ATLANTIC CITY – The paintings are large, powerful and tragic, dealing with themes of Philadelphia’s police violence against its black residents with broad pops of color and classically inspired drapes, intricate compositions that reward close vision with discovery breathtaking.
There’s a Black Frank Rizzo with his pearl-handled revolver, a depiction of a late 1970s rally against a proposed Philadelphia charter amendment, a MOVE member walking out of the Powelton Avenue house with arms outstretched, the 1978 police murder of a handcuffed Winston Hood.
It’s a devastating journey into a Philadelphia story that still resonates, and for decades artist Melvin C. Irons Sr., 79, kept these paintings in his basement. A few attempts to show art in Philadelphia in the ’70s didn’t go over well.
He completely stopped painting.
This month, the paintings are back on display in a new context: alongside the “Stitch Their Names” traveling quilt project honoring victims of police violence, racism and hate, on display until February at the African American Heritage Museum of Southern Jersey in Atlantic City, organized by museum founder Ralph Hunter Sr.
“When an artist is a real artist, he’s telling a story,” Hunter said of Irons, who pursued a career as a social worker in South Jersey. “His story was not received. And he withdrew from the story.
The two quilts in the traveling exhibit, which marry the artisanal warmth of the folk arts of cross-stitching and quilting with the austere legacy of brutally lost lives, include a smiling portrait of Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells in a top pink and jeans. , a black trans woman whose murdered body was found in the Schuylkill near Bartram’s Garden in June 2020. The portrait was stitched by Eleanor Trollinger of North Carolina.
Days before the Jan. 14 opening reception at the Atlantic City museum, Irons reflected on those paintings that have spent most of their lives in his basement, on a dirt floor.
“These paintings are pretty modern and new and relevant because nothing has changed since then,” Irons said in an interview from his home in Magnolia, NJ. He did not wish to be photographed, he said. The canvases are not for sale, but he has signed a series of prints that are.
The work was presented in 2007 for exhibition in Newtonville, NJ, location of the African American Museum of Southern New Jersey, after Hunter met Irons through Irons’ wife, a musician, and been intrigued by his story and moved by his art. .
“She told me about her husband who would never show his work again,” Hunter said. “I went to Magnolia,” Hunter said. “We talked for two or three days. Finally, he said: You can come with a truck. It was an incredible opportunity. As a black historian, I can tell my story much better than anyone else. Melvin Irons could not find a place to present his art. We are looking for artists who do not have the opportunity to show their art.
Hunter, 84, has dedicated 20 years to black history and art, and a collection that now numbers 13,000 pieces. Next month, another exhibit will be installed inside the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and will feature the original doors of Club Harlem.
Hunter’s previous career was in retail, owning the popular A Shop Called East and Ginza head/gift shops in the Cherry Hill Mall and elsewhere. Its collection of art and artifacts has more than outgrown the current space inside Stockton University’s Arts Garage, and despite the attention of Whoopi Goldberg and others, the museum is still at looking for a bigger, more permanent home.
Irons expressed few regrets about giving up painting, even after studying art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and Cheyney University, and said it was a practical and economical decision. . He pursued a career as a social worker and youth counselor, working with YouthBuild and other groups. He married and had two children.
“The paintings I was doing weren’t necessarily salable,” he said. “They were showable but not salable. They were big, they were MOVE oriented and people wanted to stay away.
He said he made an attempt to show the work in Germantown in the late 1970s, in a park across from a Y near Greene Street and Germantown Avenue. “I took them up there and people avoided them like the plague,” he said. “There was so much tension and conflict in the air. So people pass and they watch and they continue.
Hunter said Irons told him about another screening attempt, in a parking lot outside the University of Pennsylvania Hospital, an exhibit he said was thwarted by Philadelphia police officers. Irons says his work and reception can also be seen in the context of the long history of powerful protest art, including famous works like Picasso’s anti-war. Guernica, which become controversial.
After the Germantown screening, Irons said, some of the MOVE members came to see it. “I came home from school one day, I had a whole living room full of MOVE members,” Irons said. “They were there to see what other pictures I had, maybe ask me what I was going to do with them. I don’t think they wanted me to make a huge profit with them. I just wanted the story to be told.
He put the paintings in his basement and turned to other professional pursuits. “I didn’t do any painting,” he says. “I was busy trying to make a living. I wasn’t as committed as some of my classmates who managed to hang on and starve to become greats in the art world in Philadelphia. I couldn’t see that. I couldn’t be upstairs painting or anywhere else and have nothing to eat at home.
Irons recalled another exhibit in Millville, NJ, around the same time as the Newtonville exhibit, in a building used by police to meet and had a shooting range in the basement. He says his painting, The Assassination of Winston Hood, with a Black Frank Rizzo appearing to be trying to arrest the other officers, who Hunter says bears all of Frank Rizzo’s traits, complete with his signature pearl-handled revolver and truncheon, was not allowed to be displayed.
The painting shows Hood, killed in July 1978, in handcuffs, which police officials later denied despite multiple witness statements that Hood was shot while lying on the ground in handcuffs. The officer was cleared in the shooting.
Irons says the themes of his paintings from the 1970s are still relevant today. They reexamine the treatment of MOVE members in the 1970s, which culminated in two major incidents: the killing of police officer James Ramp in a standoff outside their Powelton Village home in 1978, and the police bombing of 1985 against the MOVE house on Osage Avenue which led to the deaths of six adults and five children. Firefighters left the building to burn, destroying an entire city block.
The group combined back-to-nature and groundbreaking black liberation philosophies under the teachings of John Africa, and Irons believes their history and beliefs retain their power today as the country grapples with change. climate and violent clashes involving police and black people.
“The police are still shooting and killing black people like they did back then,” Irons said. “I really hope it goes out of fashion. But given the context of all this, all this violence, maybe we’ll see it again next year.
In a table, Original MOVE People with John Africa, the members are placed behind a police barricade and include mothers with children, white members as well as blacks. “They were just people to me,” Irons said. “I put them behind a police barricade because of the difference in their position compared to the position of law enforcement.”
A painting, of a man Irons identifies as Abdul Jon, a MOVE supporter, depicts a protest against what now looks like a prosaic but controversial cause: an attempt by then-mayor Frank Rizzo to amend Philadelphia’s city charter to allow him a third term. But powerful representation resonates with current efforts across the country to change seemingly mundane laws to expand or restrict political power and voting rights.
Irons is most proud of this painting, with its classically inspired draping of the protester’s jeans and t-shirt over the sculpted form of the protester, the austere backdrop of the painting with its all-white top half and filled bottom of protesters.
Hunter said, “He’s become a philosopher now. He prefers talking to painting.
The “Stitch Their Names” memorial project and paintings by Melvin Irons will be on display through February 28 at the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey, inside the Arts Garage, 2200 Fairmount Ave., Atlantic City. Museum hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is free, but donations are encouraged.