Great Barrington — Like his contemporary, W.E.B. Du Bois, the writer and educator James Weldon Johnson, best remembered for his leadership of the N.A.A.C.P., was a prominent historical figure with ties to Great Barrington.
As the town furthers its efforts to remember and honor Du Bois, the James Weldon Johnson Foundation is working to advance Johnson’s legacy through educational, intellectual, and artistic works that exemplify his contributions to American history and worldwide culture.
The foundation was established in 2016 by Jill Rosenberg Jones, executor of the James Weldon Johnson Literary Estate, and her husband Rufus Jones — who together in 2011 purchased the whom that Johnson had owned in the 1930s, “Five Acres.” In partnership with Bard College at Simon’s Rock, the foundation launched an inaugural artist-in-residence program last summer that brought five visual artists to Great Barrington.
An exhibition featuring the work completed by the artists during the residency is open daily to the public at the Hillman-Jackson Gallery through March 9 while Simon’s Rock is in session. The campus is located at 84 Alford Road in Great Barrington.
“Partnering with Simon’s Rock has been the linchpin in making this dream come true,” said Jill Rosenberg Jones, who has joined the College’s Board of Overseers.
In February 2017, Rufus Jones, a soul and blues guitarist, was invited by Simon’s Rock to perform in the Second Annual Gospel Concert to kick off the Black History Month celebration. He led the audience in a musical rendition of Johnson’s poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
In creating the artist residency, Rosenberg Jones said she was motivated by a profound statement Johnson made on the power of art: “A people may become great through many means, but there is only one measure by which its greatness is recognized and acknowledged. The final measure of the greatness of all peoples is the amount and standard of the literature and art they have produced.”
Among its efforts to remember and honor Johnson, the foundation is seeking funds to restore Johnson’s writing cabin, where he wrote one of his more popular works, “God’s Trombones,” and his autobiography, “Along This Way.”
Johnson Foundation Artist Residency
Daniel Hibbert, Selwyn Garraway, Susan Powers, Meclina Priestley and Cheryl Riley were invited by Simon’s Rock to stay in campus housing and to take advantage of the art studio in the Daniel Arts Center. The foundation encouraged the artists to draw inspiration from their surroundings, including Johnson’s home and writing cabin on Alford Road, a short walk from the College.
The artists not only connected with the Berkshires and the campus, but also with each other, since some of them overlapped during the residency, said Margaret Cherin, collections and exhibitions curator at Simon’s Rock. They were able, as well, to converse with Ben Krupka and Jacob Fossum, faculty in the Division of the Arts, over dinner. The hope is that future artists-in-residence will have time to work closely with Simon’s Rock faculty, she said.
The artists really enjoyed the residency, said Cherin. Most of them have separate full-time jobs, so they valued the time away to be able to focus on their art. “They each found their own relationship with Great Barrington, with the Berkshires and with Johnson,” she said.
Cherin curated the exhibition and Simon’s Rock junior Coco Raymond, who has been interning with her, helped hang Riley’s Glyph Series. “I was highly inspired by my fellow artist-residents and the time to just concentrate on my work,” said Riley. “This is the first time all 152 glyphs are displayed together.”
Priestley’s exhibit includes a micrography print titled “James Weldon Johnson” and Garraway is displaying three watercolor paintings: a street scene in Housatonic, a Victorian home in Great Barrington and an abandoned home in Great Barrington.
Garraway spent his residency exploring and discovering Great Barrington and its immediate environs where Johnson and his wife, Grace Naill Johnson, spent many of their summers at their estate. “Each day it was a pleasure to wake up early, gather my art materials and walk or drive around looking for that ideal older historic piece of architecture or vibrant street scene,” he said.
Powers was able to finish a series of large paintings of fruit and took time to think about a new direction in her work. “I feel so grateful to have been given uninterrupted time to paint last summer, it was a luxury and an inspiring setting,” she said.
Hibbert’s work includes two wooden doors depicting words and lines from the songs “The Story of OJ” and “Legacy” off of Jay-Z’s album “4:44.” “The doors represent the contrasting messages and opposite directions of travel,” he said. Another work is a visual representation of the James Baldwin quote: “The line which separates a witness from an actor is a very thin line indeed; nevertheless, the line is real.”
Among Hibbert’s previous works is a series of seven paintings based on each of the poems in “God’s Trombones.” The foundation is also seeking funds to produce a national museum tour of this series.
To learn more about the James Weldon Johnson Foundation, visit www.jamesweldonjohnson.org/.
A profound connection: Johnson and Du Bois
Just over 3 miles separates Johnson’s estate and Du Bois’ homestead, but two of Great Barrington’s most significant residents were connected in other profound ways.
Johnson, who was only three years younger than Du Bois, was involved with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), serving as field secretary and later executive secretary during the same time Du Bois was involved with the organization. Like Du Bois, he used his position with the organization to bring attention to racism and segregation, according to the NAACP. While Du Bois advocated intellectual development, Johnson believed it was important for African Americans to produce great literature and art.
The two men corresponded often during their time serving the NAACP and continued after Johnson left and while he was teaching creative writing at Fisk University, where several decades earlier Du Bois earned his bachelor’s degree. In one letter to Du Bois, Johnson offered to inscribe a copy of his autobiography. Most of their correspondences can be read via the digital collections held at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Also in this collection is a photo of Johnson with Du Bois and his wife, Nina, at the Burghardt family homestead in Great Barrington around 1930.