A February 2012 Interview with Willie Middlebrook from the art literary journal Inglewoodland
I went to the infamous Warren Lane Art Studios in Inglewood to meet Willie Middlebrook. When he told me where his studio was located I was shocked. I had been told that Warren Lane had been turned into halfway houses. When I arrived I realized it had indeed been turned into halfway houses.
Willie is the lone remaining artist in the building.
My cell phone was deep in my bag, so I didn’t call. I just slipped in behind another person as they were entering the building. Then I asked a person going up the stairs, “Where’s suite 110?” and they pointed down a long dark hallway.
That dark hallway was where my journey began. To my left I saw a guy using the urinals. I felt bad for looking, but the door was open. As I walked farther down the the hallway it got darker and darker until I couldn’t see anything. At the end of the hallway there were five doors. I didn’t want to knock on the wrong one, so I got very close to each of them, but I still couldn’t see. After digging in my bag for five minutes I finally located my cellphone. I tried to use the glow from it to see make out the suite numbers that where still able to be seen.
From the glow of my cell phone I saw a sign that read, “Willie Middlebrook’s Studio, KEEP OUT,” but when I knocked on the door no one opened it, so using the glow of my cell phone I carefully walked back down the hallway.
Then someone from the distance shouts out “You’re early!” It was Willie.
I am always early wherever I go. I take the bus. In Los Angeles when you take the bus you have two choices: early or not at all.
So that began my journey down the rabbit hole into the world of Willie Middlebrook.
Middlebrook is an anomaly in the art world. He breaks the rules and gets away with it. Raised on the eastside of Los Angeles in Compton, he has no MFA or BFA. He has two NEA fellowships (a Getty Trust Visual Artist Fellowship and the Brody Individual Arts Fellowship through the California Community Foundation). He’s photographed for Time Magazine, taught at Cal State Los Angeles University, and directed at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibits (LACE). He stands out in the upper-class, largely white art world and even in the the working-class, social justice Black one. You can’t put Willlie in a box; he’s kind of just a Willie Middlebrook, his own island, well, he is his own boat that has been docked in Inglewoodland since August 2007.
So I ask the typical question: Why did you want to be an artist?
“I fell in love for whatever reason with Normal Rockwell, Charles White and Michelangelo, all of which I wanted to be until I figured out they were taken. Michelangelo, because my dad had this gigantic Bible with his drawings. The Bible was sort of scary, but the paintings were great,” answered Middlebrook.
And Charles White? “I fell in love with Charles White because it was the movie called “Anna Lucasta” starring Eartha Kitt and Sammy Davis, Jr., and he did these drawings that they had at the ending and the beginning titles.”
Whitney Houston videos play in the background on one of Middlebrook’s two gigantic computers . We talk about the insanity of politics and the hilarity of the GOP party and their idea that poor equals Black.
“They (the GOP) talk about how they want it to go back to how the founding fathers envisioned, well, they envisioned me as a slave and that ain’t happening,” laughed Middlebrook.
I laugh too. Willie is one of those seriously funny people or maybe funny serious people. He continued, “I just thought about this: Gil Scott Heron had it right about the invisible man, but he thought it was Black people. It’s poor white people who are the invisible man.”
I have to agree with that. I sometimes wonder if we would be better off if we (Black people) were invisible and not the symbol for the far right of everything wrong with America.
“And as far as being an artist, that’s how it started.”
That does feel like Middlebrook’s work—if fine arts, pop culture and politics had an orgy, without a condom.
Middlebrook described the formative years of his art education, “I was an elementary school artist, I was a junior high artist, I was a high school artist, I was a junior college artist and then I was in the streets, meaning I decided to not go any further in college.”
Middlebrook graduated from Compton Community College, a predominately Black college (not in the historic Black college sense, but in the sense that in L.A. wherever black people go in the South Bay up until recently we ended up being the only ones there, see white flight for more info) that many artists from the BAM movement attended, went through or taught at. Richard Wyatt, who also went to Compton College, is currently in a show with Middlebrook at the Morono Kiang Gallery. I asked Willie why did he think so many Black artists came out of Compton College.
“Because that is where we lived. If you look at the Black community (in L.A.) it’s not that big. Van Slater, one of the first Black art teachers at Compton College came out of UCLA. He was the clean-cut Black professor. If you were Black and a professor you couldn’t be shaggy like the white professors. I was probably the opposite of Van Slater.”
Willie informed me that that he attended Compton High School and that his tenure there was boring. He later informed he had gotten stabbed once in high school. I don’t know how being stabbed and boring is synonymous, but I’m not inside Willie’s brain.
He said he just went to art class and ditched everything else, but at Compton High he began a relationship with Compton Community College.
