned itself into such a profit making machine. I don’t like to make the same thing over and over again. I don’t create my art to make money, but luckily it makes money anyway.”
You can learn more about Willie Birch and his art at https://www.williebirch.com/