The pursuit of artistic expression, you might think, is well suited for experimentation and the pushing of boundaries. But it is a discipline and there are rules. Some principles are important to fabricating the art but others are grounded in cultural imperatives or perceived social limitations. Artist and writer Lurlynn Franklin’s vast canvas has never been accommodating to those who say, “you’re not supposed to” or “you have to.”
“I actually had people telling me I couldn’t put white people in my art,” the Memphis-born artist says. “I’m thinking, I’m an artist first. I can do whatever I want when it comes to that. What I wanted to say in my art called for his white ass to be there, so I was going to put him there. The biggest struggle for me has been to allow myself to let everything in. This is all my playground and I have no limitations. Nobody can really tell me what I can present or how I present it.”
Developing her artistic and literary sensibility brought her in touch with Memphis arts organizations that gave her sustenance. The Memphis Black Arts Alliance, founded in 1982 by Bennie Nelson West, was one such. It’s still around, promoting literary, performing, and visual arts. For a time there was the Sidewalk University International Booksellers, a bookstore and gallery specializing in African-American literature and art and African art. Franklin attended the Memphis College of Art, whose days are now numbered, but where she was able to develop her artistic voice as she earned her MFA and master’s degrees in arts education.
“There was a great faculty there that nurtured me,” she says. “My work was distinctive African-American work. I was doing it in a different, non-traditional way.” But some students felt, she says, they were being told in more or less subliminal ways “that they needed to park their blackness, pick up a white tube of paint, and water it down.”
Perhaps there was some of that. And, she says, perhaps some students were being critiqued not for content but for how they were doing it. “To an artist, if you’re going to attack any little thing, you’re attacking the artist. Probably the easiest thing to grab hold to was saying, you’re just pushing down my Africanism, trying to push down my blackness.”
Franklin, who teaches art in town, fully understands both overt and subtle forces that African-American artists in Memphis have to deal with. She feels, for example, that for years there’s been something of a void.
“It was like a really kind of dead space where nobody was addressing any kind of issues,” she says. “Dead space maybe until the last 10 years, where African Americans were feeling more comfortable — or driven — to put their points across, to maybe add some political elements to their art.”
Between her vivid imagery and her incisive writing — check out her book Fabled Truths: Self Portraits and Poetic Essays and lurlynnfranklin.com — Franklin expresses what she needs to, even if it’s bruising.
“I’ve had people tell me that I was too preachy,” she says. “The thing is that was just kind of me. I couldn’t get out of the point that I had to have something to say. Now, people feel like that is not the purpose of art, but being a writer, I had to make points about things. I had to inject my philosophy.”
She’s currently working on a project with students that involves, among other things, creating signage that says “Welcome to Frayser.” The signs and murals have gotten community support. Whoever comes by gets to make a mark on the scene she’s creating, embedding their presence. She takes it further with her art and when it is done, it will truly be a community project. “There’s not going to be anybody in that community that doesn’t pass by that, that they either put their hand on that, or they know somebody who put their hand on that,” Franklin says. “That’s how you infiltrate the arts into a community.”
The future of African-American art, Franklin feels, requires a particular focus. “I’m hoping it becomes more political, touches on things or tries to combine history with what’s happening in the present day symbolically,” she says. “I really think as an artist that maybe it’s somewhat irresponsible if you don’t have a bit of activism in your work. Not unless you’re living under a rock, because I don’t think this is an age where you should just be trying to paint rainbows and daisies. Not unless you’re doing that to hang over somebody’s couch. To make people feel good about something that’s not good.
“I mean, stop calling BS chocolate frosting,” she continues. “BS is not chocolate frosting. Clean up the BS, and then go out and get a chocolate cupcake. You know what I’m saying?”