Alexander Jarman

Jackson, Gil and 'Gene

Alexander Jarman
Jackson, Gil and 'Gene

Our last listening party, featuring tracks by Gil Scott-Heron, was a real treat, and we're not quite done with Gil just yet.  For this week's post on album art, we take a look at the cover of Winter in America, which was designed by the Baltimore artist Eugene Coles. 

How the Three Artists Got Together

Though Gil Scott-Heron never formally received a bachelor's degree, he was a strong enough talent in the early 1970s to be accepted into the Writing Seminar at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he did receive a Master's degree.  During his years studying at Hopkins, Gil's friend and bandmate Brian Jackson would visit him in Charm City, where Eugene Coles was teaching just a few miles away at Morgan State University.  Jackson would stay with his other acquaintance Curtis McMeekan who was good friends with Coles. The artists all ended up getting together when they attended the same party at Morgan State, where Curtis introduced Eugene to Brian, and Brian introduced Eugene to Gil. 

As reported in a great article written a few years ago in TAON's (The Art of Noise) online magazine, it wasn't long before Gil and Eugene were talking about collaborating, with the former asking the latter to design an album cover.  

A Unique Style

The cover for Winter In America is a powerful, frenetic collage of patterned shapes that form an ambiguous landscape inhabited by a lone figure.  The background reveals a more recognizable sky, but it too presents both a fiery blaze of red and the cool haunting blues of midnight.  That modernist sky coupled with the isolated figure almost remind one of a Marc Chagall painting, and coupled with the album's title we can't help but think of the figure as isolated and alone.  Should we understand the figure in it's original context to be a portrait of the artist perhaps?  Ironically, the words were never meant to contextualize Coles' work, since the original album title composed by Scott-Heron was "Supernatural Corner."

Thanks to the reporting in TAON, we know the figure on the cover of Winter In America is based on a photograph Coles took of a man in Baltimore who was wearing a suit that Coles had previously pawned himself.  This connection between Coles and the man on the corner is significant if we look at the painting for the album.  Coles has always seemed to recognize himself as an artist, and in the Winter in America landscape, the artistic shapes which form the landscape (read as the production of an artist) seem to physically merge with the left foot of the lone figure, creating a physical and metaphorical connection between Coles and his fellow Baltimoreans.  This seems to fit with art historian Samella S. Lewis's critique of his work in her book African American Art and Artists (2003, University of California Press).  Writing about a later painting called Theory of the Pyramid from 1982, Lewis writes that Coles' combination of color, texture, and value allow him to "evoke emotional sensations and encourage unexpected conceptual additions that often result from successful mergers." 

Artist in Studio , 2006, by Eugene Coles

Artist in Studio, 2006, by Eugene Coles

Winter in America encompasses the diverse style of Eugene Coles, who continues to produce works based on both realism and abstraction. The Brooklyn Art Council's 2007 exhibition of Coles' work supports this paradigm, and one collage stands out in particular.  His Artist in Studio, surely a self-portrait of sorts, mixes many different depictions of art through its collage aesthetic that harkens back to a style popular with artists involved in the Harlem Renaissance, a source of inspiration to both Coles and Scott-Heron. But perhaps more importantly, the subject matter of the work also places such items as traditional Western "masterpieces" of art history on an equal playing field with work by artists like the Art Blakey Quintet.  

Eugene Coles was born in 1945 and grew up in Elmhurst, Queens before relocating to Baltimore, Maryland, where he still resides. You can find out more on Coles's work by checking out the following links:

TAON's extensive 2015 interview with Eugene Coles can be found here.

A slideshow of Coles' work provided by the Brooklyn Arts Council can be found here

Take a peek at Samella S. Lewis's volume on African American Art and Artists here.