The Quilt of Romare Bearden’s Life

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Lloyd Addison, a fellow caseworker with the department, coined the name “the Umbra Workshop,” a precursor to the Black Arts Movement. Other co-founders of Umbra who worked for the department included poet Tom Dent and novelist and sociologist Calvin Hernton, best known for the 1965 study Sex and Racism in America.

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Novelist, playwright, poet, and professor Rashidah Ismaili, who attended many of the Umbra meetings, recalls the intellectual ferment and burgeoning social consciousness of the Lower East Side during that period of unrest in the 1960s. “We all found a way to survive,” she says. As for working for the Welfare Department, she recalls that “it was the easiest way to get a job, because they only required a bachelor’s degree. You could be a music major.”

“I think everybody saw themselves as being political and progressive and involved,” Ismaili adds. “It was extremely vital and important to the African-American artistic community, because there were so few places where the kind of life that they needed to live in pursuit of their work was available to them.”

Many African-American novelists who worked for the department became forerunners of intersectional feminism and womanism, positioning their work as a tacit response to the demeaning rhetoric that would culminate in the controversial Moynihan Report, published in 1965. Lorde, the self-identified “Black Lesbian Feminist Warrior Poet Mother” and author of Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, worked as a social investigator for the Bureau of Child Welfare from 1959 to 1960. When Lorde was growing up, her mother worried that “daughters who want to write don’t get civil service jobs,” Lorde recalled in a 1976 interview with Deborah Wood. “In those days, if you got a good job with the city then you were set.”

Photograph of an ID card taken in the Romare Bearden archives.

“Bearden’s many years working in social services positioned him for a close-up view of the life of people,” says Diedra Harris-Kelley, co-director of the Romare Bearden Foundation. “He likely saw the persistence of family rituals and human bonds across cultures, and this bolstered the universal concepts he often spoke to so well. He was a keen observer, and like a good storyteller, took it all in, then riffed from his memories.” According to Robert G. O’Meally, the editor of the forthcoming The Romare Bearden Reader, “The figure of the artist as active in the world and trying to make sure people get fed and sheltered and justice is quite true to his vision of what the artist has to be doing.”

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This collection of artists working as civil servants was not without precedent. Starting in 1935, the $4.9 billion New Deal–era Works Progress Administration employed millions of people, and many artists found work through the various subagencies, including the Federal Writers’ Project, the Federal Music Project, and the Federal Art Project. One of the largest public-works and infrastructure initiatives in the nation’s history, the WPA employed many of Bearden’s peers, including his cousin and 306 group co-founder Charles “Spinky” Alston; painters Aaron Douglas and Jacob Lawrence; and writers Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Nelson Algren. Bearden likely would have participated in the WPA, but his family’s household income was above the prescribed limit. In 1943, the WPA was dissolved, and in its absence, in New York at least, civil-service jobs, particularly in the Department of Welfare, became the best recourse for many fledgling artists trying to cobble together an income.

According to the municipal archives, Bearden began as a social investigator on July 29, 1935, just after he graduated from New York University with a BS in education. He initially worked at 100 West 116th Street and earned $1,680 a year—equivalent to $30,852 in 2018. Later, he was transferred to an office on 139th Street, and eventually to the Non-Residence Welfare Center at 119 West 31st Street. Toward the end of his career, he was earning $8,200 ($60,000)—around what is now the low-end price for some Bearden collages. His tenure with the department constitutes a kind of shadow to Bearden’s artistic career, trailing along his picaresque journey from social realism to abstract expressionism and finally to collage: his studies with George Grosz at the Art Students League; his military service as a sergeant in the all-black 372nd Infantry; his early-’50s sabbatical from painting during a foray into songwriting, resulting in the Billy Eckstine hit “Seabreeze”; his return to the Department of Welfare in 1952, when he was assigned to the Romany caseload; the formation of the Spiral group, a civil-rights-minded collective of African-American artists that included Alston, Norman Lewis, and Hale Woodruff; and, ultimately, his international success.

Some of Bearden’s co-workers became a kind of extended family for him; to them, he was always just “Romy.” When he took a leave of absence from the department in 1950 under the GI Bill, studying philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris (where he met Braque, Brancusi, and the novelist and cultural critic Albert Murray), his co-worker Frederick Romano took care of his beloved cat, who stayed behind in his 125th Street loft. Bearden also became close with his clients, developing lasting friendships with the kumpania, or Romany community, he served, primarily in Coney Island and Queens. Despite his gadjo (non-Romany) status, Bearden was by his own estimation accepted as much as he could ever be, perhaps in part because of his own marginalized status as an African American. “I wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea at first, but eventually I hated to leave them. I began to know so many families,” he told New Yorker writer Calvin Tomkins in 1977. “They were truly a culture within a culture. They had such a strong sense of identity.”

