By Bruce Morrow

Callaloo, Vol. 19 No. 1, p.163-171


I don't remember when I first became aware of black figure vases, but I do remember what I thought: these have to be the black folks of ancient Greece that people never talk about. At the age of ten or thirteen, maybe during one of my many visits to the Cleveland Museum of Art--or while studying "World History" in a junior high school class--it must have struck me that the black figures prancing around the circumference of these elegantly shaped vessels were like me.

In her recent series of "Black Figure" paintings, Virgie Patton-Ezelle made my wishful thinking come true. Patton-Ezelle isolates single black figures on large, 41/2' x 5' canvases. Although the paintings are figurative, her images seem abstract or abstracted since there are no details, contours of the body, or facial features. But the figures are not quite blank, either. Using wistful strokes and a subtle palette, Patton-Ezelle captures them in perilous positions, bodies unfolding like Chinese fans or stretched, with arms held high as if reaching for the sky or the surface of the sea. Her figures seem to radiate color.

Although she has experimented with many different styles and worked in oil, watercolor, and acrylic--as well as terra cotta and plaster casts for sculptures--Patton-Ezelle has always remained interested in the figure. Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Patton-Ezelle was trained at the Cleveland Institute of Art and Karamu House, the oldest black arts and cultural institution in the United States. Founded in 1915 by Russell and Rowena Jelliffe as an interracial arts settlement, a rarity at the time, Karamu alumni include Langston Hughes, dancer Marjorie Whitt Johnson, and painter Hughie Lee-Smith; regular visitors included Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson and Ruby Dee.

I spoke with Virgie Patton-Ezelle on the phone at her home in South Euclid, Ohio, a small suburb of Cleveland.

BRUCE MORROW: How long have you been painting? When did you start?

VIRGIE PATTON-EZELLE: I suppose I began to realize I had something going for myself about 35 years ago. That's when I started wanting to move my way into the professional realm. Well, I actually started doing art years before that. Starting as a very young person, actually. I was 5 years old when my school, realizing that I had some special abilities, called for my parents. I could visually recall the day and the mood of the day when the rest of the class had gone home and my mother showed up and the teacher and the principal had my work spread out on the floor at a school. This was in kindergarten--Quincy Elementary School. They stood there discussing my work. I was busy doing things; I was aware that they were talking about me, but it didn't seem important to me. You know, I was busy playing with the blocks on the shelves. After that there was always attention focused on me, and they would have me do special art projects for the class or the school. Upon entering Junior High School and Senior High School, the same things took place. I was always known as the school artist--there were these contests all the time. The art teacher would see that I was involved in these contests, and I would always win.

MORROW: You said you started doing visual arts 35 years ago. There seems to be some time gap. Was it getting married? Raising a family?

PATTON-EZELLE: No, actually there was never a time gap. I was always doing art, painting at home on my own. Eventually--shortly after high school--what do you do? You get married. This is what the parents want to see you do. So you get married. I had a family, started having children, but I was so determined never to have time lapse in between anything. I always found a way to paint. Even when the children were young, I'd send them off to school, paint all day, and at night, I'd do my household duties so that I could paint all day.

MORROW: Did you have a room of your own or a place set aside that was your studio? Or did you work in the kitchen?

PATTON-EZELLE: That would be a luxury to have your own space. Even to this day. Well, I do have my own place. It's a little limited, but nevertheless I'm there. Yes, the kitchen. I would paint in the kitchen. And I can remember being in the bedroom. I just moved all over the house to try and make it convenient for everyone, for me. I also painted in the dining room. I guess I had to move out of the bedrooms because I had a habit of staying up until the wee hours of the morning. I would go back to painting after dinner. You know, once you pick up that brush, you are there. I just had all these problems and things I had to solve.

MORROW: Do you think that working under those conditions influenced your work? How does that environment, the home environment, influence the kind of work that you do?

PATTON-EZELLE: It is a little frustrating because of the interruptions. At that time I wasn't really focused on anything in particular. I would just draw from maybe things that I saw. Things. I would set up still lifes. I was very aware of abstract painting for some reason. I set standards for myself from the very beginning, high standards. I guess because I had the feeling that someday my art would be recognized. So, I was experimenting with various things. Whatever struck me, that's what I did. Even collages. I began in oils, but I left that very early and went on to watercolors. Watercolors, to me, limited the subject matter. I was always involved in classes. I was a perpetual student. I was always at the Institute or elsewhere taking classes. Not as a regular student, but just the classes that attracted me.

MORROW: Were you the only black female?

