Thank you Franklin Armstrong… from a black women artist

I have been creating art all my life. When I was in elementary school my teachers saw that I had so much energy they assigned me projects around the school to do. Every holiday that was celebrated in school I was assigned a bulletin board to create. My favorite time of the year was creating the Christmas bulletin board. I always copied the character of Charlie Brown in the theme. I created my own story board on butcher paper that was about 4-6 feet long. I had mastered drawing each character of the comic strip. There was only one Black character in the gang: Franklin Armstrong. Franklin was first introduced in the comic strip in 1969. I felt so sorry for him that I made sure I drew him in every theme across the paper. Sometimes I made Lucy and Peppermint Patty Black also. I was trying to correct the fact we were rarely seen on TV or in positive images in society. I grew up watching Civil Rights’ riots and being called “nigger” at school by classmates and their parents.

I grew up with watching The Julia Show, Good Times, and The Jeffersons. These late 1970’s shows started turning the corner of seeing more Blacks on TV both negative and positive. I watched those shows to see more of how we were getting by in America. Living in Columbus Ohio I didn’t see much of the world except for summer trips to West Virginia like most Blacks in the Midwest. Charlie Brown was an amazing comic strip minus it limitations on diversity.

I also grew up watching ZOOM, Electric Company, and Sesame Street. I recently found out through a new artist friend on Ovation that the first Black animator for Sesame Street came from Columbus Ohio -Tee Collins. He did animation for the short stories on the show. The images of Blacks on TV in animation in the late 70’s and early 80’s improved after the Civil Rights movement became a reality for America. Racism was alive and well but making Black TV shows had become a money-maker in Hollywood. The Harlem Globe Trotters and The Jackson Fives were two of my favorite cartoons.

On Saturday morning in the Midwest you had rituals before you could watch Saturday morning cartoons. You had to run the vacuum, do your chores, cut the grass, if you lived in Ohio or Michigan, and then dust the banisters. Then you were free to eat a bowl of Captain Crunch, Count Chocula, or Cocoa Crisps while watching TV. The cereal went great with a large glass of red Kool-Aid. The simplistic things in life made life great. I spent the next 4 hours watching my favorite TV shows. I watched PBS last on Saturday mornings.

I spent the rest of the day drawing and reading my comic book collection. I saved my allowance to buy comic books at the corner drug store. I created story boards, comic books, illustrations, and scripts. I mailed some of my ideas to PBS in Boston. One time I even sent an idea for a cartoon to Michael Jackson. It aired several months later. I knew I had nothing to do with it but it always made me feel important that I mailed a cartoon script to a famous person at the age of 10.

Being a Black teen I grew up admiring the TV show Julia with Diahann Carroll. It was inspiring to see a Black woman in a positive role as a nurse. I bought the Julia doll so I could make and design clothes for Black women. The doll became my muse for designing clothes. I ignored my White doll collection after I got the Julia doll. I tried pressing her hair on a light bulb. I almost caught my bed on fire when the hair got too hot.

I rode my bike every Sunday to German Village in Columbus, Ohio to buy the New York Times. I sketched the fashion designs in the ads and read the comic strips. I was always creating art, music or designs in my youth. I was inspired by old Black movies and classic films with Bette Davis. My world was full of unusual muses to create from. I had to search to find positive Black images and Black art in my community.

My brother Charles who is an artist trained me in the arts as I grew up. I had my first show when I was 15 with him at the CMACAO Center. I learned to paint with oils and acrylics by the age of 16. I worked with the artists of ACE Art gallery in Columbus as I got older. I was surrounded by world class Black artists. They encouraged me to paint from the soul.

I was growing into a renaissance woman creating all the arts and more: playing jazz piano and flute in high school, playing flute in marching band, playing viola in the orchestra, dancing in plays, acting, exhibiting at my school, painting murals in South High, printing, designing and selling handmade T-Shirts, painting murals on local restaurant windows, publishing and writing poetry, photography, and running track. I was given the freedom by my parents to express myself through the arts and more. I went off to college in Pueblo, Colorado in 1980 to see more of the world. I know….. Pueblo, Colorado?

