African American artist's calling is to 'paint black history from the heart'

Lady Bird Strickland's "Stompin' at the Savoy." Her years spent in jazz-era Harlem later served her well in her artwork.
Lady Bird Strickland's "Stompin' at the Savoy." Her years spent in jazz-era Harlem later served her well in her artwork. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 18, 2013

For many years, artist Lady Bird Strickland painted the people that she met in her life - and it was no ordinary life.

Subjects such as Dizzy Gillespie, Josephine Baker, Charlie Parker, Marian Anderson, Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington were all part of the jazz bebop scene in Harlem where the young Georgia native danced and romanced in the 1940s, before putting it all down with brushstrokes.

But by the 1980s - married, settled down in suburban Willingboro, and still painting - Strickland began to grasp that the New York jazz era that she had witnessed was just one scene in a much larger mural of the African American experience.

The now-86-year-old artist found what she refers to as her "calling: to paint black history from the heart." Today, the canvases that she most treasures are an extended riff that begins with the era of slavery and plays all the way through to President Obama's inauguration, with solo appearances by everyone from Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass up through Medgar Evers and Shirley Chisholm.

Some of Strickland's best paintings are on display through March 2 at the recently restored Warden's House on High Street in Mount Holly, which is featuring her work along with Haitian artist Frandy Jean as a celebration of African American History Month. Admission is free.

Featured are not only portraits of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other black civil rights heroes, but photographs of the artist during her youth - stunningly beautiful with wide-set eyes and high cheekbones, wearing her exquisite hand-sewn clothing.

No art paper

Still beautiful but slowed by age and some recent falls, Strickland sits in front of a piece called "To Dream the Forbidden Dream," depicting 32 African American icons from W.E.B. DuBois to Jesse Owens. It's a dramatic retelling of black American history, but so is Strickland's own life story.

She was born in 1926, one of six siblings, in a deeply segregated corner of north Georgia, where it would be something of an understatement to say black girls were not encouraged to express themselves, especially not through art.

"I used to paint as a kid, but I didn't have art paper, just striped paper from tablets," Strickland recalled.

At school, sometimes her teacher might administer a "whuppin' " with a hickory stick when she was discovered drawing.

Her mother ran a restaurant out of their home called Sally's Tea Room, and "everybody came, everybody came from 20 miles away, even James Brown," the future Godfather of Soul.

That was just a foreshadowing of the famous people she would meet after she boarded a train - "a huge adventure in those days!" - at age 13 and headed to 130th Street in Harlem, where an older sister needed help raising her five children. She worked in a zipper factory on Long Island to make ends meet, but art would be a ticket to bigger things.

Painting neckties

Strickland's painting of a woman, tired and bent over from washing laundry, not only won the R.H. Macy Achievement Contest for New York City high school students but earned her a scholarship to the prestigious Pratt Institute.

More financial hard times during World War II caused her to leave school, and her young adult years reflected the contradictions of trying to make it as a black woman artist before the civil rights era.

After dark, she drank in the golden age of Harlem jazz and depicted it in colorful paintings. By day, she supported herself by painting neckties in a storefront window and making three-dimensional ultraviolet billboards that showed up in places like the New Jersey Turnpike. She also sewed her own clothes, winning a costume contest at the Savoy Ballroom.

And there was one more legacy of those bebop nights: her daughter, Pat Cleveland, the result of an affair with a Swedish saxophone player named Johnny Johnson. She worked for years at Bellevue Hospital as a single mom to raise Pat, who grew up to become an internationally known model.

"She was trying to make it as an artist; it was hard in those days, and raising a child was hard," said Strickland's son-in-law, Paul van Ravenstein, a photographer who today acts as the artist's agent and her occasional caretaker.

After Strickland married a retired Army veteran, who died in 2003, and moved to Willingboro, supporters such as van Ravenstein have worked hard to win recognition for her decades of painting, leading to showings in New York, Newark, and elsewhere.

She still feels a calling to paint black heroes, including a portrait of Ray Charles singing at Bill Clinton's inauguration that she's been working on for months, but she said her new passion was painting "beautiful children going to school, little kids, and I like to put pretty dresses on them."

Her desire, she said, is to show schoolkids taking advantage of all the opportunities that were denied to her 80 years ago.


Contact Kathy Boccella

at 856-779-3812, kboccella@phillynews.com,

or follow @kathyboccella

on Twitter.

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