PATTON-EZELLE: Oh, boy. Absolutely. At that time I always found myself the only black in the classroom at the Institute. Even when I was in junior and senior high, I was always the only black, because those were earlier days. Naturally, you are self-conscious a little bit. But I knew I had to just go there and just be there and fit in and do what I had to do. For that reason I stood out. I stood out too because the white kids would always marvel over what I was doing. They would fight to get to sit next to me.

MORROW: [Laughter]

PATTON-EZELLE: Isn't that weird? Because when I began, they said: You are a professional artist. I really had this ability to work with figures, and that is where I started over at the Institute.

MORROW: How did you make the transition from the Cleveland Institute of Art, a well-respected white institution, to Karamu, a well-respected black institution for black artists?

PATTON-EZELLE: Believe it or not, Karamu at that time was in the heart of the black community, but black people didn't make it their practice to take those classes at Karamu in numbers. There were white people, who came from the far west side suburbs and the east side suburbs. But there were some blacks there, too. There were teachers, doctors, lawyers, educators, and everday people. There were lots of people recognizing that Karamu had something good to offer and cheaply. I went there because, first of all, I never really made a transition--I was always at Karamu as a youngster, too. I was at both places. There were days for Karamu and there were days I was at the Institute--during the same time period. Karamu offered excellent instruction. They had the best instructors, some of whom were from the Institute of Art. At that time, I was very interested in artists from the New York School like Robert Rauschenberg, Franz Kline, and Jasper Johns. There was a gentleman at Karamu by the name of Duncan Ferguson, now deceased--long time deceased--I studied sculpture under him.

MORROW: What year was this?

PATTON-EZELLE: In the 1960s. 1963 even. I can tell by the dates on some of the paintings I did at that time. It was in the early 1960s, into the late 1970s, that I was at Karamu.

MORROW: When did Karamu make the transition to being a black arts institution for black artists?

PATTON-EZELLE: I'd say during the 1970s, when a new director took over. He had this notion that Karamu should be a black institution. Karamu was always an interracial theater, started by the Jelliffes. They wanted to create this ideal theater where people of all races and colors were involved. Well, as the black movement came into being, people became more race conscious, especially in the arts. For those reasons that were pretty obvious--being denied access into the mainstream--it escalated militancy. So this director wanted to make Karamu more black. This director didn't last very long, though. Another one came in, but apparently his thinking was the same. They were just into this "black thing" and white people were gradually weeded out. Not totally. But eventually they reduced the number of white people to almost nil. But that has changed.

MORROW: Who were some of the artists that you worked with or met through Karamu and the art community in Cleveland?

PATTON-EZELLE: I was always aware of Ben Gibson, who was one of the more visible artists and a very talented guy. I haven't really been in contact with him. Nobody has. He had some problems in his life, and he went off and disappeared.

MORROW: You knew the concrete poet Russell Atkins?

PATTON-EZELLE: Yeah, Russell Atkins. There was Bill Cobb in theater, of course. Ron O'Neal and Beverly Todd. I don't know if you are familiar with these names. In art, Charles Sallee. I don't remember seeing Charles Sallee there at Karamu very much. He was a little bit before me, a little bit older than me. So we didn't meet up in the same classes. But Charles Sallee is well known in Cleveland. He's one of the people that's being published in this book of black artists that will come out in the spring. The Cleveland Artists Foundation developed this project to show--I don't know how many--black artists here in Cleveland. It started out with a special interest focused on the artists who went to Karamu: Malcolm Brown, Douglas Philips, Beni Kosh, Allen E. Cole, Elmer Brown, Charles Sallee, William E. Smith, and Clarence Perkins and myself. And it includes that guy who does the surreal art with the balloons, using the balloons as symbols. Very prominent, an internationally known artist. Hughie Lee-Smith.

MORROW: Did they ask you particular questions for the book? What is the focus?

PATTON-EZELLE: They were mostly interested in the early works that were done, the cut off date being 1970. And it was amazing how much work surfaced. But it meant that you had to go back and call somebody in another city. They were kind enough to ship the work here. There were no guarantees that a specific work of our own personal choice was going to be published because, just last week, they made their final selections of what was going to be included in the book. There will be an art exhibit in connection with it at Cleveland State University. Then it will travel to the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, an internationally known institution. They are depending on me for an artist's statement.

MORROW: I'm familiar with the--I call them your "Black Figure" series. They're so beautiful. I immediately thought of Greek black figure vases when I saw them. What initiated that series, and how do you evolve from one series of paintings to another? Can you tell me about how you work as a painter? What things influence you?

