Papier-mâché Gumbo

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After seeing the sculptures of African-American artist Willie Birch, currently on exhibit at the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts in Eatonville, you'll probably find yourself talking ... and talking. But first, you'll have to listen. And it won't be hard. Each of the three-dimensional papier-mâché pieces has its own stories to tell. While the New Orleans-based Birch may be their creator, he's not the sole storyteller. You only have to stand in front of his giant gunnysack, the subject of "When Cotton Was King," to understand.

"I made it so that a person my size who is 6-feet tall could put it on his shoulders and drag it through the field," the 59-year-old Birch explains. The sheer size of the piece, the way it folds out before the viewer, is reminiscent of a gravestone -- or an altar. It was easy to imagine the black field-hands sweating and straining under its burden. Birch says he thinks of the sack as a "wishing well," and if you read the lyrics to the fieldworker's song he has written into the sculpture, you'll see why: "Steal away, steal away home. I ain't got long to stay here."

Stick your head into the sack's opening, and you'll see shards of glass and an oyster shell, a symbol of travel. "It's a found object," says Birch of the shell, a motif that turns up again and again in his work. "It carries another life form, beyond its original existence." The metaphorical work calls to mind the slave ships that carried millions of Africans away from their homes to a foreign land known as America.

Birch created the 10 represented works -- some of which are framed acrylic-on-paper compositions -- between 1994 and 1997. While the art of the well-educated (M.F.A., 1973, Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore) and world-traveled Birch is a deeply visual experience of color, texture and shape, it's the figurative "sounds" Birch makes with the pieces that keep resonating in one's mind. The sounds are personal and universal, and Birch aims to engage visitors to the exhibit in "a dialogue" about his subject matter.

If story is the heart of the Hurston exhibition, music, specifically jazz, is its soul. You'll hear the notes inside your head and catch the rhythms in your feet as soon as you walk into the museum. Look to your left: Sam Cooke is alive and still "Twistin' the Night Away" in the framed acrylic on paper titled "For Sam Cooke."

To your left, there's "A Stool for the Duke," set up in the corner. Birch has hammered nails into the top of the stool, a religious reference -- or homage -- to Ogun, the West African spirit of iron and symbol of power. Here again is Birch the storyteller. In the Congo, he says, "they were able to transfer the idea of the power of the iron in terms of Christianity. Jesus Christ, you know, he had nails in his hands. [African Americans] were able to embrace Catholicism because of that."

You could say it was a religious experience that brought Birch to use paper to express his art. Accustomed to working with wood, he had to give up the practice when breathing in its shavings began to give him health problems. He tells of how he took a trip from his then New York City home and visited the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans: "There was a 15th-century papier-mâché crucifix [in the church]. And I said, 'Willie, that's it.' I went back to New York and started going mad with the paper."

But Birch kept hearing echoes of the past in his head. And, in 1994, the artist returned to his native New Orleans, where he soaked up the interwoven elements inherent in the city's culture. Like jazz. And even gumbo. "When you're speaking about gumbo," says Birch, "it's layered with all these things that aren't supposed to work" together -- but do.

Birch creates his own bit of gumbolike magic in the current exhibit, finding common ground between two unlikely art forms. In the framed acrylic-on-paper work "What is the Relationship Between Bach and Jazz?," Birch links the world of the Brandenburg Concerto with boogie-woogie piano. There's a lot going on here: bold word blocks, musical notes, crude portraiture. But the composition is the thing, and smack in the middle of the work, you'll find the answer to Birch's question. It's all about improvisation. "Bach would totally deviate from the whole chart and just begin to play at random," Birch says. "He's the first one we know of, in terms of European classical music, that began to play free-form. And jazz musicians picked up on that and began to say, 'Whoa man, there is a connection here!'"

Perhaps nowhere are Birch's own improvisational gifts more evident than in the striking "A Bed for Buddy Bolton." Impressive in size and scope, the sculpture is no doubt the first object you'll see upon entering the Hurston. Bolton (a.k.a. Charles "Buddy" Bolden) was known as the "King of the Cornet" in turn-of-the century New Orleans; he's often credited with being an originator of that city's jazz sound. Suffering from mental illness, Bolton died in an asylum. In his bed for Bolton, Birch has carved a fitting tribute: Seashells adorn an Egyptian blue bedspread. A black suit of clothes is laid out upon the center of the bed aside a horn and five-point stars. Pop-tops and shards of colored glass protrude from the head and foot boards. The work is earthbound but deeply spiritual. "The bed is about giving [Bolton] rest," says Birch. "I'm tryin' to give this brother some peace."

Birch uses papier-mâché to explore the delicate conditon of humanity. He calls it "the perfect medium to talk about fragility -- I can't protect the work; the work has to protect itself, and people have to take ownership." Besides, everything on earth is temporary: "Since we know what happened in September," he says, "we know that metal anything will fall," just as easily as paper will tear.

Birch reaches back to his cultural heritage for his strength, to his family (as witnessed by his "Memory Jug for Uncle Nat"), and to the artists and musicians who have inspired him. The music and life of the late John Coltrane remain a vital influence. "[Coltrane] helped lead me into other ways of seeing, and the possibilities of art. There was one statement [he made] that stuck to me. He said that he wanted to be a force for good. And I said, 'Willie, that's what you want.'"

Exhibit curator Gylbert Garvin Coker has seen evidence of that force. "Children have been knocking on the door before the [museum] is open, [wanting] to come in." Coker chose Birch's work for the current exhibit because it ties in well with the theme of the 13th annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival, which kicks off Jan. 24: "Celebrating Cultural Connections: The Music of Africa and The Americas." Meanwhile, museum visitors will have a chance for a more traditional dialogue with Birch when he gives a gallery talk at the Hurston on Saturday, Jan. 12.

But it's the indirect dialogue experienced through the art that's the most personal to a viewer. Whether it's found in the tough masculinity of "Rap: Reflections of Our Times," or in the soulful phrasings of "For Sam Cooke," this is artwork that tells stories of a hard-won joy. Birch calls these pieces his "liberating series," and the artist carefully has placed flags of African Liberation in some of the works. Like Cooke, who at the end of his life turned away from trying to please a predominantly white audience, penning the civil-rights anthem "A Change is Gonna Come," Birch isn't trying to please "mainstream" art fans.

"The bottom line in all my work is to begin to address the human quality in all of us," he says. "I think if you love art, and you see it for what it is, those connections will come naturally."

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