Turtel Onli is a creative artist whose career has touched upon a variety of disciplines in fine and applied visual art. He has been an art therapist, educator, and illustrator. He has also distinguished himself in painting, drawing, illustration, publishing, fashion, and multimedia production. He coined the term Rhythmistic to interpret his stylizations which fuse primitive and futuristic concepts. Onli founded the Chicago-based Black Arts Guild (BAG) in 1970 and directed it until 1978. BAG members included Jim Smoote, Obie Creed, Dalton Brown, the late Kenneth Hunter and Espi Frazier. He also directed the Black on Black Love Fine Arts Center in Robert Taylor Homes from 1984 to 1989. In 1981 he began publishing the Black comic NOG: Protector of the Pyramids, and in 1993 he initiated the Black Age of Comics, an art movement and annual multi-site convention.
Rebecca Zorach (RZ): So, the Black Arts Guild was known as BAG—I was actually a little bit confused about that, because there was also a BAG that was Black Arts Gallery, that was at Illinois Federal, which I think maybe started after you had already started?
Turtel Onli (TO): That came later. There was the XBAG, which was the Experimental Black Actors Guild, and then there was a group of avant-garde Jazz musicians called BAG but it stood for Black Artists Group, and we were the Black Arts Guild, and I started the guild right after high school. I was probably precocious, or ambitious. But I didn’t like the fact that older artists were adamant about, “you’re young, pay your dues, you’re gonna have to wait, you’re gonna have to go through all this” and I felt like I was ready to contribute and do substantial things then. A high school mate of mine was a vocalist at the time and she was able to go to recording studios and work on major projects and things like that, and I’m like, “why can’t I?” Why is it that the music industry is so accommodating of “younger people” and the visual arts game is so resistant. So, by the way, her name is Chaka Khan! And so, the Black movement was happening, and I identified heavily with that. Black movement meaning, African-American culture by way of the slave experience, and then the Negro culture in process, and then a move for more enlightened self-determination, which became galvanized in the concept of African-Americans calling themselves and the culture Black. And so, I looked at being a part of that. Also, I was a bit of a hippy, so some people would call me a blippy, because I was very much into the countercultural movement, and what was happening with the idea of a psychedelic approach to life, and coming up with other institutions and movements and concepts. At the time, I was fortunate enough in high school, my junior year of high school, I got a job and they taught me to cook steaks in the Prudential building. I cooked for the astronauts, the first astronauts to go to the moon, I cooked for Sinatra, people like that. Now, being a kid, I really wanted to go play basketball, but you know, the boss said to come in and cook so I did. But the part that I’m getting at is the experience of working in that restaurant, it was called Stouffer’s, and it was a major chain, and at that time the Prudential building was the place to go to downtown. Hancock had just gone up, Sears tower had just gone up, and so the established high-rise restaurant was called the Top of the Rock. I think in working with Stouffer’s as a young person I really picked up a certain amount of entrepreneurship and some organizational affinities that were beyond my age.
I sort of put all that together in forming BAG, Black Arts Guild. And a childhood schoolmate of mine, Jim Smoote, I ran into him at an exhibit, I think it was at the International Amphitheater at 43rd and Halsted. And the, there was a group there called AfriCOBRA, which I had never heard of, they were exhibiting. In some kind of way Smoote was connected, but to make a long story short, I asked him if he wanted to be a part of BAG, and he said sure. Now, mind you, BAG had an initiation process. You had to make two pieces of artwork. At that time it was just two pieces of artwork. You had to speak to the group about why you wanted to be a member. He was at the Art Institute, and I was at Olive-Harvey. I didn’t get accepted to the Art Institute originally but I reapplied and I got accepted. Which was cool, because I wanted to be there. When Jim came in, he was doing some watermelon and pickaninny themed artwork, you know he works in textiles, and so I looked at it, and I’m like, “my god, that’s brilliant, they’re red, black and green.” You know, the colors of the black liberation movement were red, black and green. So I’m thinking, this is going to be the perfect icon, logo, and then we can take on the challenge of trying to make these old, negative, stereotypic things into something more lovable and positive, and healthy. So that became our task, as a guild. Well, one part, and then other part was to be a launching pad to become professionals. I mean, my goal was to be a professional “artist,” whatever that was going to mean, and I wanted to have the guild as a think tank, where we could prepare ourselves for a professional life as creative people. And, it actually worked; okay, we were self-reliant, we paid dues. Then the initiation process changed, where you had to do two pieces of artwork, one had to be totally composed of hues or shades of brown, and then the other one had to incorporate the watermelon, and then we’d have a real brutal, medieval critique about your two pieces. And then you were in; if you could get past that inquisition, you were all right. And so, we were. And people would come to the guild, people would leave. There was a core group of about six of us, we were fortunate enough to be mentored with Robert Earl Paige, who at that time was designing African-inspired, actually, Senegalese-inspired fabric for Sears, but they were using it as industrial fabric, and then we were experimenting with making it into garments. Well, he had a fifteen-hundred-square-foot coach house that he just let us operate out of. So for a few years we were doing that.
