Explore the colorful and creative world of renowned artist and Civil Rights activist Romare Bearden with the National Postal Museum and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Educators share the story of Bearden’s life and work through collection images, a children’s book, and postage stamps.
Stamp Stories: Romare Bearden
Maureen: Hi, I’m Maureen from the National Postal Museum.
Elizabeth: And I’m Elizabeth from the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery.
Maureen: Welcome to Stamp Stories, where we explore topics that appear on postage stamps. New stamps come out every year on wide variety of topics. Today we’re going to learn about the artist Romare Bearden.
Elizabeth: Romare Bearden lived from 1911-1988 and during his lifetime he created hundreds of pieces of art. We are fortunate to have some of his artworks in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Let’s hear a little bit about Bearden’s background by reading a book!
Maureen: My Hands Sing the Blues, Romare Bearden’s Childhood Journey, by Jeanne Walker Harvey, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon. Many thanks to Amazon Publishing for permission to use this book.
I snip a patch of color and add a cutout face.
Oh! I glue on jazzy blue for sky and add another face.
People walk into my work as if it’s always been their place.
My hands sing the blues when I paint and cut and paste.
I never know what I’ll create when I paint and cut and paste.
I use paper, fabrics, photos, and nothing goes to waste.
Today my memory whirls back to my North Carolina past.
Swirling days of hot July, picking berries in my past.
Just then a train roars across my canvas with a loud and steamy blast.
I’m back as a boy, talking with Great-grandma down the old dirt road.
I’m walking with Great-grandma down the old dirt road
to the land of the Cherokees from where her stories flowed.
Riding up on Great-grandpa’s shoulders, I’m a strong and mighty tower.
My chin resting on his head, I’m a strong and mighty tower.
We’re watching the good trains go by hour after hour.
Then one day I’m waiting on a bench for a train to roll on in.
Mom and Pop and me, we’re waiting for a train to roll on in
to take us to New York, where our new life will begin.
From the South to the North, many more have gone before me.
Riding on the railroads, many more have gone before me,
wanting to be free like the wind blows through a tree.
Lifting luggage up the stairs, the Pullman porter nods at us.
Standing by the sleeping cars, the Pullman porter nods at us.
But we can’t go in the sleeping cars, and we’re not to make a fuss.
Tears sting my eyes when I hear the call, “All aboard!”
I hug Great-grandma and Great-grandpa, then I climb aboard.
I settle in my seat and wonder what we’re traveling toward.
I press my nose against the glass and watch the world whizzing by.
A patchwork quilt of greens and golds, the world whizzing by.
Farms and fields of cotton. Roosters pecking bugs nearby.
The train ga-glides ga-glides us up to Harlem, New York City.
That’s where I am right now, painting what’s inside of me,
sharing stories of my past and the joys and fears inside of me.
Like a flower I have roots in my Carolina past,
roots sunk deep in my childhood long past.
The people and the places are in my art to last.
When I begin something new, I take it slow and steady.
I let myself become my art and take it slow and steady.
I’ll lag behind the beat until I’m sure I’m ready.
I want my art to touch each of us so we can understand.
I want to follow roads from secret places so we can understand
that the blues sing for each of us all across the land.
I’m like a singer calling out, then holding back.
I’m like a trumpet player blowing loud, then dropping back.
When I put a beat of color on an empty canvas,
I never know what’s coming down the track.
Elizabeth: Just like the book mentions, Romare Bearden was born in North Carolina and moved north to Harlem, in New York city, as part of the Great Migration. That’s a HUGE movement of millions of Black people from the rural South to cities in the North as they looked for jobs. He brought with him memories of his family and mixed them together in his artwork with things he learned and saw in Harlem and all over the world.
He was interested in a lot of things: music, painting, collage, and even designing theater sets for a famous dance company. He also took care of other people as a soldier, social worker, and civil rights activist.
When Romare Bearden grew up, he went to art school, joined the Army, and even studied art in Europe. For a while he wrote songs for his job.
He married Nanette Rohan, who was a dancer.
And he spent his life making many artworks that combined many things like memories, the city around him, African American history, books, and music.
Let's look at an artwork that is about memories.
Romare Bearden made this collage called Spring Way. A collage is when you snip different pictures and papers apart and put them back together in a new way, like you saw in the book.
When talking about his collages, Bearden said: “I first put down several rectangles of color some of which…are in the same ratio as…the rectangle that I’m working on. Then I paste a photograph, say, anything just to get me started, maybe a head, at certain—a few—places in the canvas…I try to move up and across the canvas, always moving up and across. If I tear anything, I tear it up and across. What I am trying to do then is establish a vertical and horizontal control of the canvas. I don’t like to get into too many slanting movements….” Where do you see up, or vertical lines, and across, or horizontal lines in Spring Way?
