“I grew up in Chicago on the West Side, on 16th Street in K Town, around Pulaski,” says entrepreneur and artist Jesse Howard.
He was among the first group of blacks to attend Austin High School. He played on the school’s football team, which meant that he got chased and softly tormented by whites both late in the day (he had to walk home from practice), as well as in the mornings like his other black friends who walked to the school.
“We’d all have to gather together on the corner,” he recalled. “They’d get us. We’d have to walk on Pine Avenue and Madison. White folk would get up on the roof and throw eggs at us.”
The experience, though, made him who he is today, he says. It breathes on the canvasses that hold his work — much of it comprising the grotesque faces and forms of men disfigured, silently fuming, angry from what can only be assumed to be any manner of unspoken injustices.
They are, in particular, who Howard calls the “virginally invisible.” Homeless. Disenfranchised. Humiliated.
In “War Veteran,” a rotund, bald African American man is slumped over with his hands behind his back. As is noted in a narrative of the work on an arts website, the young veteran is home visiting his parents in his old neighborhood when the police approach him about a robbery the young man knows nothing about. The officers arrest him because “he fits a certain profile” and carry him away in cuffs, his military dog tags dangling from one of his enlarged fingers.
There is an understated rage in Howard’s work that the West Side native says took him a long time to tap into.
Art of hustle
He became an artist, in part, by imitating his uncles who would draw cartoon characters on the kitchen table. At five years old, he would look over their shoulders and study the shapes and forms of characters that his uncles either saw on television or made up in their heads.
“I loved drawing animals,” he says. “In class, when everyone else would be studying, I got hold of the encyclopedia and would go to the animal section and draw those things.”
He was also a budding businessman, gifted in the art of hustle.
“I was a paperboy. I sold the Sun-Times and the Tribune. Well, they’d give me like 50 papers and I’d ask for 10 more that I would sell for myself.”
He drew throughout grade school and high school. In college, he majored in commercial art and minored in business. The latter would dominate the next 20 years of his life.
He rose in corporate America, negotiating complicated financial transactions. He made good money, which he parlayed into numerous businesses and real estate investments. Sometimes, he says, he would bump into some of the white kids, now adults, who would throw eggs at him and his black friends when they were in high school.
“When I became an investor, some of the first properties I bought were from white Irish who used to live in that old neighborhood. They went to Providence St. Mel and they’d tell us, ‘We used to run you guys away.’ And I’d say, ‘We used to kick you guys’ butts.'”
Howard says he ended up going into business with one of them. The mutual history, the shared space — that brief, inglorious time when the West Side was a cauldron of ethnicities and classes fighting for elbow room — taught Howard to think beyond race, even though he suffered from its distortions, and to look at people as they are.
“When I went to Austin High, it was one of the first times I saw whites up close,” he says. “We were all just learning each other. The white folk were learning us and we were trying to learn them. Those two worlds, they clashed in a way that deeply affected me.”
When the 1970s came, Howard says, that brief moment of shared space and experience ended. African Americans came into the neighborhood in a steady swell. Whites were upset by their very presence and flew to the suburbs — taking their tax dollars, private wealth and protected space with them.
“That was the whole big thing about white flight. Integration took effect. It affects you. You know it’s affecting you, but you can’t always explain it,” says Howard. “But when you’re dealing with people and everyday life, as an adult, it makes you more sensitive to certain issues that people go through.”
“It’s pretty raw”
Howard says he created art even throughout his business career (his preferred media are charcoal, acrylic paint and water color). In the 1980s, he booked some shows at the South Shore Cultural Center.
It was the kind of art he “thought people wanted to see.” It was safe and tranquil and commercial, bypassing the murky, earthen prejudices and conflicts that helped mold him. And it softened his sense of rage and protest.
“I saw things,” he says. “I came up during the 1960s. There was rioting, H. Rap Brown, Huey Newton, Fred Hampton. All that stuff was in me.”
Around ten years ago, his thinking changed. Those dignified, heady days of black revolt and revolution were still with him. He says he stopped caring about creating art that people wanted to see.
“I asked myself what type of legacy I wanted to leave on this earth other than buying apartment buildings and laundromats,” he says. “I decided I was going to leave these images.”
And then, around seven years ago, he walked away from it all. He sold all of his investments. He gave up his business pursuits. He decided to get serious about being honest, he says. He now works on his art full-time from his home studio in suburban Maywood.
“I started painting about the disenfranchised and the poor. I’d go downtown and shoot images of the homeless and that’s pretty much what you see in my work. It’s not compromising. It’s right in your face. It’s pretty raw.”
He says he wants to reclaim some of the imaginative space — of life as a black man, as a West Sider, as someone who has suffered racism and other injustices — that’s been ceded to others who haven’t lived those experiences.
“I would go to shows and watch the mainstream white artists try to photograph or talk about what’s happening in the hood. I said, ‘No, no, no.’ I refuse to let anyone tell my story. I decided I’m going to tell this story. And I’m not going to try to touch it up. I got tired of the mainstream trying to tell me what it is to be an African American in this country and how things affect me. I just got tired.”
The titles of many of his drawings reveal his evolved artistic sense: “Pope of State Street,” “Trayvon Aftermath,” “Urban Plight,” “Contradiction.”
Men with charcoal-black faces, sometimes grotesquely featured, often stare enraged at the observer. There are also glances that suggest pain and hurt.
Howard’s oeuvre itself is something of a protest against anyone who wants to see an artistic rendering of West Side life that is tranquil, safe, unburdened, cute. The beautiful struggle isn’t pretty.
But more and more nowadays, Howard says he feels himself growing away from the immediacy of this struggle — not as he lived it more than thirty years ago, but as it is now.
“I find it interesting to watch these young people rediscovering racism and profiling,” Howard says. “I find that so refreshing. But I’m more of an observer as opposed to a participant. If you look at my work, you’d concede that some of my images are a little middle-aged. One guy I call the ‘old school activist’ has a cigarette butt in his nose to prevent tear gas when they do rioting. There’s also a cigar in his mouth. That’s me really responding. This is nothing new, but my generation wasn’t really hip to cigarettes in the nose for the tear gas.”
No matter, he says. The West Side and its culture of struggle and survival are still with him. Age hasn’t diminished his memory.
“There’s no way I could’ve made it in the business world or in the art world without my experience on the West Side,” he says. “It’s intrinsic to me. There’s a swagger that folk have. It’s the way they talk, the way they walk, the way they look at you or don’t look at you.”
It’s all in him — and on the canvass.