RZ: And where was that?
TO: That was in Hyde Park at 932 East 50th. Oh, I remember, vividly. Next door to Operation PUSH! And one of the ways we’d raise money is I would contact the activities departments of different colleges and universities and offer to rent our artwork out. And a lot of times they’d say yes, and when we got the money, we just put it in our account. And so, what we did with the money in the account: if you were a member of B.A.G. and you were financially strapped for some reason, like you needed materials or books for class, or you had to pay rent, you could petition the group. And, you know, we’d get medieval on you again, and then we’d cut you a check. And you didn’t have to pay the check back, you were a paying member, so we’re real socialistic, right? So, in retrospect, this was some high-level stuff to come up with when you’re seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, and maintain. We went on to become professionals. Several people became educators, freelanced for major companies, Playboy, We Magazine, Johnson Publishing, WGN, CNN, Essence Magazine. Design album covers for different labels, some small labels, some major labels. I know I certainly benefitted from it. And then when it seemed to, like any group, it started dissipating, in 1978, I thought it was best to just disband the group. So we took the money out of the account and gave everybody an equal share, and wished everybody well. And part of what brought it about was I was going to internationalize my career. I had gone to Paris, and I was living there, and so I couldn’t have held the group together. Nobody else wanted to be administratively in charge, because it was really time-consuming and challenging, to maintain that. I always say, if I hadn’t formed BAG, I would’ve gotten a PhD. But you know, it’s a labor of love, it’s a labor of destiny. We were not necessarily darlings, or well-received, in the Pan-Africanist community, in the early Afrocentric communities. Our embrace of the watermelon didn’t go over well, our embrace of pickaninnies didn’t go over well, which ironically, a lot of these same people collect the original paraphernalia that was done to demean, but took issue with our changing and putting a positive spin on it. Just really curious, because I know, sometime in arguments I’m like, “Okay, you have a pickaninny on one side of the bar, and you have a leprechaun on the other side. And they’re the same. The leprechaun is trying to tell you that everything would be fine if he could just find his pot of gold, and he’s probably drunk, and he’s goofy, and he’s silly, but he’s viewed as positive and loveable. Why can’t we do that with the pickaninny? And, yeah, that’s a huge stretch. But, mind you, I came out of counter-culture, I came out of Black Revolution, where when I was a kid, if you called somebody Black, a fight would break out, and if you called them Black African, you would be killed. So if that could be turned into a positive, let’s keep calibrating. And then, even though we were called the Black Arts Guild, we were comfortable with people who weren’t black. Which was like, “Okay, wait a minute. You’re calling yourself the Black Arts Guild, but why are you all comfortable in all these other circles?” Well, quite simply put, if you’re down with yourself, you should be down with other people who’re down with themselves. So everybody in the room feels good about themselves, then you all should be in the same room together. And, if you want to be critical, meaning negative, about people who you allege don’t know you, and don’t know your culture, well, when do you give them a chance to know you, and know your culture? I mean, they want to know. So, maybe they’re clumsy and awkward because they don’t quite know how to fit in, or get in—so could you help them out? And then you’ll know something. And so, it was all those kind of tensions.
RZ: That’s the educator in you, also.
TO: Yeah, that’s the educator, that’s the little boy who used to roam through Hyde Park, cause I grew up in Hyde Park, and so the beatniks would take me in, you know, they weren’t black. The black folks would take me in, everybody would take me in, I was a little street waif. It was a different era, you were safe on the street as a kid. You know the beatniks had large sheets of paper, they thought it was cool this little black kid could draw, you know, and I go to the comic book store, I’d go to Steinway’s or Mills, I’d go to the soda jerk and get a Cherry Coke. So I had that kind of life, I grew up with, literally, all kinds of people. And, my grandfather owned property over here, so as a little boy I’m sitting in the kitchen, and I’m watching literally all kinds of people, black, white, Jewish, Asian, Muslim, Christian, Catholic, pleading with him to rent, right, because they needed an apartment. So as a little boy, that’s my exposure, my introduction to other people. So I didn’t have the distance that a lot of other blacks had in their mindset or in their cultural pattern. And then I’m looking at my grandfather, who raised me, as a black man in a position of power, now I couldn’t have articulated that, but that’s what I saw. So when I got out in the world, I didn’t have that hesitation. Now it hasn’t made me a million dollars, but it’s who I am. And then Hyde Park back then was, I mean, it’s not that it’s not an amazing neighborhood now, but god, it was fantastic then. But the point being, I saw that as my purpose. The point that I missed in here is when I was working at Stouffers in 1968, Martin Luther King got murdered. And they locked down the city because of all the riots. And so, we’re able to see the news, not the news feed, but we’re able to see data coming, we’re seeing images coming in that they were not going to broadcast. So, we’re up at the WGN station, really seeing the level of the violence. So the next morning when I get home—’cause the streets were locked down, I couldn’t go home. So the next morning, when I got home, I asked my grandfather, you know, the rhetorical question of the sixties, I ask, well, “Is God dead?” And, you know, my grandfather was a Pentecostal pastor, so, that led to a moment. And so, uh, I was like, okay the country is probably going to fall into despair and riots are going to lead to revolutions, this is going to be a mess, so, what am I gonna do? What am I gonna do? And so, I thought, the thing to do would be to try to organize artists to be a “positive force.” That was the best I could frame it then. And then that led to BAG, that led to me being an art educator, that led to me being an art therapist, and so I’ve been all those things.
