Steve Prince: Leading the Second Line and Looking at the World Thru a Faith Lens
A Charge to Keep I Have
A charge to keep I have,
A God to glorify,
A never-dying soul to save,
And fit it for the sky.
To serve the present age,
My calling to fulfill:
Oh, may it all my pow’rs engage
To do my Master’s will!
*Charge is defined as entrusting someone with a task as a duty or responsibility. *
Because his New Orleans accent is somewhat subtle, one might not know right off hand that world renowned artist Steve Prince is a New Orleans native. But it only takes a minute or two of talking to him to realize that the music, culture, religion, and art of the “Big Easy” are in his blood. It’s evident in the laid-back yet passionate urgency of his conversations when talking about New Orleans and the ways in which it shapes his life and his art. Steve Prince is what he calls an Art Evangelist. It’s a simple yet loaded title. It sounds fun albeit fun with heavy, heavy responsibility attached to it.
The primary role of an evangelist is to deliver God’s message to the people, and this typically happens outside of the walls of the traditional church. Prince, an artist and lecturer, who preaches and teaches in both secular settings like schools and community centers as well as traditional church spaces, likens himself to Apostle Paul. Paul’s charge was to take the word to the people, train evangelists, ordain elders, and give them the foundation for their own church. He then moved on to the next charge in the next city. In much the same way, Prince travels the world using his art as a “visual ministry” and serving as an Art Evangelist by teaching, leading workshops, and engaging with students and communities.
Prince’s Art Evangelism and his visual ministry are also about healing and community -concepts so critical to the world we live in right now. Prince stops for a moment, and still with a laid-back urgency, though now thick with a cloud of worry, fear, and concern for the state of the black community he began to call out names. He thoughtfully calls out the names Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, and Emmett Till with a gentle call to action for us to do more of what Emmett Till’s mother did. She used pain as the juxtaposition of hope. Till’s mother left his casket open. By doing so, she forced people to see. Even in the midst of a heart-wrenching loss, she still spoke life over her son. The current state of black America is one that weighs heavily on Prince’s heart and mind, and that concern shows up in many of his works, his visual ministry, in unique ways. The concern is also ever present in his teaching, in the courses he creates, and in the community programming he develops; like any genuine evangelist, Prince has a heart for the people.
I knew Prince was no stranger to the traditional pulpit, but as he continued to talk it became more and more apparent that his art is absolutely his urban pulpit of sorts.
When talking about his work – his art and his evangelism, Prince reflects, “I have a message that’s embedded in my art. My calling is to spread that message. I wanna reach everybody, but I know that’s hard, so I just gotta do my part. I gotta do it knowing that I can’t do it all and knowing about the deficits. There are things I can’t see and don’t know as well as the things I can see but not fix.” Prince uses art to depict faith and its relationship to life, culture, and community. “Being an Art Evangelist is about the human experience, looking at the world through a faith lens and allowing the bible to be the foundation of what I do as an artist, a human, and a man, Prince reflects. The concept of the “faith lens’ is woven throughout Prince’s life.
Prince grew up in a Catholic/Baptist household and attended a Catholic school for his K-12 years. He watched his parents gracefully navigate a household with differing denominations which also equipped him with the ability to effortlessly navigate a variety of Christian denominations with his visual ministry. What he’s certain of when reflecting on his early years is that the faith in his home was strong, and his parents consistently parented he and his siblings with faith at the forefront of everything. Faith was strong and the freedom to be creative was also present in his home. His mom is a creative soul with a flair for entertaining, his brother is also an artist, one sister sews, and another is involved in performing arts.
When we got a little deeper into his childhood and a discussion about the role of art in his life during his middle and high school years, Prince laughed and said, “I was that kid. Whenever a teacher needed someone to draw something, or the school needed something, I was the go-to. I also had a business doing portraits.” Interestingly, though, Prince would head to Xavier University on a basketball scholarship; he graduated with a BFA. Several of the artist I’ve talked with recently – Bing Davis, Najjar Abdul-Musawwir, and George Hunt were all phenomenal athletes. I asked Prince what the correlation between art and athletics might be. His answer, “the passion and the discipline required to be successful are the same.” As Prince continued his undergraduate journey, he remained strong in his faith, but was not without the challenges and experiences of most college students. His ability to look at the world thru a faith lens and operate from a biblical foundation would soon blend seamlessly with his artistic talents and create a phenomenal visual ministry.
