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Posted March 20, 2017:

Arts, Libraries and Fear

Last Friday evening we went to a presentation about Jacob Lawrence and his Migration series now on display at the SAM. Artist and Lawrence student and friend, Barbara Earl Thomas  discussed the 60 piece Migration series in a presentation at the downtown library.

Lawrence, who lived in Seattle from 1971 until his death in 2000, completed the Migration series in 1941, while the migration of blacks from the south to the north which began after World War I, was still underway. His work, full of bold shapes and colors, is remincescent, to me, of Picasso. Lawrence tells the story of the Migration as well, in his way, as Isabel Wikerson does in her extraordinary book, The Warmth of Other Suns.

The Migration series was supported, in part, by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a Depression era effort at building national infrastructure. If you go to Mt. Rainier National Park, as one example, you can still see many structures built by WPA workers.

Lawrence, like fellow Seattle-based artist, August Wilson, got a lot of his education on his own, in public libraries. He was part of the rich environment of the Harlem Renaissance, joining other African-Americans at what is now The Schomberg Library.

Also last week the Trump administration sent out its proposed “American First” budget. It is a budget that is all guns and no butter — to use an old phrase. More money for the military and for border police, while zeroing out the arts and scientific research — among other things.

It is ironic to hold these two experiences, the Lawrence exhibit and the Trump budget, together. The Lawrence exhibition is about people migrating to escape injustice and suffering. It reminds us of the support of the federal government for the arts and Lawrence’s reliance on such institutions as the public library. All of these are under assault by the Trump budget and policies.

Trump worships two false gods, safety and power. His slogan really should have been “Make America Safe Again,” not because we were unsafe but because he largely animated by fear and hopes we will be too. The other deity in his temple is power. Safety, he believes, can be obtained with enough power, enough toughness, with sufficient menace. But his version of power is really very weak. And his safety is an illusion.

The power of Jacob Lawrence’s work, in the end, is its truthfulness. In vivid colors juxtaposed, in images of moving, burdened people, in stark references to lynching and justice perverted, Lawrence speaks truth about the human condition and about our national epic. True safety and authentic power reside in truth, not lies.

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