by Emme Nelson Baxter
Gazing at a Michael McBride painting, you might experience a “museum moment,” as the artist puts it. That’s when you tilt your head to one side, then the other. You step back a couple of paces. You feel compelled to squint your eyes, then open them really wide. In that moment you discover another symbol in the work, another allusion to pop culture.
As you absorb the vibrancy of McBride’s color palette, you might just find yourself humming lyrics from some late oeuvre by the Beatles. After all, some of McBride’s work is surreal, if not a little trippy at times. He credits this to his artful achievement of a kaleidoscope effect.
That’s only part of McBride’s appeal. True, he has developed a signature semi-cubist effect that makes his paintings feel as if they’ve been bent, then unfolded. Or that they have been cut into pieces, then reassembled mosaic style.
That, coupled with funky and rich symbolism, might have you thinking of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Consider his painting Sinner Man. In the foreground he has executed a portrait of chanteuse Nina Simone. Beyond her is a floating man bearing an umbrella, a clear nod to René Magritte’s work. There are also references to Adam and Eve and even a reference to the motion picture the Thomas Crown Affair. So while McBride’s paintings might originally appear to be a collection of disparate items, they are carefully planned devices. He knows exactly what he is doing.
When McBride is not teaching at Tennessee State University, you can often find him at his commercial studio. It’s located in the old May Hosiery Mill on Chestnut Street in South Nashville, and it is space he shares with fellow artist James Threalkill. The men work and sell art from the place while manager Derell Stinson keeps the operation in check.
“The studio is a place where people love to come and chill,” McBride observes. “There’s art all around you without the intimidation of a gallery.”
Indeed, the studio décor has an eclectic ambiance. It is chockablock with reading materials, oft-used sofas, mismatched stools, easels, and scads of artist materials. The walls are lined gallery style with paintings by both of the men. Smooth jazz plays seductively from a music system, and fans push the air playfully around the room. You can’t help but notice “Bucky,” a life-size skeleton with a jaunty Kangol hat that’s oh so very Samuel L. Jackson. It is a comfortable destination. And the artist himself is delightful company, with his positive outlook and sense of humor.
The 55-year-old McBride has enjoyed widespread success. His paintings have appeared on the sets of television programs including Living Single, the Wayans Bros., and the Jamie Foxx Show. He has illustrated children’s books for several publishers.
McBride was featured in Visions of My People, Sixty Years of African American Art in Tennessee, an exhibit organized by the Tennessee State Museum. The museum purchased one of his pieces for its permanent collection.
He has served as an artist-in-residence at the Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art in that country. He also participated in an exhibition exchange program with the city of Belfast, Ireland.
Closer to home, McBride was one of twelve selected as part of the Tennessean’s Millennium Collection. He has been the lead artist on several community-based public works of art, and he currently serves on the boards of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts and Arts at the Airport.
All said, the man’s career is downright amazing considering he did not see his first “real” painting until he entered college. Michael McBride was raised in rural West Tennessee by his “preacher farmer” father and his mother, a hairdresser. Neither had attended high school. Their son began drawing at four and had a knack for copying Superman cartoons and other pictures. By age eight, he declared his intention to become an artist.
That proclamation seems all the more precocious considering that he had never had an art class. His tiny school did not offer such classes. Yet his father was supportive, encouraging him to illustrate the Sunday school lessons he taught and to copy the rich illustrations depicted in his Bible.
And so McBride graduated from high school, earning a basketball scholarship to Meramec, a St. Louis, Missouri, community college. There, he studied to be an illustrator.
McBride never wavered in his conviction. He tells the story: “When I was 17 and going to college, my dad said, ‘An artist? Now don’t those people starve?’ And I told him, ‘Well Dad, I don’t intend to do that.’”
Once in St. Louis, McBride was able to see his first painting outside of the pages of a book. He visited his first art galleries and art museums. Eventually, he transferred to TSU to complete his undergraduate degree in art.
After TSU he opened a commercial studio that he ran from 1979 to 1991. He was hired by a mass-production art company to paint sepia-toned works of early African American genre. By 1984 he was making a very good living, with $37,000 in annual art sales. In 1986, he ventured into fine art and began doing private shows.
Then, at the age of 36, he went back to school. Why? He already was a success as a commercial and fine artist. “I loved knowledge and learning, but I needed to be able to speak in a scholarly way about art,” he says. “I wanted to be able to write about what I did, to speak about it, to lecture about it.”
He wanted to study under Dr. Harold Gregor at Illinois State University, a man whom he credits with providing a “world-class artistic mentorship” as he earned his MFA. He has also been influenced by the Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas for his subject matter, Picasso for his cubism, and Matisse for his color.
Today, he enjoys sharing his own knowledge as a working artist. He talks to his students about the practical business applications in addition to the practice of painting. Some are just being introduced to art.
“I like being able to take them from where they are now—maybe with a poster of a rap star in their room—to where I want them to be, with an appreciation of Vincent Van Gogh,” he says. “I want them to understand the similarities of both types of art and the contrasts. That way, it is relevant to their lives today. As an artist, I like to give a view that people haven’t seen before with their own eyes or through the lens of a camera,” he says.
Next step for McBride? He is about to embark on a series called My Father Speaks. In this homage, he plans to do a series of contemporary paintings based on twenty-five of his father’s favorite sermons. The paintings will be installed in conjunction with recordings of those sermons. And viewers themselves will have an opportunity to record their opinions as part of this full-cycle installation.
“This project means everything to me,” the artist muses. He plans to start in the fall. Let’s bet that he won’t waiver on this conviction.
For more information about Michael McBride visit http://ww2.tnstate.edu/library/art_corner/bride/Michale_McBride_about.htm or view his current exhibit at Centennial Art Center. http://www.nashville.gov/parks/arts/cac.asp