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Art Reflecting Life

Art Reflecting Life

Michael Ray Charles

Associate Professor of Art, University of Texas at Austin

Education: Masters of Fine Arts, University of Houston; B.A., Advertising Design, McNeese State University

Age: 35

Spike denies it,” says Michael Ray Charles when asked if his 1997 painting “Bamboozled” inspired Spike Lee’s film of the same name, but the artist isn’t sure he buys that.

Lee is, after all, a big fan of Charles’ work. The filmmaker commissioned a painting from the artist for his 1997 documentary “Four Little Girls,” and Charles served as a creative consultant on “Bamboozled,” Lee’s searing dramedy of race and the entertainment industry that opened to critical praise in 2000. And then there’s the clincher: the fact that Lee just happens to own the painting in question.

“I like to think (I inspired him). After all, there was no “Bamboozled” before my work,” Charles says, just a hint of a smile in his voice.

This is the life of Michael Ray Charles, associate professor of art at the University of Texas at Austin: high-profile collaborations with top Black movie directors; a celebrity clientele that includes actor David Allen Grier and director Penny Marshall; solo exhibitions in New York, Dusseldorf and Barcelona; special segments on PBS and Canadian and German television.

He’s only 35, but Charles has traveled a long way from his modest beginnings in rural St. Martinville, La.

Charles is acclaimed for his biting, sometimes satiric renderings of America’s racist visual history — the “golliwogs,” Sambos, Mammies and “jigaboos” that populated advertising, product packaging, billboards, radio jingles and television commercials for more than a century. His work explores the link between the minstrel images of the not-too-distant past and mass-media portrayals of celebrity rappers and shoe-peddling athletes. He has been lavishly praised — and excoriated, often by other Black artists, when the scalpel he holds to the wound of America’s racial psyche probes too deep.

The artist won’t comment directly on the criticism that has been leveled at him over the years. “All I’ve ever wanted to do was make art. That was it. It was as simple as that,” he says.

Charles has been “making art,” as the expression goes, ever since he can remember. Family members recall him doodling and drawing from the moment he could hold a pencil in his tiny hands. In high school, his life revolved around two things: art and basketball. And even then, the art was a hit.

The work was strong enough to win Charles a $500 art scholarship at Louisiana’s McNeese State University in Lake Charles. Halfway through his first semester, he nearly got sidetracked by his love for basketball, but his father refused to sign the consent form that would have permitted him to accept a basketball scholarship at another school. And the art world is a better place because of it.

Charles says African American visual artists are engaged in a fight to be perceived as creative cultural producers.

“…The (art world) circles that I’m in don’t have or welcome African Americans into that system. We’re not getting MFAs and having galleries and becoming patrons and doing the things that are on the A-list of creative cultural production,” Charles says. “That’s a major dilemma to overcome. The museums are filled with people validating work they believe in. Very few of us are in that realm.”

Charles recalls that not too long after he arrived in Houston, he walked into a gallery with his slides and did not even get to display them before he was told, “We don’t show folk art”— the assumption being that Charles was uneducated and untrained. He recalls put-downs from professors who subtly questioned his intellect. Indeed, one of his most brutal encounters was with an African American professor who walked up to him as he was walking into the administration building and asked, ” ‘Are you a new graduate student?’ And when I said yes, he said, ‘I’ll bet you don’t make it.’

“That was the best career advice I ever got.”

— By Kendra Hamilton

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