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Saturday, June 1, 2013

Beauford Delaney and Scholarly Inquiry

This post is contributed by E. L. Kornegay, Jr., Ph. D., author of the many "re-Searching Beauford" articles and other posts that you'll find on the Les Amis blog. I am pleased to note that he is using the Les Amis blog as reference material for the course he is teaching!


E. L. Kornegay, Jr., Ph. D.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Kornegay

During the week of May 20-24, I had the distinct pleasure of teaching a graduate seminar at Chicago Theological Seminary: TEC 474 “Baldwin and Christianity”. The course was my first formal opportunity to present my scholarship as a classroom subject for study. The students were eager to engage me, bringing their particular concerns to the “welcome table” of James Baldwin and the “unusual door” of Beauford Delaney.

Chicago Theological Seminary
Photo courtesy of Dr. Kornegay

Preparation for the class meant that I had to manage class limitations on time and material in order to paint, if you will, the contributions of both men to the world. The lives of the writer and the artist came together in a way that allowed for each student to see, within himself or herself, the possibility of creating a theological aesthetic that reflects an ethical choice – vocation – to create something that somehow speaks to the glory of God.

James Baldwin and Beauford
at the American Cultural Center, Paris
Photo: U.S. Information Service

We devoted a day (Thursday) to Beauford Delaney. The morning was spent reading articles from the Les Amis de Beauford Delaney blog and looking at the various paintings of Beauford found on the blog site. For most, if not all, of the students, it was a first introduction to Beauford Delaney. I gladly told the story of how I found Beauford (or how he found me) and how that led to my connection with Monique and the community that is Les Amis de Beauford Delaney. Upon viewing Beauford’s Dark Rapture, reading Baldwin's “The Creative Process” and being enlightened about his own vocation, an educator writes:

In “The Creative Process," Baldwin captures for me the context in which I, ever incomplete, contemplate vocation: “The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.” Like Beauford's paintings, the work of an educator leads “to a confrontation with reality.” That reality is beauty, goodness, and truth constantly unfolding in changing contexts.

- Ernest Miller

Students discuss Baldwin and Beauford
Photo courtesy of Dr. Kornegay

Vocation became the center piece of our discussion. One of the students, reflected on the “isolation” that is experienced by the artist and the “grace” that is the “moral envelope” or “body canvas” whereby the spiritual-artistic and creative-creational come to protect the gift, often at the expense of the gifted One. A viewing of Beauford’s self-portrait at the Art Institute of Chicago was meant to capture the face of vocation – to see first-hand the body as a moral canvas.

Oil on canvas (1944)
Art Institute of Chicago
© Estate of Beauford Delaney, by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire, Court Appointed Administrator

After the viewing, a student wrote:

I was an artist for many years. Once an artist always an artist, but now I do not practice creativity in the same way. It is no longer my vocation. It is still, however, my deepest connection to God. In fact, during my Good Friday sermon I performed a stand-up routine. People need to laugh. It brings them closer to God. As do poetry, painting, sculpture, music, fiction, architecture, theatre, dance, and film. Whatever form my vocational ministry takes next, making art will certainly be part of it as it has for the past few dozen forms my ministries have taken. Art is the expression of God through love. There is no higher form of worship.

- Johnny Kline

This “deep connection to God” is a backdrop that is readily apparent in the work of Beauford and Baldwin and it was quickly picked up on by the class. The Les Amis website, with its paintings, reflections, and its spirit, along with first-person viewing of Beauford’s painting, the reading of Baldwin’s literature, and the viewing of and listening to his interviews, created a spiritual framework whereby both of these great men taught us something about them and in the process taught us something about ourselves and our vocations. As one student put it, through it all neither Baldwin nor Delaney, in the midst of their searching and disillusionment with religion, “lost their intense love for God.” I imagine that the students, much like the young James Baldwin who stepped through the unusual door presented to him by Beauford, are grateful for the sacred, creative and affirming space, which gave Baldwin “the freedom to just be.”

I think my student, Debra Hawkins, said it best:

I greatly appreciated Dr. Kornegay’s authenticity and willingness to be a part of the learning experience along with his students, or more appropriately, co-learners…I come away from this experience enriched and a grateful recipient of the spiritual seeds that have been deposited deep within my spirit, which can never be taken away from me. I am forever grateful for what I am blessed to do and if this is the beginning, then I can joyfully imagine what lies ahead.

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