George Hunt: The Man, The Myth, A Legend
by Dr. S. Alexis Anderson
A jigsaw puzzle is a tiling puzzle that requires the assembly of often oddly shaped interlocking and mosaic-ed pieces. Each piece usually has a small part of a picture on it; when complete, a jigsaw puzzle produces a complete picture.
The life of renowned artist George Hunt is a beautifully complex, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, and the mosaic-ed pieces that make up his life effortlessly fit together to make an endless puzzle. That means there’s no count on the number of pieces. It’s not 500 pieces or even 1,000 pieces, but a puzzle of unlimited pieces – a puzzle that will continue to grow as Hunt inspires a new generation of artists and works through his own ever-growing list of requests for commissioned projects.
Though he doesn’t fully commit to many projects these days, it doesn’t mean the requests don’t keep on coming. Right now, Hunt is working on what is almost his 30th collectible poster for the 2020 Beale Street Music Festival held in Memphis, TN during Memphis In May. Hunt was first commissioned for this project in 1992 and is now approaching his 28th year of working on the project. Being re-hired for the same position 28 times consecutively speaks volumes in and of itself! In fact, Hunt’s entire portfolio is impressive, and it includes more than 15 commissions from the likes of Justin Timberlake, Steven Seagal, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and the Chicago Blues Festival. It also includes more than 50+ shows and events.
“Congress, in an effort to raise awareness, dubbed 2003 as the “year of the blues” and Hunt was named as the official artist for that project”
There is no doubt about it that Hunt’s work draws heavily on Picasso’s use of shapes and color. Given that Hunt’s entire life is comprised of a collection of beautiful puzzle pieces that fit together to make something exquisite, it makes sense that his art would imitate life in its strategy of combining a vivid color palette with a creative use of shapes. A strategy that highlights Hunt’s ability to create art that is alive – art that feels as if it’s about to jump off the canvas. Each painting tells a story and the story looks a little different to each person who sees it – much like 3D jigsaw puzzles – it’s all about perspective.
In fact, when asked about the heavy Picasso influence seen in his art, Hunt unapologetically responded “Not only did I borrow it, but I fully subscribe to his philosophy. In fact, good artists borrow and great artists steal.” While the Picasso influence, particularly the Synthetic Cubism phase, can be seen throughout Hunt’s entire body of work, there is no question that the Picasso inspired works such as Miss Spirit Cotton, Blues Lover, and Wrote Me a Letter are jigsaw puzzles inspired by a colorful life. They are works inspired by a life filled with blues music, unique experiences, and a lively cast of characters also known as the friends, family, and acquaintances who make up the fabric of Hunt’s story. Inspired by African Art, Picasso along with Georges Braque developed two forms of cubism – Analytical and Synthetic. Synthetic cubism consists of simpler shapes and brighter colors much like many of the works in Hunt’s portfolio. However, a heavy Romare Bearden influence can be seen in Hunt’s work as well. Bearden also drew on cubist inspiration to tell the stories of black culture.
Like Picasso, Hunt’s love for art began at an early age. After a stint as a water boy in the sugar cane fields as a young child, Hunt vowed that he would never subject himself to the heat and miserable labor found in the cane fields of Louisiana. His mother who worked in the fields and his grandmother a domestic accepted this decision and made sure he had art supplies to occupy his time. They often brought magazines from the “main house” as well, and it was a LIFE magazine with Picasso on the cover that would change the trajectory of his life. Unlike Picasso, though, who lived as a full-time artist, Hunt was a high school art teacher and football coach at Memphis’ George Washington Carver High School for more than 30 years before retiring to be a full-time artist. However, art was always an integral part of his journey through the years.
Hunt came of age during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Having spent most of his childhood in Hot Springs, AR, he didn’t quite feel the challenges of the times in the same way black folks in the south felt them. His K-12 years were spent in segregated schools; however, in an effort to mend the subtle fractures that existed in race relations even in Hot Springs, he often went over to the white high school for early morning workouts before school. He would often compete against those students in an informal setting in the weight room, etc. but their respective teams never played each other in any official school games. Looking back, Hunt suspects that it was likely his superior athletic record more than anything else that made his morning visits relatively uneventful. Hunt would go on to set a record for the 400-meter run that stood for seventeen years before it was broken. Hot Springs, AR was the Las Vegas of the times. Athletes from all over came there to enjoy the medicinal properties of the spring. It was the mecca of gambling, mobsters were still a thing, and the city was fairly open-minded in terms of racial mixing. It would be the years in Hot Springs, AR that would shape much of Hunt’s life and art.
One of his most powerful pieces highlight the Civil Rights Movement. One of those is the I Am A Man series. Renown Memphis civil rights photographer, Ernest Withers, is often credited with spurring the Civil Rights Movement with his photos of the Emmett Till trial. Almost 15 years later, when Memphis sanitation workers went on strike in 1968 because of horrendous working conditions and poor pay, it was Withers who captured the essence of that moment – a large group of well -dressed workers carrying “I’m a Man’ signs. The images resonated with Hunt and perhaps even reminded him of the men who molded him during his childhood years. The Memphis workers, for Hunt, were yet another symbol of the “mythic heroism of Black manhood.” Hunt himself even fits the bill of the mythic hero. The images in that series still sell today – a couple of them for more than five thousand dollars. There are so many memorable experiences that create the puzzle pieces of Hunt’s life.
