After taking a closer look at the Strata-East label overall with our last post, we turn this week to a focus on one of the most prolific album designers for that company, Carole Byard.
Carole Byard is an under-recognized artist who recently passed away in January of this year. While women artists have had to struggle for recognition to begin with, Carole was also not as well known as some of her contemporaries because she was not primarily concerned with fame or profit, but rather the power of art to build community.
Carole Byard, known to friends as "Suggie," was born in 1941 in New Jersey. Over the course of a decade from the late 1950s to late 1960s she was able to study art formally after high school at Fleisher Art Memorial (Philadelphia) and Phoenix School of Design (New York). It was during this time that the Black Power Movement gave birth to its visual and artistic equivalent , most often referred to as the Black Arts Movement (and commonly placed in time as occurring between 1965-1975). Following Malcolm X's assassination in 1965, many Black Power Movement followers drifted towards either the revolutionary Black Panthers or the Cultural Nationalists, who called for the creation of "poetry, novels, visual arts, and theater to reflect pride in black history and culture." This is certainly an accurate way to contextualize the work of Byard, who frequently lent her artistic skills to projects that would fit within the goals of the Black Arts Movement.
Carole created several images for Strata-East albums, and she must have embraced the radical business model that the record label employed in order to help musicians distribute their music without the restrictions of the major music companies at the time, which were largely controlled by white men.
While the Strata-East label continues to exist, the bulk of their output began to wind-down by the end of the 1970s and by that time Byard had also moved on to a new format for her illustration work: the world of literature.
Byard contributed the illustrations for author Eloise Greenfield's 1978 children's book Dreams of Africa, in which a young African-American girl dreams of "long ago Africa." The book won the Coretta Scott King Award, an honor given annually to "outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values." Byard followed that effort up with illustrations for Cornrows, a children's book by Camille Yarbrough, in 1980. For that work Byard was again awarded the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award. Her illustrations were also recognized at the Scott King Awards in 1981 and 1993 for the books Grandma's Joy and Working Cotton, respectively.
Concerning her illustration work, Carole once remarked to a reporter, “I always loved reading, but none of the people in the pictures looked like me. When I worked on my first book I thought about the books I read when I was young. I knew it was important to make the most beautiful book I could make. This isn’t something I’m doing only for black children. Kids of all nationalities and races should see the world is made up of all kinds of people.”
In the 2000s, Carole began to show her collected works in exhibitions, including the Atlantic City Arts Center. In particular, her "Rent Series," inspired by the discovery of rent receipts her deceased father had kept his whole life, was much celebrated. Publicly, she left a lasting, if not fully recognized, impression on the art world and helped define the music and literature projects she worked on with her aesthetics. Privately, she was also known to have been a tremendous presence in her family, often "the life of the party." Byard was 75 years old.
Obituary for Carole Byard
Video of panel discussion on Byard's work at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (the technical glitches stop after the 4 min. mark)
More on the Black Arts Movement
More about the Coretta Scott King Awards