RZ: Did you have any models or inspirations for the group, like for the structures that you set up?
TO: Hmm. Yeah. One of my uncles was one of the main organizers in the development of the street organization called the Egyptian Cobras, which was the major gang before the Blackstone Rangers. So I used to, as a little boy, to watch their initiation process and I used to watch them pay dues, and I used to watch how they operated. So that would have been my template for organizational skills and charisma, and all that and instead of applying it to gang lifestyle or gang warfare, I applied it to artistic lifestyle and creative warfare. I see the look on your face, like, “I can’t believe this…” The reality is that, what I’m saying is real. People ask me sometimes “what are your influences?” and I say “everything.” And they look at me, I mean, come on, let’s be for real. We’re like clay. We’re touched by something and we change. A little bit, but it’s a change, right? We squeeze you, and you really change. You get exposed to something, it sinks in. And then, down the life path, around the corner, it comes out as something else, and you may not even know any more how it happened. But I knew full well that I was modeling it on gang recruitment, because that was what I grew up with. Now, the way that Pentecostalism was marginalized in the late 50s and 60s, and my grandfather did, well, he’s actually the visionary, he did Pentecostal charts that he used in his sermons, because a lot of his congregation were not that literate, and the idea of putting a visual onto it, which, you know, any religion that takes itself serious should have a visual component. And I ended up inheriting the charts, but I used to watch him make them. So I’m watching him make charts and so now I’m doing that, and then I’m walking the streets of Hyde Park, as this bright eyed kid trying to take everything in. So I arrive at age sixteen and I say, I think I’m going to apply my creative side to doing something positive out here. And I had all of that behind me. Now of course, I run into people, meaning, members in BAG and stuff, and even now, they can’t understand where I’m coming from, because when they look at me they can’t see those experiences, so it catches them totally off guard. I always say, I’m not the designated messenger. You know, at the peak of the black thing, I’m just into Jimi Hendrix, not John Coltrane, not James Brown. Okay, why do you have Big Brother and the Holding Company, whaddya mean Vanilla Fudge? Okay, now listen to the other people too, but it’s like, brother, you’re bringing that in here? This is something incongruous there, and I find it curious that people who want to be accepted are so unaccepting. And so, and then my own family, my aunt’s husband was white, and the kids look very white to me, so my cousins are white. They’ve got blonde hair, blue eyes, freckles, can’t put you in the sun. And he lived with us when I was a child. One of my uncles, his wife Salu was Filipina, so Johnny and Dee, to this day, they look like a short version of Tiger Woods, you know? So, I was raised with this kind of family, so that in going forward into the communities that I was going in, I’m coming with that perspective, and it wasn’t always well-received, and what I didn’t understand—I had a tremendous work ethic. I mean, my god, I look back and I’m like, dude, where did you get that from? But always say, I was down with my inner slave. Slaves were bred to be highly productive people, no one fights a war to make you into a slave unless you are valuable. You have to be valuable. And no nation is going to fight a bloody war like the Civil War unless you are valuable and important. And I think the idea of honoring our inner slaves with positive productivity, right now, is akin to what I’ve seen in the Jewish community when they honor the victims of the Holocaust and say, “Never again.” There is something in that, and there’s something rich in that, and it’s something eloquent. So I don’t look at the slave experience and just say “oh, it was horrible” or “it was miserable,” but what about the slaves, who were these amazing people, that endured that so that I could be here and do the things I’m doing? So if they worked from sun to sun, I can at least work from sun to almost sun, or maybe work from sun to sun, too. It’s in the DNA, right? And if they worked that hard in total captivity, why can’t I work that hard in total freedom? You know, that kinda had some fuel in my tank back then, I was a busy guy. I was a busy guy. Cause when I was doing all this, I was studying at, believe it or not, it was called the Dysfunctioning Child Center at Michael Reese Medical Center, and I was studying to be a therapy aide and paraprofessional, and it was an amazing course of study.
RZ: Is this after the School of the Art Institute?
