Where the Carpet Is Purple and the Skin Is Darker Than Blue
When you opened the front door to my family’s house, it kind of scraped against the living room carpet. We never used that door. The amethyst carpet laid under a white canvas couch, two chairs, and a loveseat, all with a royal crest-like pattern etched into them. The seats were frayed at the ends, and the color appeared more eggshell than angelic. There was a bay window in the living room, too — it looked out onto the dead grass and tired asphalt. All the seating angled its way toward the television.
Two paintings hung against the wall and, as a child, I knew they were watching. They were acrylic-on-canvas figurative depictions of people in their homes, people who lived in realities on the cusp of mine, their eyes peeking across the wooden frames. As I gazed at these scenes, I imagined how it would feel to be inside them, to coat my body in the wet paint.
They were part of a series of paintings of which we had several — wide portraits of black folk in their homes, doing normal things like tending to children, reading, or lounging. In my mind, they captured the ethos of the black family experience as no other paintings have.The background of the first painting is flat, dark stone-gray. A heavenly glow surrounds the figures. A black woman wears a white, off-the-shoulder dress with frilly lace flower appendages attached to its neckline and overlaying the arms. The rest of the satin dress falls effortlessly along the contours of her body. Her head is in profile. A single pearl earring studs her right ear, and her hair is in a low bun, touching the back of her neck. She sits on an ebony bench at a piano. Her left hand glides across the ivory keys, and a girl sits next to her. Her smile whispers a prayer of love unto her daughter — and from the way her eyes crease with both passion and exhaustion, it’s without a doubt her child.
Beside the painting, I would twiddle my fingers and pretend to play a song. Behind my eyelids, somewhere in my imagination, I sat on the bench between the two of them, listening. The child’s back is turned, her face a secret. A grandiose bow-tied string adorns the back of her dress. Her right hand kisses the piano keys. Her black hair towers above her head beside her mother’s smile.
Also in our living room, next to the mother-and-daughter piano lesson, hung a painting of a father and son. A fireplace is lit behind the male duo. We had a similar fireplace in our living room, and we used it every eighth day of the week. Like many of the things in our house, it was old. My mother referred to our home as “the house that Jack built.” The fireplace in the painting is there as sort of a prop; it’s hard to decipher whether it’s real or just a painting.
Above the fire in the painting is another painting: the mother in her white dress, sitting without her daughter at the piano. It functions as a secret within the painting — it also adds a bit of humor, as if the mother’s eye is all-seeing within the home.
The father holds another trumpet at his hip, waiting for his cue to enter symphony with the little black boy who looks just like me.
The son sits in a braided wooden chair in his Sunday best, his lips pursed into the mouthpiece of a brass trumpet. He reads the music from the songbook and I whistle and blow a raspberry, looking a lot like Dizzy Gillespie. The father wears round glasses, a white shirt, a tie, and suspenders. All of it was foreign to me, since I’d never seen my father wear anything like that unless it was for a special occasion, or someone was going into the ground (and even then, I don’t think I’d ever seen him in suspenders). The father’s hairline recedes, and I imagined that he carried some sort of wisdom, or freedom, or an ache in the middle of his back, or maybe all three. He grins a bit at the sound of his son commanding the instrument. The father holds another trumpet at his hip, waiting for his cue to enter symphony with the little black boy who looks just like I once did.
The painter signed the bottom-right corner of each scene: simply, “Park.” Not like a lush emerald place of grass, but a body tethered to a surname. I wondered what this Park was like. I thought they must have had a smile as smooth as hair grease after massaging it into the scalp. They must have smelled how my living room did at sunset.
Park’s presence was like the incense and candles my momma used to burn while a soul CD poured out sweet serenades. She walked all slow and meditated on every step. I imagine Park as a kind, tender person who loved to love the most. Park was unconcerned with being successful, unconcerned with navigating the whiteness of the art world. They knew how to raise color from the white of the canvas and that was all that mattered.
Park wanted black folk to have this art in their homes. They wanted every family like their own to know what it meant to be living art. They wanted these paintings to be reproduced as much as possible, visible to people and children like me.
I wanted every part of these paintings to slither off the wall and wake up with that purple carpet in their eyes, like family multiplying before me.
Today, contemporary artworks seek to rectify the omission and erasure of the black family. Artists like Jacob Lawrence, Betye Saar, Henry Taylor, Kerry James Marshall, Faith Ringgold, Elizabeth Catlett, and others make magnificent work — and all of them are as black as me. I owe these artists undying thanks. Yet, I have a profound connection to the way this forgotten artist, Park, portrayed the nuclear black family: the mother, dad, daughter, and son. They were all so concrete. Their souls were not opaque, but transparent and kind. I wanted every part of these paintings to slither off the wall and wake up with that purple carpet in their eyes, like a family multiplying before me.
And there I go, sitting somewhere on one of those chicken-coop-egg-white couches above a sea of carpet that looks just like grape Kool-Aid. The house is warm like it’s summer, but I have no idea what season it really is. The paintings, though, whether full of fire or not, felt cool. They had the intonation of jazz, a smoothness that made them look ethereal. It reminds me why, when I looked into those paintings, I saw the wings of little messengers. I must have thought the secret of cloudy Eden was right through those bronze frames. Though in our living room we weren’t wearing collared shirts or gowns, the paintings kept telling us something.
I often stood alone in that living room while my parents were out working. My father never had a trumpet since he was always at work digging holes in concrete and fixing pipes. My mother could not teach my sisters to play the piano since she was busy making ends meet. And for all their hard work, I loved them all the more. Those paintings worked as loving substitutes, giving my little body, one that liked to hop in and out of the borders, a kind of jubilance.
These works, so loved by me, were reproductions. I recently conducted a bit of a lazy experiment when I posted the paintings on Instagram and asked if anyone had seen them. I received several photos from people who had the same paintings on the walls of their homes or their parents’ homes. The messages went something like, “I used to have those black-ass paintings in my house,” or “Yeah I remember having those,” or “I know that’s right,” or “I didn’t have those but ones similar to them.”
Accessibility to art invites us into spaces of vast communion. These paintings, which mean nothing to the contemporary art world, connect me with friends and strangers. Yet within their continuity and multiplicity lies a peculiar kind of irony. Those connections I bridged when I posted the paintings online only existed within the microcosm of my network, and whoever could find my post via algorithmic code. What about every other black family that had these paintings or ones similar to them? They hung quietly in our home and homes like ours, never asking to be noticed, appreciated, appraised, or deified, yet secretly connecting black families who may never have a chance to know each other.
I wonder how different the world would be if these paintings had somehow made it to the white walls of an art gallery or museum. Would we interpret them — and the people they represent — differently? Are there other works we’re excluding? Who else, like Park, are we rendering invisible?