An experience Hunt credits as being one of the most memorable of his entire career was when First Lady Hillary Clinton asked if his commissioned work America Cares/Little Rock Nine could hang in the White House before moving on to its forever home. When asked about the experience, Hunt reflected, “Being invited to the White House and going there to see my work was the pinnacle of my career. Mrs. Clinton wrote a thank you note that has stayed with me. She told me that the work was extremely inspiring to her and her staff and had a very powerful impact on them.” Just under 10 years later, the work would become an image on a U.S postage stamp. The other experience that had a tremendous impact on Hunt was his time working part time as a driver. Hotels hired drivers to bring truckers back and forth to shower and eat between jobs. While waiting, Hunt would sketch images. One night, a trucker saw him sketching a portrait of Elvis and asked if it was for sale. Hunt told him it was and that it would be five dollars. The trucker purchased it without hesitation, and at that moment, Hunt connected income with art. He realized truckers loved Elvis and would casually leave his pictures on the seat or the dashboard and they sold like hotcakes. He did paintings as gifts for friends and family members, but still would not work full-time as an artist for many, many years.
Community activism and politics are pieces of the puzzle also necessary for the jigsaw puzzle of Hunt’s life. In the late 60s, Hunt ran a community center in a black neighborhood not far from George Washington Carver High School. While there, he had a couple of lively run ins with the Invaders, a local version of the Black Panthers. Hunt put the Invaders out of the community center for rude/disrespectful behavior, and it is said that the FBI visited Hunt and told him an Invaders informant had told them plans were being made to kill Hunt. The story goes that he was offered a gun for protection, refused it, and paid the Invaders a visit to address the matter. Nothing more was heard about it after that visit. Here we have yet another fascinating section of this complex jigsaw puzzle also known as Hunt’s life.
Not long after the incident with the Invaders, Hunt was recruited to be a part of Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign – Headquartered in Memphis, TN. The goal of this initiative was to get people to Washington for a national protest of conditions in small, southern towns that kept blacks caught up in the vicious cycle of poverty. Hunt and a friend of his were recruited to be a part of that effort. Another fragment of Hunt’s jigsaw puzzle-esque life is the day he and his co-worker learned that Dr. King had been shot and taken to a downtown Memphis hospital. Because they were well-dressed Black men, it was assumed that they were a part of King’s entourage and thus they were permitted to go back with the rest of King’s team. As a result, they were present when the surgeon delivered the unfortunate news of King’s passing. A few days later, Hunt was asked to help move King’s casket onto the plane Bobby Kennedy sent to Memphis to retrieve his body for transport to Atlanta, GA. It would be moments like these that would continue to shape Hunt’s love for the Civil Rights Movement. While his years in Hot Springs, AR shielded him from many of the first-hand horrors of what was happening in the South, it would be his years as a young educator that would give him a front row/inside seat to the inner workings (and pain) of the Movement. More pieces for the puzzle.
Hunt has also served as a mentor for many artists. Artist and founder of Black Art in America (BAIA), Najee Dorsey credits Hunt for giving him direction early in his career. When deciding where he and his wife, Seteria, also an artist, would settle and base their operations, they were torn between New Orleans and Atlanta. Hunt suggested that Atlanta would be a great base for an artist/art dealer. Many years later, Dorsey still believes Hunt’s advice was spot on. He says, “Atlanta has definitely proven to be a great base for business, but we have more collectors in New Orleans because the appreciation for art is just different there”.
Blues, often considered “the bastard child of the music world”, is referred to in more politically correct circles as “America’s indigenous music.” Congress, in an effort to raise awareness, dubbed 2003 as the “year of the blues” and Hunt was named as the official artist for that project. The title work would later be on display at Radio City Music Hall. Hunt’s love for the Civil Rights Movement, the southern African American experience, and the beauty of black women can be seen throughout his work, but it’s his passion for blues music that really tells his story. The passion resonates in his art; his art is a visual representation of the blues music and culture he first fell in love with as a child. Hunt credits his love of music to his grandfather and uncle with whom he frequented juke joints as a child. This love, not only for the experiences inside the juke joints and cafés, but the fondness with which he speaks of his grandfather and uncles speak to the notion of the “mythic heroism of Black manhood” seen in his work. The mythic hero is typically described as courageous, skilled, wounded, destined and often one of divine ancestry with superhuman courage. Ain’t no myth here. The black man fits this bill in every way. Even now, over 65 years later when he speaks about the men in his life and the blues artists he grew to love like Skip James, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker, the names are spoken with a youthful respect and reverence along with a slight twinkle in his eye.
We eagerly await the reveal of the 2020 collectible poster for this year’s Beale Street Music Festival. And even on year 28, we know for sure that it will be yet another intricate piece added to the puzzle. We’ll keep watching the puzzle expand as the next generation of artists and creatives inspired by the likes of Dorsey, Bearden, Hunt and Picasso make their mark on the world.
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