TO: This was before. I was doing this while I was at Olive-Harvey, it was concurrent. And so, I left there and set up a program for simultaneous language therapy, at the Helping Hand School for the Retarded. So, you can tell this was before the politically correct era, with these names. But at the Dysfunctioning Child Center, they had a program on the thesis that they could take an individual, that had no background in psychology and psychiatry, and train him to do it. And you had pediatricians, psychologists, psychiatrists, geneticists, they would videotape everything you did, so there was no written reports, they would just look at it. And they would analyze it, and then they’d explain to you what you did and why it worked, and what you did that didn’t work. And then as you evolved, if you had ideas you could run it by them, and they would monitor you through it, and we dealt with the psychotropic, pharmacological aspect of it, behavior modification, body language, a modified form of sign language, and worked with profoundly severe retarded and nonverbal autistic children. And so, I trained there for two years, while doing all this other stuff. And then I worked at therapeutic day schools, as what’s called a teacher therapist, to help underwrite the Black Arts Guild and help pay my tuition, because I wasn’t on scholarship at the School of the Art Institute. So, I needed to make money.
RZ: And did that inform your art in some way? Those experiences?
TO: Well, I don’t know, I think it, what’s the word, they call it, compartmentalization? I think that it did great things for me as a teacher, as a teacher therapist, sometimes having empathy in situations where my politics says I should not empathize, as an art maker, I think if it did anything it reinforced a power of the art process aside from money, and the average American stereotype of “art is not important.” And girlfriends that want to put you down for being an artist, and the families of the girlfriends who want to put you down even more so for being an artist, that they just don’t see the value of it, they don’t see the purpose of it, they don’t see the function of it, and they certainly can’t see the impact of process, they can’t differentiate that process matters as much as product. And so having that area to really study these things. And then part of why they recruited me into the program cause they knew I was an artist. We didn’t use the term art therapy yet, but essentially I was able to morph together a practice. Years later, by the time I studied art therapy, I probably had more experience than virtually all my instructors at the School of the Art Institute. But the practice of my art goes in a lot of directions, I tend to be thought driven, I get behind a theme and generate artwork around it, and then I work commercially, and I say commercially, I do comic books, I’ve done illustrations for record companies, for WGN as a courtroom illustrator, I do fine art. I refer to my stylization that I have been developing as being Rhythmistic, I think that that’s a more elegant term than to say “I do Black Art.” I think just like Cubism has its roots in African art, therefore it’s Afrocentric. I know a lot of people have problems with that, but then you go forward, then if you’re doing something distinctive and other people are doing that, then maybe it needs a name. I don’t think I invented the area that I refer to as being Rhythmistic, I just think I gave it a name. And a big part of being a Rhythmistic is to sort of function with a “future primitive” mindset. I think it’s genetic memory that whoever we were when we started is still in us, and I don’t mean at birth, I mean way, way back, all that primitive, tribal, pre-language way of communicating and expressing. It still flows through us, along with whatever has yet to come, so I think that when you mix the two, you end up in a future primitive state. And I think it’s really curious that when you look at all humanity as you go backwards, they start sounding alike, the belief systems get real similar, and then when you get to that pagan phase, boy, they do the same things, they’re looking at the sky and seeing the same things. And so I think that for me that term Rhythmism works, however in practice, a lot of people aren’t ready for it. They can’t wrap themselves around the fact that the visual arts process is a highly intellectual process, it’s not just passionate, and it’s not just emotional, there is an IQ that’s needed. And it, neurologically, when you get engaged in visual art making, something does happen in your brain, and so—that something is something good—but getting to the point, one of the things that I introduced through BAG was to launch -isms. What do I mean by -isms? It’s easy to use the music experience , to get an understanding of it. Whenever a group of musicians start working in a certain direction, they give it a name. “let’s call it grunge” or “let’s call it disco” or “let’s call it funk”, or “let’s call it hip-hop.” Well, most artists have done it up to a point, then it becomes the curator, the historian, and those people are supposed to give it a name, so that means artists can’t name it? Well, I don’t think so. I think if you’ve got a name, use it and sell it, and see what happens to it. And so, hence I come up with, one being Rhythmism, or the artwork being rythmistic, and then the other one, if you’re doing a commercial thing, we used to call it Afro-Deco. And so, now, there’s a group that’s called AfriCOBRA, and their leader Jeff Donaldson, he used the term called Transafricanism. So, that’s at least three terms that are dealing with the visual phenomenon that’s coming out of black people, meaning African-Americans, meaning those of us who were raised and born right here in the Americas. That’s very different than calling it Black Art, and not being able to make distinctions from one to another. Just like you would never go out and say, “Oh, I wanna hear some black music.” If you wanna hear gospel, you say gospel, and we know where to take you, if you wanna hear blues, we know where to go. And the other thing is if you have a form, hence, formula, then anyone should be able to practice in it. I mean, Jazz isn’t limited to Benny Goodman, it’s not limited to Duke Ellington, it is an art form. And I would dare say that rhythmism is an art form. And I’ve been plying it. You know, when I would work with my commercial clients, I’d sneak it in. And they’d be like “And, what is that, what is this you did over here?” and I’ll just get naïve on them, let them get used to it. But I’ve seen it have its success. I used it with the Cool Globe campaign. I was fortunate enough to paint one of those globes. I slip it in wherever I could to see how it works, because it’s all one big experiment. It’s one thing to say, “oh, I do it in my lab,” which is my studio, but how about when I do it in your lab? That’s different. And then what happens with it? When I’m no longer around it, where does it go? So that globe has gotten a lot of attention and was featured in the New York Times in color, and I think in the International Herald Tribune. So, whatever I was before I started BAG, and then how that critical mass kinda erupted, I’m still surging. You know, I’m still surging.
