Austin native's art speaks for itself

The subjects in Jesse Howard's work, on exhibition at Robert Morris College until Oct. 31, tell stories on their own terms

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By Michael Romain


Reality often has a way of making it onto Jesse Howard's canvas. The artist, an native of Austin who currently resides in suburban Maywood, is well-known for his gripping charcoal drawings that capture African Americans suspended in various degrees of raw marginality — during a protest, under arrest, navigating homelessness. 

The backstory of one of Howard's works of art, which he calls "The Emerging Black Male or Not," has its origins at the Starbucks at 711 Lake St. in Oak Park, where Howard can often be seen reading a newspaper. 

"I got this guy out of Starbucks," Howard said, referencing the artwork's subject, during a reception on Oct. 3 at the State Street Gallery on the campus of Robert Morris College, 401 S. State St. in Chicago, where the artist's work is on exhibit throughout October.

"He's only 26 years old and he was getting ready to go to a shelter," Howard said. "They hang out at the Starbucks until 7 p.m., and they go to the shelter. While he was there, I asked to take his photo. I'm pretty good at meeting people and just talking to them. I had seen this young man for a few weeks and just talked to him. Finally, I asked if I could take his picture and he was more than happy to let me take it." 

Howard said the artwork is a faithful illustration of the man's eccentric hairstyle. 

"You can see he diminishes, but yet he comes forward," Howard explained. "The panels are what you see a lot in African-American homes. Those tiles? I wanted to put that in his face. I wanted him to be so much faded into this blackness that you ask the question …" 

In another work of art, the uninhibited voices of Proviso East High School students scream in scrawled words on canvas that appears to bleed with raw emotion. 

"Marcia LaPorte [the chairperson of East's Fine Arts & World Languages Department] had me come into the cafeteria and then do a lecture and then she invited me to one of their shows," Howard said. "You have to get the kids' trust. Once I got their trust, they opened up and they just started writing." 

And what was one of the first words the students wrote? 

"Help," Howard said. 

Howard's exhibition, "The Love & Hate of a Culture in Defiance," will be displayed at State Street Galley until Oct. 31. 

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