By James Cullum
In the 1970s, renowned artist Horace Day would set up his easel outside his studio on North Fairfax Street. A painter of the American scene, Day painted dozens of portraits of Alexandrians, meeting many of his subjects as they stopped to admire whatever he was painting at the time. The pieces, 29 portraits and three Old Town streetscapes are on display at the Alexandria Black History Museum, 902 Wythe Street, until April, 30, 2011. “Style and Identity: Black Alexandria in the 1970s” is a fascinating collection that exemplifies how public perceptions of race, beauty and class have changed. The portraits show styles of the day (long collars, afros) and richly capture the personalities of Day’s subjects with bold brush strokes.
Paintings such as “Jet Set”, “Superfly” and “Upper King Street”, show the trendy, contemporary urban black male culture of the 1970s. Day’s portraits of young Alexandrians James Veney, Anthony Lovelace, Dan Odie and Ricky McNeil feature young men with large afros. At the time, the hairstyle signaled racial pride and cultural empowerment. Perhaps the most interesting feature in the portraits is the reflectiveness of the subjects. None possess the characteristics of a stereotype such as the comic minstrel. Some subjects pose meditatively, and others simply look to the side.
“I think the basic point is that my father felt that one of the thing that artists have done over time is to see beauty where others haven’t or don’t right away,” said Talmage Day, Horace Day’s son. “At a time when African Americans were beset by stereotypes, he was free of them, and he was able to perceive beauty and grace in his subjects that weren’t as apparent to people at large. He grew up outside bias. He was the child of missionaries in China where he spent his early years free of racial stereotypes. And you see that in the work.”
Day was born in 1909 in China to American missionary parents. He studied at the Art Students League in New York and began exhibiting his paintings nationally in 1931. His work, which was dominated by Southern American themes, uses bright color sparingly to guide the eye. He died in Alexandria in 1984.
“These portraits were painted at a time when Black was just becoming ‘beautiful,’ but when media still promoted stereotypical images of African Americans. It was a time of flux, a time when African Americans were searching for their identity, their civil rights and their place in society,” said Audrey Davis, curator of the Alexandria Black History Museum. “We found some stories of people who are in some of the portraits, and they may have never seen the finished piece. This is a great opportunity for people in the area to make that connection.”
The Museum is open Tuesday – Saturday 10 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.