So BAG morphed into a movement that I’ve called The Black Age of Comics, and we now have four Black Age conventions, one in Detroit, one in Philadelphia, one in Atlanta, and the one I give in Chicago is the oldest. And so that’s focusing a lot of these same concepts, on the comic book, graphic novels, gain contemporary mythology industry. So when I was walking around seeing this, in the seventies and eighties, it was like being John the Baptist, saying, “It is coming! And there will,” you know, they didn’t want to hear it. But you can google ‘Black Age of Comics’ and you’d be surprised what you’ll find out.
RZ: Do you think of yourself as an activist artist?
TO: I probably don’t think of myself as that, because I probably would slow down if I did, but if you said I was that, I would probably say thank you. That’s certainly better than what I used to hear.
RZ: Do you think art has the potential to be transformative? On an individual level, or a social or political level?
TO: Well, the question of the visual practice, artwork, images, being transformative, we don’t exist as people, we don’t exist at this advanced level of primates without our capacity to make art. That predates our capacity to organize the language that we take for granted, because we had to organize it with symbols. Neurologists have really done a lot of research to find out, that the visual phenomenon really has a profound impact your neural functioning. That’s why the practice of art therapy is so potent, because there is a therapeutic impact that at a certain level is measurable. And you can administer it if you have the skill set to do it. For myself, I had some bad experiences as a kid, and what got me through that was making art. The more artwork I made, the more of myself I felt, the more resilient I was at coping with those experiences. And I didn’t miss that connection, I didn’t miss that connection. And I would watch some people, who, when they would stop making art, I’d watch their lives go into decline. And I can remember sitting as a child, saying, “why don’t they just make some artwork?” and so while that’s that magical thinking that children get into, later on I found through practice that it wasn’t magic, it was fact. So, I have friends that tease me and say, “well, man, you’ll make artwork whether you’re making money or not.” They’re right, they’re absolutely right. Because the intangible payoff, which is measurable in other areas, is immense. I’ve shaped my life around it, I preserve it, don’t try to beat it out of me, don’t try to steal it, it is who and what I am. People say, “what are you?” I say an artist, I have to explain to some because they think one of the three stereotypes. Van Gogh: you’re crazy; well, Van Gogh: you’re crazy; and then Van Gogh: you’re crazy. And so, the thing that goes on with me is, it surges through me, and I believe in it, and I’ve practiced it, I experiment with it, and I’ve tried to facilitate for other people, part of that is, the kind of resistance I’ve gotten has made me want to provide for others. Because I should not have gotten that kind of resistance. Not because of me, and ego, but because I was only trying to do positive things. I was only trying to do things that would benefit other people. So, when people mobilize to shut down a good person, there’s something wrong. And I think that a lot of times good people don’t want to put up a good fight, to change what’s wrong. And I don’t know if I’m the good people, but I think I’ve put up some good fights.
RZ: So, what’s an example of a good fight?
TO: An example of a good fight, is when I tried to freelance in the comic book industry, and I won’t name names, but major people at major companies looked at me and said, “do black people read?” And this was late 70s. And then when I went back, they were “do black people know anything about science fiction?” And, so then I put out my own book, called “NOG, protector of the pyramids”, NOG, N. O. G., stands for Nubian of Greatness, and he’s the guardian of the pyramids on planet Nuba, so here comes the good fight, right. So, not only did I go into some sci-fi that’s based on black culture, I made it Nubian, let’s not talk about Egypt, cause we always want to take Egypt out of Africa, and put it in the mid-east, so let’s put it in Africa, black Africa, but better yet, let’s give them a planet. And so now its a Nubian world-view, under attack, so I go back to this company, and they offer me twenty-thousand dollars for all rights, and I have to sign contracts that say that I can never tell anybody I created it or I sold it to them. And I’m trying to negotiate and they’re like, “buddy, are you crazy? Do you know who we are?” So I went around the corner to their competition and they offered me a worse deal. It was then I decided, “don’t get mad, get organized,” so I launched the Black Age movement. And so, here we are now. We may be small, but small doesn’t mean not at all, and slow doesn’t mean never. So, every day somebody else is realizing there’s a movement called the Black Age, that’s not exclusionary, that is in support of independent ideas, period. I always tell people it’s not about race, it’s about place and a space to be able to flourish. And for people who are really ready for that, they sign up.