“My dad saw my talent in art before I did. He felt he had lost control of me. He didn’t want to control me, but he wanted me to do something controllable. I went to high school totally introverted. I went to school and I drew and paint. One day he picked me up from school and took me to Compton College. At that time the head of community arts was Ulis Williams. He later became the president of Compton College. So he (Williams) was there, Wes Hall was there and John Outterbridge was there.”
Compton College was taken over by the state and given to El Camino College. As a person raised in Los Angeles and as a fourth generation Angeleno from personal anecdotal evidence, El Camino College take over of Compton was a big slap in the face. The South Bay area of Los Angeles has been notorious of their strong distaste of people of color and of Black people in particular. I don’t know what giving Compton College to El Camino was supposed to mean, but it was always struck as a mean spirited and overly punitive measure for a community that is a major center of the arts in Los Angeles.
Middlebrook went into detail of the takeover of Compton College by El Camino.
“I was removed from Compton College in 2007 for being a loudmouth, because I was part of the group of people who fought to save the college when the state was going to close it. They went down the line and deemed me the most dangerous. I would be teaching my class here and then on this side there would be teachers everyday trying to figure out to save the college. The only way to get rid of me was discontinue the most productive course in Compton College the Computer Graphics department, so when El Camino took it over they just discontinued it. When Compton College closed it had nothing to do with academics. What happened was the accreditation commission and the college administration had worked out some deal, the college didn’t live up to it, because they were incompetent, the administration side. Academically we were a stronger college than El Camino. What a lot of people don’t realize is that El Camino was on probation for five years owing to hiring practices. They couldn’t update any of their courses. We got them off of probation.”
That’s when Willie decided to be an artist fulltime, “I have been lucky. I have always had art jobs. I never worked at the grocery store or the liquor store or McDonalds. I always had jobs where I could use what I loved to do. I was a medical photographer at King Hospital for eight years.”
The Martin Luther King Hospital is scheduled to reopen in 2013. It opened owing to the Watts Riots in 1970s (I guess prior to the city burning down, no one noticed that people south of the 10 freeway didn’t have easy access to a hospital,) it closed in 2007.
“I was a stringer for Time Magazine when my friend Bruce Tallerman was there. When he went to cover Jesse Jackson campaign, Time Magazine would hire me to be the unofficial Black shooter (photographer).”
In 1984 Jesse Jackson was the second African-American to run for President (the first was Shirley Chisholm in 1972). His run was quite successful. He came in a strong third in many primaries.
“When special things happen in the Black community they never went into Time Magazine (that we in the U.S. read). That was before I found out there was a South African Time Magazine, a British Time Magazine, one in French…stuff that would happen in the Black community would end up there (overseas) all the time. The Time Magazine in America, I never got a byline. I worked for them parttime for over a year and I never got a byline, so I asked Marty Haymaker, who was a researcher from Time, ‘Why do you keep giving me these assignments and nothing ever comes in Time Magazine?’ She said ‘You get stuff in the European ones.’”
I guess the corporate media lied to America then too.
“I decided I didn’t want to be a photojournalist. Once I got married and had a child and a bullet whizzed past my head in El Salvador I was like, I’m done.”
Being an artist in the Black community is a challenge. If you want to still be connected with the Black community why do you think that is? Why can’t we do art without it being connected to social justice or a youth program?
“Art in the Black community is treated differently than in any other communities, because of our history in this country. The first rule was to take everything. (Please see slavery for more info.) Anything cultural and anything that could make you independent. You couldn’t even be physically independent. In white communities art is on the top of the scale as far as support. The doctors are important and the lawyers are important, but they aren’t on the top of the cultural scale, the artists are, look at the millions of dollars the Gettys have spent on the Pacific Standard Time (PST).”
Pacific Standard Time shows the value rich white people place on the visual arts and in that aspect it’s wonderful.
“It is the Gettys attempt to rewrite the art world in their image,” stated Middlebrook.
And that is part of art. Art is history through the eyes of the artists. The attempt by the Getty to rewrite the L.A. art world is exactly why it’s harmful for the Black community to see the visual arts as not as important. Next to the written word the visual arts is the strongest cultural archive a community has.
And from that topic we jumped on to LACE. LACE is an active participant in Pacific Standard Time. Willie moved LACE to its current Hollywood location. He told me about an exhibit LACE did with Angelyne. Angelyne is more than a billboard, she is a performance artist.
“She has all of these great paintings, but they are all of her, some the eyes are as big as the breasts, but they were beautiful paintings.”
Willie’s advice to the public, “Don’t eat Betty Crocker frosting. This artist did an installation with Betty Crocker frosting that left an oil stain…It took me forever to paint that damn thing out I mean I was using kills, coats of paint. It soaked through the original coat of paint. It soaked through the acrylic paint. It soaked through the drywall. I would paint it and I would come in the next morning, you could see it coming through again.”
For some odd reason I had some Betty Crocker frosting in my refrigerator and now owing to Willie’s story it may be there for another 10 years, unless I find a cool art project to use it for.