Bearden’s experience with the department gave a practical underpinning to the sociological and political themes of race and class that he explored in his art. In January 1965, 8,000 welfare workers from the Social Service Employees Union and Local 371, including Bearden, went on strike for 28 icy days to protest unfair caseloads and understaffing. The late John Talbutt, who worked for SSEU Local 371, recalls that the artist “absolutely was entirely in favor of the union. Every day we struck, he struck.” He continued: “At Non-Residence, we closed the center down.” Moreover, it seems as though Bearden’s support for labor movements extended to artists. Bearden served as an adviser to the Studio Museum, which was established in 1968, and was a co-founder of the Cinque Gallery, in 1969, two of the first arts spaces dedicated to developing young minority artists.

Additionally, Bearden feared that the gradual assimilation of Romany culture into American culture would result in a rapidly vanishing way of life. “They were coppersmiths and now we have stainless steel. They used to fix the fenders of cars. Now you need electric jack hammers to do it because the fenders don’t come off the cars as they used to. Or their fortunetelling—people don’t believe in it any more,” Bearden told the curator Henri Ghent in a 1968 oral-history interview. “You see, there’s no way for them to make a living as they used to. No, eventually they will disappear.” They haven’t disappeared, but neither has the precariousness that minority communities face.

Daniel Baker, a London-based Romany artist and curator, suggests that the connection  between Romany and Southern African–American cultures is one of presence as much as absence, and reclamation in the face of erasure. Before starting his dissertation research, Baker told me, his adviser “suggested I look at Bearden as an example of a similar kind of position within the black community.” “My understanding of my community, the Roma community, is that we have quite a fractured sense of self because it’s reliant upon disparate and often prejudiced images of what the Gypsy is,” Baker said, “so this idea of eclecticism and making sense from fracture is a significant element of the Gypsy or Roma aesthetic, and I see some of that in Bearden’s work, especially in the collages.”

In 1966, Bearden reduced his hours to part-time, amid a buildup of work that was described in a 1967 report as an “emergency situation” at Non-Residence. Then, in his mid-50s, and after a 34-year career with the department, Bearden finally retired in 1969. “I think he left after he sold a painting to Arthur Goldberg,” says Helen Solomon, a caseworker who worked with Bearden, referring to the former Supreme Court justice and patron of the arts. That same year, Bearden submitted his third application for a Guggenheim fellowship, which he was awarded for 1970. The artist had finally gotten the long-overdue recognition he deserved.

These experiences exposed the artists who lived them to a grittier side of life they may never have seen otherwise, a cultural moment that shaped their perspective implicitly, and sometimes their work explicitly. “Social investigator” is perhaps a euphemistic title that by turns sugarcoats and sterilizes the work, but to investigate can extend beyond the clinical or procedural sense—it can also mean “to trace out.” Bearden certainly traced and transfigured the borders of his community. Are not all artists, in a way, social investigators?

As for Bearden, during his time at the Welfare Department, his work moved increasingly away from abstraction, toward a collage aesthetic that expressed a palpable sense of community that he experienced not only through his African-American heritage but also in the Romany people, who became much more than clients. Bearden’s central motifs—the quilt, the guitar, the train with its evocation of migration and possibility, the conjure woman—are inextricably linked to the traditions of both cultures. In a jazz-infused work like Folk Musicians, we can see Charlie Christian, but perhaps also Django Reinhardt.

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“The bits and pieces that make quilts as well as collages all refer to their uses and places in other lives; the life of the quilt is the aggregate of those pieces, and the work then becomes a referential discussion of both past and present at once,” writes the poet and scholar Elizabeth Alexander. Sometimes, Bearden’s work would refer to a literal quilt. “We are so much into ourselves these days, we have lost that sense of community,” Bearden told Les Payne in 1988, describing his 1986 mosaic mural Quilting Time.

The perina, a Romany quilt passed down through the generations in some families, used to sleep on and sometimes to store valuables, was a fixture of Romany tradition that Bearden must have encountered during the two decades he was immersed in the community. If cubism fragmented the appearance of an ordered whole, the Romany and African-American textile traditions, kept alive today by Trish Williams and Faith Ringgold, feel diametrically opposed, an attempt not at deformation but at reassemblage, constituted and reconstituted in the diaspora out of far-flung patchwork pieces.

For Bearden, collage was social work, and social work collage. “Great productive changes never occur through the influence of one dominant force, whether it be art, science, or religion, but through a confluence of many forces, which in unison have the power to transcend the contributions of all individual elements,” he said in a 1975 commencement address at Carnegie Mellon University. “For the highest order of the human experience is in building a fit world where we can all live in peace.”

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