RZ: So, is Sun Ra an inspiration? You just said space and place…
TO: Actually, no, Sun Ra is a peer, just older. I think that, you know, I’m not thinking of Space is the Place like Sun Ra’s going to Saturn on his Arkestra. I think that’s a good one, but if there’s anybody I would credit, I would credit Jimi Hendrix, he was a great prophet. If you go through his lyrics and you’re like “hmm. The outskirts of infinity. Exactly where would that put one?” The Black Age has been a huge fight, because I’ve had to put a lot of money on the line, credibility, and resources, to do, I’m getting ready to do my 14th convention here in Chicago. I’ve given them in different locations, with, again, still independently underwritten, I would love to get funded, but it hasn’t happened. But there’s a Black Age, and it is growing. Something similar is going on with Rhythmistic movement, but the Fine Arts world is a harder nut to crack.
RZ: I feel like Jimi Hendrix keeps coming up in a lot of conversations I’ve been having lately. Someone at a talk I was at recently said, “Yeah, you never hear of black hippies, but there were black hippies, Jimi Hendrix, what was he? He was a hippie!”
TO: There was an entire black rock scene in Chicago that nobody mentions, I’m telling you, and it was insane. It was insane. What’s curious, is how few people during Hendrix’s lifetime, that were black, would have said that. Would speak up about Hendrix, ’cause it’s funny how here’s a guy who did amazing things, but in Black History month, he’s never mentioned. He’s never mentioned. In the past, fifty years, the most iconic treatment of the Star Spangled Banner, at his peak he was making more money than the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, and number one paid entertainer on the planet. But, never shows up in Black History Month. Very interesting.
RZ: And why is that?
TO: Which me do you want to hear from? There’s a tendency with a lot of black people to be very orthodox, and stereotypic, and like I say, not accepting, so, Hendrix played with two white guys. Couldn’t be black doing that. Hendrix played and attracted a large white audience, well with all those white people going to see him, he couldn’t be one of us. Even though, who plays the blues better, right? It can be comfortable to complain and not acknowledge when there’s gains, and all that. And so, Hendrix gets that kind of treatment, like, there are others who get that treatment. But I put my money where my mouth is, and my artwork. I would do artwork inspired by Hendrix, and I couldn’t get any galleries to exhibit it. And unfortunately, the whole collection went up in smoke.
RZ: Oh, that was in the fire.
TO: Yeah. So I did this work, and I would try to present it, and boy would I get grief. Like I said, being the wrong messenger. I’d send the artwork, they call me up, they’re really interested, I show up and they’re like, “Who are you?” and I’m like, “Well, I’m Turtel.” They’re like, “No, you didn’t do this.” Because they couldn’t believe somebody black was doing what I was doing. And they were real, like, “oh, no. No,” and real adamant about it. Because, you know, there’s no affirmative action in the visual arts. And then, it’s like, the idea in the visual arts game, the black contribution is always addressed in a historical context, or a passionate context. It is rarely addressed in a clairvoyant context or an intellectual context. It’s easy to say Romare Bearden loved the sights and sounds of Harlem and when he looked out his window he developed a passion for his people. Okay, that’s great, but something’s gotta happen in your brain, to do that work. Something else’s got to happen. We all got that passion, none of us is him. So, there was something unique going on in his lovely genius to produce those results, and that’s where the conversation pales. Now, if you’re talking about Dali, or Picasso, then you go on to brain function and your genius activity, and all this other stuff. But if it’s people who are black or of African descent, it shuts off. So, if you’re responding to the civil rights movement, then the work has value because it’s a political statement in response to that. How about the work has additional value because the person that did it is functioning with an ingenious set of personal traits and constructs, that when they looked at that, they arrived at this. And there’s something unique going on, can’t say that, just won’t say that. It’s like, Rockwell did, to many, some of the most amazing work dealing with the Civil Rights Movement [Southern Justice], with one man holding on to another, and one’s dead, and you can see the shadows coming down into the ditch of the men who’s shooting them? That gets missed all the time, but if you don’t have his level of art making, if you don’t have his level of setting a stage, if you don’t have his level of genius when it comes to manipulating paint on a surface, then you can’t make that piece that compelling. So he too looked at the civil rights experience, and it’s like, “You know what, I am Norman Rockwell, and I’m doing this.” If there’s going to be true acceptance, then there’s an area to really fight, again, some other fights. I used to argue with Nate McLin and different people about it, because it’s like that other register has got to hit, you know, you have to start distinguishing people with other characteristics, and some people have to go out on a limb, and say, “you know what? I think this person’s unique, and this is why. And I think this person is different, and this is why.” I mean, everybody in the room plays the electric guitar, how come Jimi Hendrix’s sounds so different? Okay? Everybody in the room sang, so how come he sang and played so differently? And how is it the guy can play that well, and that complicated, while singing? Okay. How does all this happen? Everybody’s composing a song, so what converged in him, and what was in him to grab the convergence? Now, that doesn’t mean that everybody else in the room isn’t valuable.
