My American Dream: This Land is Your Land
Grace Lee Boggs, 2021 Oil on linen 33.5 × 40 inches
Grace Lee Boggs, 2021
Oil on linen 33.5 × 40 inches

This painting Grace Lee Boggs, who was this great black power theorist and leader and philosopher who then became re-recognized in the ‘90s, when she was an older woman, and in the 2000s, by the Asian American community, realizing that she was a great, powerful leader and a philosopher and activist, like the rest of the great leaders represented in this exhibition. Boggs and her husband James Lee Boggs (who was African American) were civil rights leaders and activists in Detroit during the Black Power moment. James Lee Boggs was a worker and self-taught, and maintained his day job while a night writing, publishing, and organizing a movement for not civil rights and human rights, coming from Marx, for the uprising of the proletariat. They wrote profusely with texts and lectures still taught in college and that are still influential, and were the organizers of important marches and speakers, including for Malcolm X, who was a close friend and colleague.

Boggs loved Hegel and dialectic thinking. She wants you to think philosophically, dialectically, and always be an activist. Perhaps more than most of the leaders represented in the exhibition Boggs was truly an activist philosopher.

The dialectic, to me, aesthetically in painting, is the representative in the abstract of what’s not represented.

When I painted these figures, obviously the dead ones, I am channeling them to some degree, although not in an act of ventriloquism, but rather a conversation with the spirits–or my unconscious mind as it consorts with thoughts of the great personas while I’m having visual conversation with them by painting them.

With Grace Lee Boggs, I was watching tons of videos of her on panels and symposiums, everything I could get from YouTube. At the end of the painting, I was listening to this last symposium—one of the best ones—for the third time out. While I was painting, there was a fly that kept bugging me, and I thought, “Maybe I should stop, the fly is telling me something.” But I continued. And then, finally, the painting came off the easel and bonked me in the head. I butted heads with Grace Lee Boggs’s head! Then I kind of heard her (obviously, it could be just my unconscious phantasm), saying, “This has been great, but I’ve had enough. I’m tired. You’ve done this portrait of me, and I’m done.” It was as if when, as an old woman at the panels where she would say to the moderator, “I’m really tired” and I need to go now.”

There’s something to it! Aesthetically in the background of this painting, I was also thinking about a Harriet Tubman portrait I painted, of a picture of her at her retirement home. When she became an old woman, she created the Harriet Tubman Home for Old Women, and it felt like there were all these spirits around her. In the sepia toned daguerreotype, all the plant life around her seemed to have a spiritual noise, seemingly almost like figures you can perceive in the foliage behind her.

Part of the job of painting from reference photos is to hopefully make better, and at the very least different than the photo.  I think after Richter, which hypothetically was about painting the surface of the photo, we can turn back and penetrate the picture plane of the reference photo.   I look at the beginnings of photography and its influence for reference for art, from Vuillard and Bonnard where the all-over influence can be seen by being able to perceive each inch of a photo and paint with the same heartiness as the figure, to Muybridge and all his influence, capturing motion and in the case of Bacon, psychological emotion within the glitch of the blur of the movement of figures. Painting from black and white photos, that what’s neat about is I can insert color, and think in my mind’s eye what it might see in the blurs of out-of-focus imagery.  I believe that Cezanne was painting his thoughts, using the map of representation for shapes and forms that he was perceiving in mountains, and sometimes painting through the rocks–like this terrific work at the Met., where a whole subconscious world opens as Cezanne projects his interior mind onto the map of his subconscious, with the forms and colors and atmosphere he is perceiving in real life observing nature en plein air. This is where I get into the surrealism and the collective unconscious and all that other stuff– I do want them to break into other worlds.

It was fun and empowering to paint Grace Lee Boggs, and I learned a lot. All these people, especially these cultural leaders, had to deal with not just the uber-politics of their time, but the politics within the movement, how they were able to deal with having a common goal to make the world a better place through their activism. She really helped with that. She was a great lady. She was in Detroit and just was fighting the good fight. She lived to be 100 and had a really active mind. She was a spitfire.

Boggs had a whole kind of cult around her. One of great YouTube panels included a bunch of people from Detroit, including her, who had come to the New School, where there was a panel. There was this great trans person in the group, who was young and cool, and thought “Who is this person?” I Googled them—their name is Invincible, and they are a Jewish gender non-conforming rapper and activist. There were many people taking care of her, helping to promote her voice and legacy, and she was still very active and engaged with community to her last days, becoming a legend for Detroit and the world.