Artist Phoebe Beasley on why she uses to her art to celebrate the past

Angel Idowu
·4 min read

In the second episode of Eric’s Perspective, a podcast dedicated to exploring African American art, Eric Hanks talks with renowned artist Phoebe Beasley

“The secret is to keep getting up and doing the work and be grateful and thankful that so many people lived and died on your behalf.” 

In the second episode of Eric’s Perspective, a podcast dedicated to exploring African American art, Eric Hanks talks with renowned artist Phoebe Beasley, who specializes in oils-on-canvas, as well as prints and collages. 

Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Phoebe Beasley moved to California in 1969 to pursue art full time. She worked as a high school art teacher and painted in the evenings. It was while teaching her students, Beasley said she ran out of ink and paint and decided to improvise. They created collages; using papers, magazines and whatever else they could find.

Read More: California artist shares how the civil rights era still influences his work today

Seeing her students create these pieces encouraged her to explore the medium on her own. So she began to collect papers and other materials from all over the world; like Sri Lanka and India or rice papers from Japan. She’d also get a lot of her materials from what she described as a “Phoebe box.”

They were always sitting at the front door of her friend’s homes whenever she visited. Filled with things they didn’t want like wrapping paper or grandma’s old clock. “I’m always eager to see what people are willing to discard,” Beasley said.

The collage artist goes on to share other work she’s created; like works paying tribute to her late stepmother’s accolades that showed at M. Hanks Gallery, a piece in response to President Harry Truman’s desegregation of the Armed Forces in Executive Order 9981.

Read More: Virtual art exhibit helps Black creatives inspire racial justice

There was also “In the Garden of the Buick” which she’d created in reference to the Great Migration. She said the Black status symbol was also known as the Buick 225, or the “Deuce and a Quarter.” Beasley collaborated with mentor and friend Maya Angelou and created several pieces based on Langston Hughes’s poems, including a piece titled “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work.”

It was for a limited edition book in which Angelou selected Hughes’s poems and titled the collection “Sunrise is Coming After While,” and wrote the foreword on Hughes and the afterward on Beasley.

Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Eat. (Photo: Courtesy of Hearne Fine Art)
Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Eat. (Photo: Courtesy of Hearne Fine Art)

Beasley expresses appreciation for what her family experienced when dealing with segregation, because she said it made her realize her problems were minuscule in comparison to the “real problems” they went through. “It’s not about how far we’ve come, but how far we have to go,” Beasley said. “..the secret is to keep getting up and doing the work and be grateful and thankful that so many people lived and died on your behalf.”

Beasley said her work is celebratory of the people who came before her, that she understands why she’s here — to tell our stories of the past and the present so there is a comparison. Hanks agrees and said that her work is compelling because acknowledging what happened in the past helps bring us into the present and prevents some of these things from happening again. 

Wheels Down at LAX, and View the Elegance and Style of Paul R. Williams, Architect. (Photo: Courtesy of Phoebe Beasley)
Wheels Down at LAX, and View the Elegance and Style of Paul R. Williams, Architect. (Photo: Courtesy of Phoebe Beasley)

Beasley goes on to talk about a piece she created titled, “Wheels Down at LAX, and View the Elegance and Style of Paul R. Williams, Architect.” As one of the first African American architects in America, Beasley said she was fascinated to learn he’d created the Theme Building at LAX and Beverly Hills Hotel.

He also designed Frank Sinatra and Lucielle Ball’s home. “We had no idea when watching these TV shows showing celebrity homes the architect was black,” Beasley said. “Every time I’m in a Paul Williams home I feel like I’m home.” 

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