RZ: Yeah, so I’m wondering about that in relation to your collective work. Part of what you’ve done is to bring people together into organizations. Is there a difference between that kind of group work and thinking in the terms of individual genius?
TO: Well, to me they both feed each other, the point of the group is to give the individual safe space, like I said, and a place to grow as an individual. I think that the best group serves the need of the individual. And then the individual can serve the group, while being self-serving. One of the things that I always looked at as an artist is like, where can you go to flourish? I mean, art schools are brutalizing, they want to hit you with the standards of the greats, boom. And then they’re going to hit you with it again, boom. And then these critiques are always negative. Okay, wait a minute, critique means criterion, it’s supposed to be a set standard of evaluation, by which we’re supposed to talk about it, not you attacking me and my work. Now, you know that didn’t go over well at age 19.
RZ: But you had critiques as part of the BAG initiation process?
TO: We did, yeah, we did. But we did it as a way of preparing you for the opposition that was and is institutionalized racism. You know. Are you really ready for the rigor you’re signing up for when you as a black male or female and say you want to be a professional artist. Are you ready to go into those offices where, you know, you’re black, so right there you’re discredited. Are you really ready for that? And so the rigor we packed in then was more about that. Not, “is your artwork valid?” I mean, when we talk about technical stuff, like how to draw something more realistically, or how to pick better materials, that’s where it was the criterion thinking. For instance, I was doing these amazing drawings on newsprint with el cheapo magic markers. Well, it’s not going to last! They had to beat me over the head with this. I loved the effect, but it was good for about what, 10 minutes? It wasn’t going to last! The acids and the inks and all that was going to break up. And so, some really phenomenal stuff that I did, I lived to watch it disintegrate. For instance. But the rigor of role-playing in the office, you know, how do you get past the secretary, who thinks you’re like, the bitch, and all you did was step off the elevator, but you gotta get past her. If you can’t get past her, you’re not going to get anywhere. So if you’re going to hop your ass back in the elevator, I guess you’re not ready for this. But she’s going to be there at almost every company, and you’re going to have to get past her, because that’s her job, is to screen. And so, you’re going to have to be up for that. And so the tension that was in those sessions, a lot of it was based on that, and I had been through, kind of funny to think about it, I had been through all those tensions, I was going through it routinely, because I was trying to freelance all over the place. I had people push me back on elevators, I had people call security on me, just all kind of absurd stuff was happening in these offices, you know? And then I tried to get support, and couldn’t get support on it, you go to Operation PUSH, and they’re like, “what are you talking about?” PUSH doesn’t care about artists. They’d speak for entertainers and actors, but nobody was talking about the fact that the Sun-Times and the Tribune hardly carried, well, for years didn’t carry any black cartoon strips, and guess what, neither did the Defender. The Defender had Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and Henry and Hazel in there, so we couldn’t get work with anybody.
RZ: Why was that?
TO: Because a lot of people were visually hung up on creative interpretations of how black people look. If you have image problems with yourself, then you’re not that comfortable with creative interpretations of yourself. And since the dominant culture, i.e. white people, never said the visual experience is part of being black, see what happened in slavery was, music was defined as being part of us, hyper-religiosity was part of us, dance was part of us, athleticism was part of us. Well, those are all practices that you could justify as being passionate and talented, which is more animalistic. We’re not going to talk about artistic practices, which are thought to be more intelligent, and only the dominant people are going to be the intelligent people. So we’re not going to bequeath that on you too, so your smudging and smearing and marking, the best we’ll call it is folk art, and naïve art. But we’re not going to talk about it. The elevator keeps going up.
RZ: Does that have anything to do with people getting cut off from their artistic traditions when they were brought over as slaves?
