Bearden’s Pittsburgh roots focus of symposium

Call it kismet; call it an intersection of spatial parallels; or an artistic convergence. Whatever you call it, it happened when the August Wilson Center for African American Culture hosted the 2010 National Symposium Series, “Bearden in the Public Realm,” presented by the Romare Bearden Foundation.

KEY PARTICIPANTS—Johanne Bryant-Reid, director of the Romare Bearden Foundation in New York, John Edgar Wideman and John Brewer spoke at the event.

Bearden, regarded as one of America’s preeminent artists, is a graduate of Peabody High School and lived in East Liberty with his maternal grandparents until he went to college. His time in Pittsburgh influenced his body of paintings, murals and collages. The fruits of his 78 years influenced the work of musicians, authors and playwrights, including East Liberty neighbor, Billy Strayhorn.

That influence and appreciation of his vision and talent led to a metaphorical reunion here in Pittsburgh. The symposium’s goals are as much to share appreciation of Bearden and his impact on society as much as it is to add to the scholarship of all things Bearden.

“Pittsburgh was very important to Bearden and to his work,” said Diedra Harris-Kelley, foundation co-director. “We want to have a dialogue with Pittsburgh fans, art historians, students and artists.” That conversation drew more than 100 registrants and 40 panelists.

National artists and scholars participated in several panels ranging in topics from “Pittsburgh Memories” to “Printmaking as Practice.” Among local panel participants were Laurence Glasco and Kirk Savage, University of Pittsburgh; John M. Brewer, Trolley Station Oral History Center; Joe Trotter and Richard Purcell, Carnegie Mellon University; and Carol Brown, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust founding president.

“The panel presentations and subsequent Q&A?proved to be high level in terms of research efforts done by the panelist,” said Brewer. “Those in the audience also were highly informed on various aspects of Romare Bearden.”

“Research on Bearden’s years in Pittsburgh, especially Law­rence­ville, during the 1920s opens up a highly significant chapter of Pittsburgh Black history because it highlights the presence here of a substantial cluster of highly skilled Black steelworkers both before and during the times of the Great Migration,” said Glasco, a professor of History at Pitt. “Their presence expands our understanding of the Black industrial experience to include skilled as well as unskilled workers.”

Wideman, a critically acclaimed award-winning writer, Peabody grad and faculty member of Brown University, explained how Pittsburgh influenced Bearden, August Wilson and his own work, which he illustrated with words from “Two Cities.”

“Pittsburgh for me is people,” reflected Wideman, who drew from his life in his novels and essays. “Pittsburgh is a melting pot with a common touch and no pretension, erasing lines of position, money and race.”

He also mentioned the selection of Bearden work as art for his books and Wilson’s plays, most notably “The Piano Lesson.”

He attributed the “rawness of Pittsburgh” as a predominate influence of Bearden.

“The highlight, without any hesitation, was the words and perceptions of John Edgar Wideman. John and I have been friends for many years,” said Brewer. “I have read most of his books and observed him during interviews both live and on television. This presentation was the best I ever heard from John.”

“Hosting the Bearden Symposium was a significant public program for the August Wilson Center,” said Shay Wafer, AWC vice president for programs. “The collaboration began over a year ago and we were very pleased with the panelists, the attendance, and the in depth exploration of Bearden’s works in the public realm.”

Presentations from each symposium are compiled and transcribed into a companion publication that examines in depth Bearden’s connection to modernism as an artist and scholar.

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