When artist Michael Ray Charles graduated from college, he had three plans. Plan A – go into advertising, but he ran into problems when his ad depictions differed greatly from what agencies and clients wanted.
Plan B – study painting in graduate school.
Plan C – go to law school, which he never got around to. However, Charles has now become world famous for using racial stereotypes as themes in his art.
Charles said that it was his experiences in advertising – where he saw “remnants of the black mask dominate” – that led him to find his “voice” in art. Charles was on campus April 14 to talk about his art and to participate in other Spring Festival of the Arts activities.
He presented a slide show in Grambling Hall and talked about the ideas that shaped his artistic vision. Charles also served as a judge for the High School Art Contest and critiqued students’ work in Dunbar Hall. Charles’ lecture touched on the evolution of his work from undergraduate days at McNeese State in Lake Charles to today, where he teaches art at the University of Texas and exhibits and sells his work worldwide.
Charles’ art studies and advertising background led to him delving into the history of minstrelsy and the depictions of Blacks in art.
“Why were images of Mandingo, Sambo and the like being used?” he asked himself. “Why, if they expressed their distaste for Blacks, did they use (Black) images to sell their products?”
One of his continuing themes is use of the “Mammy” figure. He noted that his wife hates his painting that shows Oprah Winfrey as a mammy. “I figured out that the use of that image is to provide people with a sense of comfort,” Charles said.
Some of his artwork that he showed slides of included The Catch of the Day, which was “inspired by the notion of the black male athlete,” and Property of NCAA, a painting of a frayed burlap jersey with the number 8 on a ball in the center of the chest, which shows the “evidence of that relationship, the exploited athlete and the extent he will go to.”
Another of his works, Opposites Attract, was inspired by Carl Lewis in a sprinter stance wearing red high heels, white gloves, a skintight black outfit on a pale background. Charles talked about this history of Black characters in artistic works through the ages. He discussed the juxtaposition of Black characters with crocodiles in images and other artwork from as early as the 6th century. He noted that the movie Johnson Family Vacation has as scene in which a crocodile figures prominently.
“Images have an evolution,” Charles said. “Where did the idea first come from? Where does it start?”
“If you don’t know the past, you can’t know the possibilities of what the future might bring.”
Following Charles’ presentation, questions from the audience ranged from why he didn’t attend a Black university to did his professors understand his work to why he still teaches when he’s a successful artist.
He briefly touched on the dilemma faced by his professors then and some instructors today.
“They had to ask themselves ‘Is it our role to create a better artist or a Black artist,'” Charles said.
Art is about letting the artist “speak with his or her own vision,” he said, just as he had to “make the effort to discover my own visual vocabulary.”
Although he learned ?to speak with my own voice,” his time in graduate school at the University of Houston taught him something just as important.
“I had to learn to speak the dominant language,” Charles said, noting he had to “appropriate” images to incorporate into his vision of popular culture.
The image Charles has “appropriated” as his own is the penny. He has adopted the image of an upside down penny as his symbol because it is “the only dark coin,” and it is “the least significant.”
Charles said he will continue to teach, because “I feel I’m obligated to pass that on.” He will also continue to be a profilic artist, influencing other artists, because “I want to express myself. I want to make the best art I can make.”