PATTON-EZELLE: This is interesting, because I've always felt this need to express myself as a universal artist first, but not the need to address myself to black issues as black people required them. First of all, doing black art isn't the total art experience, because it's only a fragmentation of your self and your creative energies. It's very limited and is not the total aesthetic experience. But I've always liked figures and I'm always returning to them. Recently, when I embarked upon the "Black Figure" series as you call it, I had really discovered a natural resourceful way of using the figure. It allowed me to address some social issues regarding the position of women in our society and the human conditions of emotion and anxiety, by showing the figures in positions that clearly show their reactions to the daily demands of life and the drudgeries of domesticity. They are self-imposed images that are reminiscent of a feminine consciousness, which really manifests itself through the monumental scale of the images. Which is sort of reverse thinking. By making them large, it is to emphasize the feminine aspect.

MORROW: What do you mean by the "feminine aspect"?

PATTON-EZELLE: Well, me being feminine. It's a way of addressing feminine issues, which for me is large, everything. Of course, the paintings are very historical, pointing to the lives that women have led--what was expected of them, to work in the house and tend family--that sort of thing. It's large, looming over everything.

MORROW: So there's a variety of women figures and male figures?

PATTON-EZELLE: There is, so far, the one male figure. I have always enjoyed working with the female figure because of the subtle qualities that it has. This whole series really emerged almost by accident. I always keep in touch with drawing, which is so important. I'm always in some life drawing class--a lot of them exist around here. One night I did one of those three-minute sketches. I did it and I stepped back and said, "This is a fantastic shape. This is fantastic." I had to do something with it. There was no detail, but it had so much form and it had such a nice shape. So, I thought I was going to do a loose watercolor from it. Actually, I made a slide of that little drawing and focused it on a canvas, working with the size. When I focused it on the canvas--that was it. I was elated! As a matter of fact, I said, "This is it! Finally, this is what I want to do. This is how I want to work with the figure." I was really excited about it, and when I proceeded into the painting, it just came out more and more. I became certain that I wanted to develop a series of works influenced by that one drawing and that's the one called Mother Earth. And, of course, it became a natural way to express my being black. It didn't make sense for me to paint white women. Interestingly, the model was white. When I was working, I thought, "Gee, I wonder how she would feel about this?" She had the kind of body that old masters would want to paint. Full, rather voluptuous, with a lot of form. We were in the same drawing classes, and I told her about this painting and asked her how she felt about it. She said she felt perfectly fine about it. A couple of the other paintings are also her figure. But they are black women. They are black figures for a reason.

I love the idea of a minimalism in painting, each figure a simple form in a color field of its own. The shape had to be an important shape. And you have to position the figure in a way to make it interesting and move into the space of the canvas in a nice way. By them being so simplified, you actually get the feeling of fullness and form just by the linework. This allows a conceptual representation of the figure.

MORROW: That's another thing that struck me about your paintings. They are a nice balance between the figurative and the abstract, between realism and conceptual ideas, a post-minimalist form, not fixed on a rectilinear grid, but positioned within color fields.

PATTON-EZELLE: It's a real struggle to find something of your own. It isn't really until then that the work really begins to take on some importance. It's making a statement of your own in art today that brings recognition. Most artists have to struggle with that: What can I do to call my own? And so, it came together that the balance between the real as you see it, the classical figure and the contemporary form, was a happy medium. I wanted something that would, in my own way, appeal to me as a subject matter: the female aspect. It was extremely important to do something that would be recognized as a contribution to contemporary art with a universal appeal. You know the figures are a representation of black women. Especially because of the different emotions.

MORROW: Your paintings seem to balance the same elements of realism and abstraction in the same way as those of Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, who both worked with figures but also have a very abstract quality in their work. Can you tell me of your relationship to their kind of work, their method?

PATTON-EZELLE: I think they were very wise to do what they did. Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, they had vision in what they did. I don't know if there was an immediate awareness or not, but their art is universal. Maybe that's just something they realized they had to do. Maybe it was just their natural way of working that was recognized as universal. But it appealed to everybody, not just a certain group of people. It was exciting; they were still working with their own blackness, their own experiences as black persons, by showing everyday life.

MORROW: What contemporary artists are you interested in?

PATTON-EZELLE: I think Howardena Pindell, who does paintings of her life experiences. There's one girl in New York, I can't call her name out. She does something with photography and I saw a show of hers where she takes a figure from Egyptian history, then photographs her sister almost in the same pose. The juxtaposed view of the figures allows the past and the present to merge together. Lorraine O'Grady--I was so impressed by what she was doing. In fact, she's the one that made the social and class statements in her art that knocked high society or the elite. She created this wedding dress that mocked the elite, causing a lot of controversy.

MORROW: Do you do photography?

PATTON-EZELLE: No, I don't do photography.

MORROW: Do you work in other media? Do you do sculpture?