TO: But they were cut off from their musical traditions too. All those were cut off, I mean, your hands were cut off literally if you played drums in slavery. So it was in coming out the other side of the pot that this was decided, that, you know, cutting off the hands didn’t stop you from playing drums. But coming on the other side when the master and the finally institutions wanted you to play drums, okay, and everybody in the room to this day, little black kids want to be a rap star, or an athlete, it’s still there. Very few of them want to be an artist, and when they do, everybody’s like “what are you talking about? That’s some white stuff. You crazy. Artist? Black people don’t make art.” And then you show them all the black art that’s happened in black history, they go “huh?” And they’ve been exposed to it, but they purge it. How to I know they’ve been exposed to it? Because we show them in school all the time! And they—pfft!— it doesn’t go in and go out one side, it hits and falls on the floor. They don’t take it in. And so, it’s this kind of phenomenon. Which is why I’m doing the Black Age movement, and you know, the average black kid now wants to grow up and be a ninja. It’s like, how’d that slip in? First they want to be Superman, now they want to be a ninja, how’d they miss the Black Age of comics? How’d they miss us? And it’s easy to say, “oh, you’re not exposed.” Well, let’s see, we’ve been the cover story for Black Enterprise, I’ve been on the E! channel, I used to go to LA all the time, you know, sell books in all kinds of markets, we’ve been written up in The Source, Final Call, New York Times. In other words, it’s been out here. So, how did it get missed? Who’s purging it, who’s denying it? And right here in Chicago in Kenwood in a 4-year period I gave three conventions. Very few people from the community came. Even though it was in the Hyde Park area, even though I put cards in all the stores, even though I invited all kinds of people, they managed not to come. And they managed not to acknowledge. And I bring in people, like I said, who work for Marvel, DC, Dreamworks, so, it’s going on, and the beauty of it is, it’s going to—mmh!—one day. You know, I mean, you don’t like it going this way, but it makes it more autonomous. And so for the people who benefit from it, they’ll be able to benefit and flourish, and celebrate that autonomy.
RZ: That’s part of why I’m really interested in these organizational aspects too. Just what you’re saying, about black artists being kind of, treated as representatives of a culture, without the creative, intellectual component—and also, all the work that goes into organizing new institutions is forgotten by art history.
TO: I need to get some façades. See, I need to have some people who will speak for me. But, uh, since I don’t have someone to do it, I have to do it.
RZ: I have one more question for you—you worked on the Wall of Love? With Bill Walker?
TO: Yeah, his was the bigger wall, and then there was an ancillary wall, I worked on that.
RZ: So what was that like, working with him?
TO: It was fantastic, it was, he was really different. There was an art fair on like 63rd and Cottage Grove, and I think it was, it was the same day Jimi Hendrix died, cause I remember I was out of it. And I had my bicycle, and Bill came by and he said, “hey, young fellow, how you doing?” and you know, I was flat. He said, “I’m working on a mural, you wanna check it out?” and I’m thinking “I don’t wanna know about any damn mural” but I say, “yes,” right, and so I said, “where is it?” and he told me, so I jumped on my bike and rode over to Cabrini Green. I rode over there—
RZ: From 63rd Street?
TO: Yeah, and so I rode over there, and the scaffolding was up, and it was about five stories up, and I went up there. And, you know, we called them wineheads back then, so when the wineheads came to talk to him and started banging on the scaffolding? Now, you know, I’m a wimp. By the time the vibrations got up there, that thing was swaying. Guess who didn’t go back up there again? So, there was the Industrial Skill Center, about three blocks away, and he was doing the secondary wall there. And so that’s where I worked. Where I could stand, my feet on the ground, and reach, as high as I could reach was about as high as I needed to paint.
RZ: How old were you?
TO: I was probably 19.
RZ: Okay. And did you know Caton?
TO: I knew Caton, yeah. Caton and Calvin Jones, the three of them did a lot of mural work, and John Weber, you know, they were at the high end. I had the opportunity to work with them after I worked with Bill. But the police pulled me aside. Because the wall that I did, there were two naturally occurring windows in the wall, so I made one them the Cook County Jail, and the other one the Dwight Correctional Center. And, my mural had a slogan on it I think it said, “No more drugs, no more bugs, think about the graves it’s dug.” And then I kind of cloned a poem by Sonia Sanchez that said “if we sisters go to jail for selling drugs, who’s going to take care of our babies?” So I put that on the one for, the women’s place, which is Dwight, and then I said the same thing for the men, over at Cook County. Well, some police officers saw it, and didn’t like it, so I was riding home on my bike, and they pulled me over, and they let me know what they thought about it. Well, guess who didn’t do any more murals after that? I didn’t. ’Cause at 19, I was living on my own. So there were people who were disappointed at my abrupt absence from that scene, okay, but yeah.This would have been the year Fred was murdered. So, all these kinds of things were going on.
RZ: ’69. So you wanted to keep your name out of the papers.
TO: I wasn’t painting any more murals, I couldn’t take that heat.
RZ: So, what did they not like about it? Cause it seems like what you were saying was “don’t sell drugs”?
TO: Exactly, those were the times, right?
RZ: Yeah. Did that wall that you painted survive?
TO: It didn’t survive, but it’s in some books. I’ve seen it in maybe two or three books, that it’s showed up in. And you’re the first person I’ve told the whole story to, because most people have no idea why I stopped painting murals. But I figure, we’re in the twenty-first century now, so what happened in the mid-twentieth century, it’s history. And history is what happened, whether you like it or not.