Witness to the times

My dear friend Ron Hicks and I were talking today about the death of George Floyd, as we have been for days, and the demonstrations and riots and calls to defund the police and it all suddenly reminded me of the poem HARLEM, by Langston Hughes (1902-1967). You may recall the first line: What happens to a dream deferred? But it’s the final line of that poem that keeps playing through my head: …does it explode?

To be an artist, you have to let your life play out in your work.

Ron, who is African American, is a phenomenal artist. When you hear people say ‘anyone can learn to paint,’ well, that may be true, but not everyone can learn to be an artist. I point to Ron Hicks and his work as an illustration of the difference between painting and art. Ron had built a successful career as a figurative painter and, in particular, it was his romantic café scenes that people loved the best.

Over the last four or five years, however, his work has taken a very different turn. It has become far more abstract, the figures are more often black, and all subjects, no matter the ethnicity, have taken on an enigmatic, almost ethereal presence, as if, once you turn away, they too will be gone.

Talk about a dream deferred.

Ron Hicks Veiled, 20x16 oil
Ron Hicks, Veiled, 20×16 inches, oil

I’ve known Ron for almost 30 years and over that time I had no idea how frequently he was being stopped by the police, pulled from his car, handcuffed and thrown in the back of a cop car or to the ground while his own car was rifled through, with complete disregard for the paintings in the back. He would, after about an hour, be released with no explanation. This had been happening for decades (thankfully, things have gotten better), and yet I never knew until one day in his studio when I asked where these new works came from and he started talking. It’s as if all these injustices that he’d tamped down inside himself came bubbling to the surface and could no longer be contained; they had to go somewhere. For Ron, this trauma is laid bare in his painting.

Another statistic

There were many times, Ron told me, that he thought he was about to become another statistic. And yet, he finishes every conversation by saying he’s not bitter; he can’t live his life like that.

ron hicks still oil
Ron Hicks, Still, 26×26 inches, oil

I abhor violence and know Ron does too, and yet I somehow understand the most angry of the protesters. Looting and violence hurts the message and the cause but it’s as if Langston Hughes’ 1951 poem foreshadowed each and every riot leading up to this point in history.

And maybe it will keep happening until we finally learn the answer to the great poet’s question: What happens to a dream deferred?

Check out Ron Hicks’ latest work here: ronhicks.com.

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Curator, writer, and strategist for artists and non-profits, Rose Fredrick has spent the last three decades producing exhibitions that have not only raised considerable funds for scholarships and education, but have also launched artists’ careers. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications and her essays and interviews have been used in workshops, college courses, and museum exhibitions. She has won the National Endowment for the Arts grant, Rock West Curator of the Year, Denver’s The Big Read, Best Multicultural Book from the New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards, and was a finalist for the Colorado Book Awards.

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