Nina Simone: Artist, Activist

Doug Daye is back with a great post during Black History Month: a profile of Nina Simone. Do enjoy!

Doug Daye

When I was a teenager, I remember going to a Black History program that was put on at Abilene Christian University, in my hometown of Abilene, TX. The song “Feeling Good” started to play during a brief intermission and I instantly fell in love with the song. It was so poetic and the singer’s voice was so haunting. I looked at my program to see if the song and artist was listed and I found that it was Nina Simone. I did not know much about her at the time, but later I learned more about her life. She was a well-respected musician and singer who put out prolific blues ballads like “I Put A Spell On You” and songs for liberation during the civil rights era such as “Four Women” and “Young Gifted and Black.” With her sultry voice and her powerful storytelling, Nina Simone was a jazz icon whose legacy is still honored to this day.

Early Life and Education

Young Eunice Kathleen Waymon (from ncarts.org)

Born in Tryon, North Carolina on February 21st, 1933, Eunice Kathleen Waymon was a gifted prodigy. She started playing piano by ear at the age of three! Her parents, recognizing her talent, provided opportunities for her to play piano in church where her mother preached. She went on to study classical music with an English woman by the name of Muriel Mazzanovich where she developed a love for classical artists such as Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, and others. After Waymon graduated as valedictorian from high school, her community raised the funds for her to attend Julliard in New York City before she applied to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. However, she was denied admission to the institute because of her skin color. This and other events growing up in the Jim Crow south inspired her to speak out against racial discrimination.

Music Career

While teaching music to local students, Waymon auditioned at the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where she soon gained recognition. To hide the fact she was singing in bars from her mother, she changed her name to Nina Simone. She was later signed to King Records after being recognized after a performance in New Hope, Pennsylvania. During a recording session in 1956 she sang “My Baby Just Cares For Me” which had been covered by other jazz artists such as Nat King Cole. This song launched Nina’s career and it was later used in a commercial for Chanel perfume in the 1980s. She went on to move to New York City where she was signed to Copix Records and gave various live performances. She was a featured artist at the famous Newport Jazz Festival and had other great successes.

My Baby Just Cares for Me album cover (from discogs.com)

Nina Simone also used her songs to speak out against racial injustice. Her song “Mississippi Goddam” was banned in the South but she did not let it deter her. Violent events during the Civil Rights Movement inspired her to use her music to condemn racism. By putting out songs like “Strange Fruit” and “Four Women,” Nina took risks by using her voice as a platform for liberation at a time when many artists were reluctant to do so.

Nina Simone by Jack Robinson (from photos.com by Getty Images)

With a long rewarding career behind her, Nina Simone passed away in April 2003. Many artists paid tribute to her including Patti Labelle and Ossie Davis, who attended her memorial service, and Elton John who sent flowers.

Nina Simone’s Childhood Home Tour

With funding efforts from the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, the World Monuments Fund, and Preservation North Carolina, Nina Simone’s childhood home has been saved from demolition. This was done as the beginning of an ongoing effort to preserve Nina Simone’s early life and legacy for future generations. The National Trust website features a virtual tour of her home where viewers can get a glimpse of her humble beginnings.

View the virtual tour and learn more about funding efforts here:

https://savingplaces.org/stories/take-a-virtual-tour-of-nina-simones-childhood-home#.X_9jwWjYoWU

https://savingplaces.org/press-center/media-resources/nina-simone-childhood-home-permanently-protected#.X_9ewmjYoWU

Learn more about Nina Simone here:

Celebrating Hispanic Artists: Frida Khalo and Patrociño Barela

As we continue to observe Hispanic Heritage Month, Museum Attendant, Doug Daye takes a close look at Latino artists Frida Khalo and Patrociño Barela!

By Doug Daye

Get an intimate look at two inspirational Hispanic artists, Frida Khalo and Patrociño Barela. Though their work was phenomenal, both artists had to face much adversity and sadness over the course of their lives. Examining the difficulties they had to face truly deepens the love and respect for the legacy they left behind for all to enjoy.

Frida Kahlo

From fridakhalo.org

Frida Kahlo was born on July 9, 1907, in Coyoacán, Mexico City, Mexico. Her father, Wilhem, was a German photographer who immigrated to Mexico and married Matilde Calderón y González, a mestiza woman. During her childhood, Kahlo contracted polio which caused her to be bedridden for nine months. The disease damaged her right and left foot which made her walk with a limp after she recovered. She went on to study at the National Preparatory School in 1922 where she became very popular with her fellow students and politically active by joining the Young Communist League and the Mexican Communist Party. In 1925, Kahlo, along with her boyfriend at the time, Alejondro Gomez Arias, became involved in a tragic bus accident that caused damage to her spine and pelvis. After returning home from the Red Cross Hospital to recuperate further, Kahlo completed her first self-portrait and gave it to Arias. In 1929, Kahlo married well-known muralist Diego Rivera. Following Rivera’s career, they lived in multiple places including San Francisco, New York, and Detroit. Their relationship was very strained and tainted by infidelity. Khalo suffered much heartbreak in her marriage to Rivera including a miscarriage in 1934. They divorced in 1939 but then remarried a year later.

Khalo painting while convalescing following the bus accident in 1925. From mcall.com.

Frida Khalo’s life was filled with challenges that were both physical and emotional that she displayed in much of her artwork. She kept a diary of her drawings and her inner thoughts up until her death in 1954. The Dolores Olmedo Museum in Xochimilco, Mexico City, displays the intimate, colorful pages of her diary on their online exhibit!

Frida Khalo’s diary can be viewed on the Google Arts and Culture website here: https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/a-peek-at-frida-kahlo-s-diary/sAKymDksayhmJA

Also, take a look at photographs from her life and her famous artwork at the Frida Kahlo Museum’s online exhibit “Frida Kahlo: Vida la Vida” here: https://artsandculture.google.com/story/SwUxhkzUTlOgbw

Patrociño Barela

Patrociño Barela from americanart.si.edu

Patrociño Barela was born in Bisbee, Arizona in 1908. He left home at a young age after his mother died, to search for work. He found work as a laborer in Denver, Colorado and became married to a widow with three children, before moving to New Mexico in 1930. He began crafting his own wood sculptures after being commissioned to reconstruct a wooden devotional carving, known colloquially in New Mexico as a bulto, and also commonly known as santo. For over 30 years he worked carving figures of men and women, to symbolize family dynamics, as well as many religious figures, eventually becoming one of the foremost santeros, or carvers of wooden saints. Barela’s art gained notoriety after Russell Vernon Hunter, director of the Works Progress Administration took notice and included his work in the Public Works of Art Project in 1935. Though his work was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and he was praised as the “most dramatic discovery” to come out of the exhibition, he was uninterested in fame and money. He unfortunately died in a fire in his woodshed in 1964. Barela is noted as being the first Mexican-American to receive national recognition for his work and his talent has been greatly admired by other artists, especially his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Barela with his son in New Mexico, 1936. From Wikimedia Commons Archives of American Art.

The National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico has an online exhibit dedicated to Patrociño Barela. The exhibit gives details about his sensational artwork including “Untitled: Portrait of a Black Man” which he dedicated to a black family that helped him in his time of need.

The online collection can be viewed here: https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/patrocinio-barela-works-of-art/ZAKyxP8WSvFsLA

Learn more about Patrociño Barela here: https://www.collectorsguide.com/fa/fa046.shtml