It is not often in life that you meet people whom you can call legendary, heroes, and also friends. Back in 1995 we relocated to Colorado Springs, Colorado. We had grown tired of Columbus, Ohio. We packed up our kids and headed out west. I quickly obtained a job at Meininger’s Art Supply Store. As an artist it was a job that was a perfect fit with my education and background in sales. I met many famous artists while working there on a weekly basis. Colorado is a hidden jewel. Many famous people hide out there to create. Colorado Springs was a mecca for famous artists, scientists, and writers. Tesla lived there at one time to do experiments in the lighting playgrounds at the foot of the mountains.
I had worked at Meininger’s there for several weeks meeting artists who were world renowned. I met Thomas Blackshear who later become my mentor and close friend. He taught me many things about art that I still hold true today. One day ,while setting up displays an older distinguished cheerful spirited man asked me about some easels downstairs. I took him in the basement of the showroom to look at art easels. We began to laugh and joke about painting and life. His delightful smile and face was welcoming. We immediately connected and became friends. He shared with me his life and his experiences as an artist. I was standing in there in the presence of a legend. We exchanged information. I wanted to do a show with him at several places I had been working with. He agreed. His name was Clarence Shivers. He was one of the Tuskegee Airmen for the US army air force. He shared with me some of the things he went through in the military. We laughed and joked about painting art. I made him laugh when expressing my attempts to paint people of other races. We quickly became friends. I admired his history and his kindness to me. He mentor me over the years with advice and wisdom until I relocated from Colorado to Maryland in 2000.
Several days later Mr..Shivers came back in to buy some more supplies. He had decided on an easel he wanted from seeing it several days ago when we talked. I took him down in the basement to pick put the right one for him. I went back upstairs to get some paper to write on. Thomas was in the store that day picking up some supplies. I had met him several weeks ago. We just were becoming friends. Thomas Blackshear ran up to me and turned me around. He said “Janie is that Clarence Shivers downstairs?” I said “Yes! He is amazing”. Thomas asked, “Can you introduce me to him?” I said, “Yes. Come on downstairs.” I walked Thomas downstairs to the basement showroom. I introduced him to Mr.. Shivers.
I was in the presence of two great world renowned artists. They talked for a while. I listened and observed while two artists I admire became friends. Later that week I met Wallace Conway. He was the first Black curator at the Smithsonian Museum. Following that I met a dear new friend Chester Commodore the first Black cartoonist for the Chicago Defender. I have tapes of conversations I had with him and other artists during seminars we put together at the Urban League for Black artists and writers. He was a delightful energetic hero in my eyes. I have copies of cartoons he gave me as a gift from his years at the Defender and his work in Ebony Magazine. He gave me hours of great stories about his life.
In the following weeks I curate a show for Black men artists at the Urban League. The small show had artwork from Clarence Shivers, Thomas Blackshear, Chester Commodore, Wallace Conway, my son Jamile McGee, Jasmine McGee. My art and Robert Campbell. My friend, Marvin Kraft, who now plays base with the Jazz band Dotero put together a Jazz group that played for that evening. It was an awesome event.
I later exhibited at Pikes Peak Community College with Mr.. Shivers for an event for the legendary baseball player Buck O’Neil. I met him that day. I lectured about Black history in the gallery with Mr.. Shivers. Robert Campbell took pictures. Robert ‘Bob’ Campbell was a world class photographer from Delaware. He took photos of the Jazz greats. His wife Marner who writes poetry and spoken word performed with me many times at the Urban League. I met so many great people in the five years I lived in Colorado Springs. Mr.. Shivers passed away in 2007. He was born in St. Louis on Oct. 14, 1923. He was orphaned at the age of 16. He joined the Army in 1943, serving until the end of World War II, training as a fighter pilot with the Tuskegee Airmen, the celebrated Black-piloted fighter squadron. He finished flight school too late to experience combat, but never regretted it. His wife Peggy was an inspiration to me. She saw the small attempts we were making to bring Black history and culture to Colorado Springs. She is a pioneer of many amazing programs in the arts that I looked up too. She encouraged my efforts and supported me. Her heart towards my efforts inspired me to keep trying to make difference.
In 2012 the movie “Red Tails” will be released. It is the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. I am excited to see the story brought to the big screen again. I hope that Hollywood will continue to make movies that will tell the stories of so many African Americans who are heroes and legends in our community. I was blessed to meet and know a number of the leading Black male artists living and working in Colorado Springs. Those artists whom I have met over the years impressed, encouraged, mentored, and motivated me to keep doing my art. Mr.. Shivers was a friend and a role model for me in pursing my dreams. His bright spirit and humor was life changing to encounter. It is not often you can meet so many great artists in one city. I was blessed to know them all. This movie will mean more to me than just a Hollywood blockbuster. It represents a small experience I had with one of the airmen from Tuskegee, that changed my life.
Mr.. Shivers was walking history. His art was used in 1983, commissioned by the Miller Brewing Company to illustrate its annual calendar celebrating the accomplishments of civil rights luminaries. His art was pure. He painted from his experience and love for our culture. I thank God and was so blessed and privileged to know him for even a short time. We talked and laughed like old friends every time we met up for shows. H brought out the best in me as an artist to have my art on the wall next to a legend…