PATTON-EZELLE: Yes, I do sculptures. In fact, there are--or are going to be--sculptures for each one of these figures on my canvases. They look so sculptural. Many people have looked at them and said, "Oh they are so sculptural." I guess I like sculpture. I love sculpture. When I'm in sculpture, I'm enjoying myself as much as I am in painting. So, there again I feel so fortunate to be able to do both. Each of the images on the canvas I wanted to do a sculpture piece from. I'd love to be able to do them in bronze or glass casting. Not that I could afford to do glass casting. That is just impossible. I would have to get a glass artist to cast the figures in glass. I would need a grant to do that, for sure. It would be quite an expensive thing.

MORROW: Returning to finding this room of your own and having to raise a family, I know that your daughter Julie Patton is a visual artist as well as a poet. Tell me more specifics about mothering and painting--like if you had to cook dinner and paint at the same time.

PATTON-EZELLE: That is one of the atrocities or the worse things of being an artist if you are a woman. Yes, it's hard. I don't know which is more difficult: being a female and being an artist or being a male and an artist. He wants to just go there and do his art, but he has to make a living for the family if he chooses to get married. I was always certain that this was why the old masters had mistresses and didn't marry. My experience is that--yeah, I had six children and then, I guess, just sheer determination and desire--if you want to do something bad enough you'll find a way to do it. That was my philosophy, no one could keep me from painting. I was even pregnant while I was in art school. Not as much during Karamu--most of the kids were born already except for maybe one while I was there. But that didn't keep me from doing art. So if you want to do art, you have to work towards it.

As for cooking, yeah, things did interfere. As I said earlier, at night I would try to have the house all together and everything ready for the kids to go to school, so I could paint as early as possible. I kept perfecting that as time went on, and I was ready to go by 10 o'clock in the morning when they were all off, by 9 o'clock. Then I knew I had until lunchtime. Then after they were back in school, I knew I had those hours between school and having to prepare dinner and that's the part of the day I hated most. I didn't want to stop but I had to stop. Late evening, of course--everything settled down and I was at it again. And so I kept that up. That's really the way a lot of those paintings--even things that are being used in conjunction with this book project--were created, by just finding the time to do it.

MORROW: Interesting.

PATTON-EZELLE: Mind you, I also worked in commercial art studios during this time. After my first two children, I set out with my portfolio and went to American Greetings card company. That's where so many young artists here in Cleveland get their beginning. You get a foothold in there and you get a lot of experience.

MORROW: So you illustrated cards?

PATTON-EZELLE: There were so many different departments. I was not in the design department. They determined where you went by what your portfolio showed. Incidentally, the figures that I did in life drawing classes in the very early days--like the Karamu days--that's what they were really impressed with, those drawings. They were so true to the eye and that's what got me in the door. I worked in the finished art department because of my ability to work with line--what they saw in the drawings. It was a little more technical, and not in the creative areas where every artist would want to be, but everybody couldn't be there. I went on from there to designing dinnerware and fabrics. These would be developed into all other kinds of things, like wallpaper, stemware, and other household things. Then I worked in a stained glass art studio where this man produced stained glass windows. That was Douglas Philips and he died within this past month. So I painted icons or figures on stained glass windows. Then I worked as a fashion illustrator doing fashion advertising art.

MORROW: Are you committed to painting everyday now? Are you working on a new project?

PATTON-EZELLE: Yes, I'm committed to spending as much time as I can painting and I wish it was everyday but things do get in the way. For a while, I was teaching art. I taught fashion illustration, advertising art, and printmaking at Karamu. Then for a while I conducted watercolor classes in my studio. Then I went back to teaching children's art--going back into schools teaching special art projects or as artists-in-residence. Then, finally working at Neighborhood Centers Association, which was just last year. While I was there, I wanted to be there, because I have a thing for our children. Our children are so deprived of art experiences in the schools. The schools have taken art out of the schools. There's really such dire need. It was a way of contributing, teaching them art and trying to get them to see art in new ways rather than just representational, like drawing pictures of house, home, mother, daddy. I wanted to sort of try to get them to see art in broader terms, like thinking in abstract terms, seeing things in a way that would allow them to appreciate the things around them more, broadening their vision of their world as art.

So now, I've waded my way out of teaching. I was recently asked to teach on a college level, even. I didn't do that because I thought of it as another way of taking time away from painting. You know when your family does get up and out of the way it's kind of like your time, and you certainly realize it. I became much more aware of the value of time. Time became a more important issue. There were lots of moments where I should have been painting when I was off doing other things. Like, say, you got to run off to a movie or do this and do that. Some of those things you could leave aside.

The idea is that I want to develop this series of work, complete the series, keep working with this figure as I was describing it. Even though I think I will remain with the figure, it will be in a slightly different view. And if I'm lucky, as I have been with good health, I hope that time allows me to do many of those things and allows a few more poems to seep in.

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