The need as a Black artist to create images that reflect our history, our struggles and our pains has been the fire that burns in me. From the early days of drawing Charlie Brown’s Franklin to recreating from Black photos the journey of our people in America has been my desire. It is not easy being a Black artist and female. Many times I have exhibited my art in White owned galleries that don’t understand why I create the images I create. I was told by one gallery owner that she could not understand how I made any money from my Black art. I looked around the room and saw large canvases with nothing but red paint on them selling for $10,000 a piece.

The art community over all lacks diversity. I read through art magazines with very little diversity in them, if any. There are things I can not get away with that other artists of other races can. As a Black people we have always had to do better and try harder in the eyes of America. I have been asked to frame panel pieces that I had created as panels. When other artists in the same show have stuck balls of paper torn to pieces on canvases on the wall, they were not asked to make any changes. Their art is exalted. In a drawing class at the University of Cincinnati, I drew my room for an assignment. It was in full perspective, in detail photographically perfect. The teacher commented on the angles and gave me a C+. A White student wrote a telephone conversation on an old album and presented it to the class. No drawing was done just an album with red marker writing on it. She raved over the piece and gave the student an A+. It was a drawing class.

Their art is raved as being from geniuses, and is considered mainstream. I am asked to fix my art so it hangs properly. With a BFA in art I have studied the masters. I have studied impressionist art that I model my style after. I started creating “folk art” style of art for that reason. The art community considers what I do as an expression as outsider art or folk art. I still believe it is fine art! But it is what I now label to keep from conflicting with galleries. I never have that problem with labels when I work with diverse Black galleries.

I recently had a painting, Moving North, that was accepted in a local show. I decided not to exhibit it because of the request to fix the edges of the panel and repaint them. The piece is painted on a flat wood panel 3 x 4. I create art on panels so that the art ages with time and becomes history. One of my favorite artists Diego Rivera painted on panels in the 1930s. I took that concept and the outsider art I studied in Alabama to make my own style of aging historical art. The idea of outsider art is a safety net term for artists considered to be outside of the mainstream art community. The art world over all rejects and limits the diversity of other races and ideas.

The opportunities I’ve had as an artist have been limited because I refuse to play main stream games of compromising my style and images to adjust to the fine art world’s ideology of what is acceptable art. As a Black artist and a woman my battle is two-fold. All my life I’ve had to walk in two worlds: Black and White. As I have gotten older I choose only to walk in one world, God’s. I feel that what I have to say should not be censored by the lack of understanding of a diversity of voices. Racism is alive and working in the art community. There is no “Post Racial” period in the art world or America in general. If I threw paint on canvas and stuck small broken cups on it I would be a success. The fact that I create art that documents the struggles and pain of my race has often limited opportunities to exhibit. So I create my own space in order to have a voice. I have been told my art is too intense. Maybe it is.

Slavery was intense. Lynching was intense. Being murdered for wanting to vote is intense. Siting through “Birth of a Nation” and having it being called the greatest film ever is intense. I get followed by cops weekly. I have gotten pulled over in the last few months for just being Black. Being Black is intense. My art is my voice to the world both good and bad. I can paint Jesus pictures, butterflies, choirs, babies, and landscapes. I also paint lynchings, race riots, killing, and the holocaust of Black Americans over the past 400 years. I paint and write who I am. I have lived my life as an apology for so many years. As I have gotten older I will not apologize any more for being Black, a woman, and artistic. My journey began with a few White teachers trying to calm down a small Black child who saw the colors in the world and wanted to paint them. I am grateful to those teachers who saw a creative child and not my race. I am 48 years old and l still see colors in history as an opportunity to express what it means for me to be Black in America. I thank Charles Schulz for putting Franklin in the comic strip. That one lone Black image began my journey to create thousands of Franklins in every painting I create.


2 thoughts on “Thank you Franklin Armstrong… from a black women artist

  1. Thank you for that info on Tee Collins! Wanda the Witch was my FAVOURITE Sesame Street cartoon – one that I can recite from memory.

    As for making Schultz characters Black – my mother used to do the same thing. Back in the 70s (I gather that I am 10 yrs younger than you, love) she made children’s clothes and would embroider Holly Hobby on them. They would always be Black. The two times she made White Holly Hobby’s (for her White co-workers) they were very disappointed – so she redid the embroidery so that HH would be Black for them too. People can learn.


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