Jan 21, 2011

Helped by Bill Cosby, artist frames the African American experience

"Manchild," by Alonzo Adams, features a young man seated on a pile of tires -- with books at his feet.

Alonzo Adams was working by day as a salesman for an electronics and appliance chain and taking art classes in the evening when he unwittingly planted the seeds of his commercial success and acclaim as a painter of the African American experience. Many of Adams' figurative works in oils will be on view throughout February at the Gallery Space at NYU Wagner. The exhibition, free to the public, commemorates Black History Month.

For Adams, the brief episode began one day in late 1980s when he suddenly suppressed his usual sales pitch and instead advised a kindly customer not to buy her selected merchandise at full price, nor pay for a service contract.

"We made our money getting people to buy this type of stuff and I had done all that," the artist said of the job he held after graduating from college. "But this particular woman reminded me so much of my mother, I just couldn't do it, my heart wouldn't let me. I called her back from the cash register aisle and explained how she could actually save a lot of money."

"I'm going to return the favor one day," the grateful customer said.

"Don't worry about it," Adams replied. "Just become a better shopper."

Six months later, the local newspaper in Adams' northern New Jersey community published the first article ever written about him, describing his artwork and ambition. His talent at the time lay in watercolor, a usually loose medium that he used with the technical precision of his earlier efforts in pencil. He told the reporter that African American art seemed destined to catch, since even popular TV programs like The Cosby Show were showing works in the background by black artists.

"The lady I helped at the store read the article and showed it to Mr. Cosby. It turned out that her son appeared as a guest actor on the show -- and she liked to go to the Astoria studio when the program was being taped," said Adams.

Cosby sent word to Adams, who was 26, to meet him at the studio and to bring along his watercolor "Amazing Grace," pictured with the newspaper article. Cosby looked it over and said "This is amazing," recalled Adams.

"What do you want to do with your life," the entertainer asked Adams.

"I want to be the best black artist in the world."

"Don't limit yourself to being the ‘best black artist in the world,' " Cosby suggested. "Try to become the best artist in the world."

Cosby said, "You're good but not great - you have potential." He offered to send the younger man to graduate school, saying, "Get in on your own merit to any school in the world, don't mention my name, and I'll pay for it," according to Adams.

Adams earned his MFA at the University of Pennsylvania, courtesy of Bill Cosby, "and my whole world opened up." It was Cosby who'd advised him to learn how to paint in oils because such paintings have greater longevity. Adams' ensuing portraits and landscapes --informed by his family history, his Harlem roots, Jazz, and contemporary urban life -- would be purchased by professional athletes, celebrities, CEOs, and corporate foundations. His studio and gallery are now located in Plainfield, N.J., where he lives in an early-19th century home with his wife and their two sons, 10 and 13.

The NYU Wagner exhibition of Alonzo's works will begin with an opening reception on Tuesday, Feb. 1, at 5:30 p.m., for which RSVP is required. Entitled "Sienna Visions: Paintings by Alonzo Adams," the show is presented, together with Wagner, by NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, and cosponsored by Wagner's Black Student Alliance.

Adams lost his mother, Katie, with whom he was exceptionally close, last year. In one sense, the Gallery show marks his return "from the valley," as he put it.

"You've got to climb back up to that mountaintop and pull yourself back into your work again."

 

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