I was looking forward to talking with Prince about his work, and I was really looking forward to the discussion of his larger than life (9 x 20) graphite on paper mural Bird In Hand: Second Line In Michigan. When looking at the mural, a prominent figure in the second line is a Caucasian drummer with the words Treme in bold print on the side of his drum representative of the area deemed the oldest African-American neighborhood as well as home to the nation’s oldest African-American Parrish – St. Augustine. A historical reference and a subtle nod to Prince’s own Catholic upbringing. The drummer is symbolic of jazz music and its blending of cultures. There’s the handkerchief that looks like a dove flying just above the line. Steve explained that handkerchiefs, over the years, were found to be more cost effective than doves. However, his subtle detail there is acknowledging an age-old tradition, paying homage to his evolution and making space to share that with new generations. The piece is a symbol of hope. Though Michigan has been in the midst of a massive economic shift that includes job loss, industry breakdown, and a host of other challenges – the second line represents the possibilities of a better day. Though a New Orleans native, Prince earned his MFA in Printmaking & Sculpture from Michigan State, so Michigan is a part of the fabric of his life.
As evidenced by the name, the the piece draws on the New Orleans funeral tradition of the Dirge to mourn the dead and then the more uplifting “Second Line” tune. As Prince explains Dirge “It represents everyday things. It challenges us. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean death. You can have a second line while you’re still alive. The second line is a celebration; the juxtaposition of pain, hurt, loss, and joy.” Though the piece certainly depicts the grief and pain happening in the midst of trying to celebrate life, there is also hope and possibility. The possibility of healing, growth, revitalization, and so much more that’s needed in today’s world.
Healing and passion for the community are central to not only the work Prince does as a distinguished artist in residence and Director of Engagement at The College of Mary but are also core elements of his personal belief system. Prior to arriving at William and Mary, Prince taught middle school, high school, and he also taught at a few institutions of higher learning including Hampton University, Montgomery College, and Wayne State. All of his students from over the years hold a special place in his heart, and there was something that made each institution special, but when I kind of gently pushed him to identify a favorite – it was Hampton University. Those who have attended an HBCU and/or taught at one, will almost always say the experience is unparalleled. Not because it’s better, but because the HBCU experience is just unparalleled. Today, Prince finds himself at William and Mary College happy, thriving and working in what he describes as his dream job.
As we shifted into a discussion about what exactly Prince means when he says “dream job,” I could sense that the responsibility is one he loves, but much like his fitting title of Art Evangelist, the responsibility is also a heavy one. Not heavy in a negative sense, but in the sense of being “the first black man to work in a museum and be conscious of historical placement, historical displacement, and the lack of homage and reparations. So it’s more like a “to whom much is given, much is required type of heavy.” Prince describes the moment he really realized the magnitude of his new role as “sobering.” Prince was first introduced to the university when he was commissioned to create Lemonade: A Picture of America – a piece that pays homage to the first three African American students to attend William and Mary. A university that, at its inception 275 years earlier, still had slaves maintaining the campus. Prince worked with 12 students to create the figure that now sits prominently on campus.
Not long after, he was tapped to come on board as Director of Engagement. Because it’s important that he still be recognized as a visual artist, Prince is also a distinguished artist in residence. We got back to the “dream.” For Prince, it’s being able to work in his strengths, to work in spaces with mixed ethnic groups, and to create classes and programming from scratch. Oh and there’s just enough desk work to keep things interesting. Prince laughingly says, “It’s the perfect mix of faculty, staff, and creativity.” Not only is the role a perfect fit for Prince, but it’s a brand-new role that he has the opportunity and freedom to create and develop himself. Absolutely a dream job.
“A Charge to Keep I Have” is a hymn written by Charles Wesley – a leader in the Methodist church. I don’t know much about the hymnal version, but at the time it was written hymns did not have melodies – just lyrics. Growing up, we regularly visited my Granny’s church -Mt. Nebo Primitive Baptist and even as a child the song always resonated with me. It just felt special. If “blessed, but heavy responsibility” were a song – it would be “A Charge to Keep I Have.” The version I know wasn’t sang with a keyboard or any other musical accompaniment. Not that it mattered. Mt. Nebo had no choir and no musical instruments. Instead, hymns were “lined out” Hymn lining is music in its purest form. No choir director to keep it all together, no melody to get wrapped up in, just pure voices filled with lifetimes of joys and sorrows. Steve Prince’s art is the same; simple materials, simple subject matter used to depict all the beautiful complexities of music, faith, race, and culture in America. It’s about art and ministry in their purest forms – no traditional church trappings, no complex art theory, just a man with a heart for the people and a charge to keep.
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