Bearden was remembering his grandparents' home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania when he made this collage. Pittsburgh is an industrial city, which means it has a lot of factories where things are made. It also has lots of hills and stairs. How did Bearden make this cityscape (or picture of a city) seem hilly?
Let's pay close attention to the person looking out the window.
When Bearden lived in New York he visited art museums. One museum, the Museum of Modern Art, often called MoMA, had an exhibition of African art. Bearden and his friend Jacob Lawrence saw that exhibit. So did many other Black artists. They were inspired!
The artwork on the right is one of the artworks in that exhibition. Compare that sculpture to the person in the window. What's similar? What's different?
Bearden made this collage many years after he saw this artwork. When he made it, he was busy thinking of ways that he could celebrate Black life in order to help the Civil Rights movement. The Civil Rights movement refers to a time in US history when many people were working to make sure the laws were fair for all people. The movement was necessary because for many years Black people had been treated very unfairly.
Another one of Bearden's artwork mixes memories and music. Let's look!
When Bearden was growing up in Harlem, New York, he lived right across the street from a jazz club! Musicians from the club would come visit his parents at home!
Look all over this collaged painting. What do you notice first? I notice that figure’s yellow clothes first, and then I see her face next. What do you notice next?
Bearden called this one Empress of the Blues, which was the nickname of a singer named Bessie Smith. What might the music sound like? How do you know?
Bearden loved music and sometimes used colors, lines, and shapes to create a rhythm. He also thought of jazz and blues, two types of music created by the Black community, as a way to understand life. He said: “Even though you go through these terrible experiences, you come out feeling good. That’s what the blues say and that’s what I believe—life will prevail.”
I know that Bearden also found inspiration in ancient stories and in his wife's home on St. Martin. “Let’s hear more about what inspired Bearden by looking at his artwork on stamps!”
Maureen: Thanks, Elizabeth! It was so interesting to learn the stories behind some of Romare Bearden’s artwork. He used a lot of art techniques over his long career, but he is most famous for his collages, like the ones Elizabeth showed us. Four of the collages that he made in the 1960s and 70s are featured on this set of postage stamps, that were issued in 2011. Let’s take a closer look!
This stamp is of a collage Bearden made called Conjunction. The word conjunction refers to things being connected. What do you notice about this artwork? Do you see anything that has to do with connecting? I notice that there are three people standing close together, and two of them are joining hands. In addition to being an artist, Bearden spent many years as a social worker in Harlem. That means he helped people improve their lives. He loved finding ways for people to make the connections that would move them forward and bring them joy. Maybe that’s what this painting is about!
Elizabeth told us about how music had a huge influence on Bearden’s art. He also loved books! Literature was often an inspiration to Bearden, and the idea for the artwork shown on this stamp comes from an ancient Greek poem called The Odyssey. Bearden made a series of 20 collages called Black Odyssey, which was his own interpretation of this epic story, featuring Black characters. This collage is part of that series, and is called Poseidon, the Sea God – Enemy of Odysseus. Bearden was taught the importance of reading and writing from a young age. His mother was a reporter and an editor for a newspaper, and their home in Harlem was a gathering place for musicians, artists, and writers of all kinds.
The collage shown on this stamp is called Prevalence of Ritual: Conjur Woman. A conjure woman is someone who uses herbs and natural remedies for healing, but is also sometimes thought to be magic, with power that could either be helpful or harmful. Bearden both respected and feared the conjure woman he remembered from his childhood visits to relatives in North Carolina. As an adult, Bearden traveled often to the Caribbean island of St. Martin, where his wife was from. There he learned about Obeah women who, like the conjure women in the rural south of the US, found the basis of their power in African culture. Bearden produced many artworks in his lifetime that were a tribute to conjure women.
The final stamp shows an artwork called Falling Star. What do you notice about this image? Can you see the falling star through the window? The center of the collage shows a woman wearing brightly colored clothing. The theme of the beauty and power of Black women is one that Bearden returned to again and again throughout his career. The woman in Falling Star is shown in what looks like a home. The women in his artworks appear in many different settings – alone, with families, performing on stage – but they usually come across as strong and confident.
Romare Bearden died in 1988, but he left behind an amazing body of work and a presence that is still felt in the art world. Two years after he died, the Romare Bearden Foundation was founded, and its support of emerging Black artists as well as youth arts education programs continues today.
Elizabeth: I love how books, stamps, and objects can tell us stories about people. At the Smithsonian American Art Museum you can find lots of artworks and stories to explore. Check out our website where we also have activities to inspire your writing and imagination.
Maureen: Thank you so much, Elizabeth, and thank you to our audience for joining us today for Stamp Stories. You can learn more about artwork on stamps by visiting the National Postal Museum’s website. You can also learn about all kinds of stamps there. We encourage you to just keep exploring!