I GOT A STORY TO TELL
Abstract mixed media artist Eugene Coles played a big role in the American history of art and culture, but no one seems to know it. In addition to being a brutally honest and outspoken ambassador of progressive art, Coles is a highly thoughtful and opinionated character with an unwoven humor that reminds you of legendary D.C. radio jock Petey Greene. Coles has an unadulterated love for his people and is very concerned with the future of socially conscious art and entertainment culture as we dive deeper into an abyss lost in the realm of technology. Coles’ unique style is founded with a combination of impressionistic art interfaced with profound collages and photography, preceding the current phenomenon of artists like Banksy and other worldwide graffiti tents.
Exploring the social theme of America’s New Winter for the premiere issue, we celebrate Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson’s visionary opus album project Winter In America. Consequently, Eugene Coles painted and designed the cover art for that classic album in 1973. The collage inspired painting depicts busy patterns of Afrocentric themes and characters that were influenced by the post-black-leader-assassination era including the deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Fred Hampton and others during the turbulent times of the 1960’s.
After a deep and thorough search mission, I finally had the pleasure of catching up with Coles, who now quietly resides in Baltimore, Maryland. We discussed the makings of the Winter In America cover art as well as shared colorful stories that made up some of his life’s journey.
Growing up in East Elmherst, Queens, New York, he recalls the rich heritage of his neighborhood, living near Malcolm X, Harry Belafonte and Louis Armstrong in the 1960’s. Heavily influenced by the civil rights movement, Black history, contemporary social and political issues as well as the free jazz scene pillared Coles’ unique forensic-styled art. Inspired by the work of provocative artists such as William Johnson, Andrew Wise and many others, Eugene Coles is an unsung hero who believes that art is a virtue of luck and consequences.
During the 1970’s Coles spent time overseas in Europe , especially in Paris and Italy. Coles recalls how he had an art show in Baltimore, and a multilingual opera singer named Dan Comegee came and bought the show out. Comegee was so impressed with the artwork that he invited Coles to participate in an art program in Europe. Two weeks later, Coles found himself in Paris at the age of 34 and won 1st prize for an art show at the School of Fountainbleau.
Coles recounts attending a Master Class at Fountainbleau taught by Quincy Jones in 1979. “Quincy was older than me. He was a real nice guy. I remember a lot of famous people were there, including Leonard Bernstein. Everyone who came through there was rich and famous, except me. If you had talent and was in Europe, you would get invited to places like the King’s house. That kind of stuff doesn’t happen here. It’s too divided.” Coles states.
He remembers meeting and befriending actor-singer Robert Guilluame (star of the popular 80’s TV show Benson) at an event in Italy that was centered around the movie Superfly T.N.T. “I didn’t know that brother could sing!” Exclaims Coles who mentioned that Guilluame also had operatic pipes and fluent in Italian.
According to Coles, he met Brian Jackson through a mutual friend and roommate named Curtis McMeekan in 1973 while working at Morgan State University in the Visual Arts department. Brian would come to visit Gil often in Maryland while he attended Johns Hopkins and crashed with his friend Curtis before he eventually moved there and shared a house with other artists in the Logan Circle area of Washington D.C. Naturally, Eugene met Gil through Brian while hanging out at a Morgan State party. One evening, Gil and Eugene began to discuss art for the album and Eugene showed him a collage done by artist, Peggie Harris which became the inside cover of the Winter In America LP. Gil really liked the artwork and Eugene suggested that he use it as the main cover for the album. Gil went on to explain that collages weren’t really that cool at the time. In the early 1970’s a collage was considered a knock-off interpretation of art by simply gathering photos, and wasn’t quite respected in the art community as it is today.
During that spirited and weed influenced conversation, Gil asked Eugene if he would design the artwork for the new album in which the title was originally slated as “Supernatural Corner”. Gil told Eugene a story about a coconut which inspired the artwork and design. Gil spoke of something alluring to the inner white content of a coconut and the brown, rough afro-like exterior on the outside. “The last time I saw Brian, he was performing somewhere in D.C. with Phyllis Hyman. I don’t know if Brian knows this story, but Gil had told me a story about the hard shell of a coconut and the white body and juices inside of it. I don’t know how Gil was inspired by the coconut. I thought he would discuss it in his book, The Last Holiday, but he didn’t.” Coles recalls. This, along with other prevalent social issues concerning the urban condition of black people is what sparked Coles to design the cover art.
“The Winter In America cover represents fragmented black life” According to Coles. “The guy sitting on the right of the artwork was a little old man that kind of looks like me now, at 70 years old. It was a photograph I took from a car and it was blurred. The man was just sitting on the corner. The funny part about it was that he was wearing this suit that belonged to my father. My father gave me a silk suit. It was a hand-me-down suit my father owned. He gave it to me when I was in the service stationed in Kansas. So, one night, I put on my little silk suit and went to town. There were a lot of pimps in town. The pimps circled me one night and said it wasn’t enough room in this little town for them and me. It wasn’t really a threat, they just thought I was pimp, but I was in the service! I was a week away from going to Vietnam. Years later, I pawned the suit in Baltimore for $30 or $40 and never intended to get it out. So, this little old man (as seen on the cover) was wearing the same suit. I could never forget that grey suit! It’s the funniest thing that an old suit could tell a story.”
After Coles designed the cover art for the record, Gil decided to change the title of the album to Winter In America. To this day, Coles still seems a little pissed off about that. “The day before the masters were dropped off, Gil changed the name of the album. The original name of the album was Supernatural Corner. I didn’t think the painting looked like Winter In America. It was a totally different concept.”
Like a wise, gifted sage or threshold guardian of an ancient tribe, Coles proceeds to unearth tales of various consequences, often centered around notable celebrities of the 1970’s.
“One night around 3 O’Clock in the morning, I was coming from The Village in Manhattan, and I heard a loud explosion. I knew that they had bombed Malcolm’s house. The neighborhood was quiet. The next night, I was walking my brother’s girlfriend home and I see this guy with a rifle on the roof. I look to the left, and I see another one across the street. I look up the street and I see dark blue Oldsmobile 88 with Malcolm in the passenger seat wearing one of those Russian hats. He nodded at us, we nodded at him and just kept on going. A couple of weeks later, I asked my father ‘how do I get get to the Audubon?’ and my father says, ‘Why do you want to go to the Audubon?’ I said, ‘I wanna go see Malcolm X.’ He said, ‘Don’t go, they’re going to have some problems up there today.’ So, I listened to my father and didn’t go that day… and Malcolm X got killed.”
It’s Hard On The Boulevard
“The influences of the street and the inner city can affect every family. When you see guys with flashy cars and all the women and fancy things, it’s hard to take your ass to high school and college. That’s not easy. You have to be a special individual to escape it. I live in an area of Baltimore where you can’t even find a newspaper. No stores have a newspaper. I’m in the heart of city. Technically, I live in the ghetto. I live a couple blocks away from where they shot HBO’s The Wire. See, they tore most of it down and the crime went down 75% only because the ripped out all of the housing. So, people had to move further out. The population went down, so the crime rate goes down. All of it was real close to Johns Hopkins Hospital, and it is a walking distance from me. All of it belongs to Hopkins. They’ve created a circle around Hopkins and it spread. It’s probably one of the richest hospitals in the world. They bought up most of the property. About six blocks from me on the same street, a house costs $250,000 dollars. The only ones who can afford that stuff are the people from Hopkins. Up on my end, a house can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $65,000.” Coles informs.
Life Is Cheap
“Almost every single corner within a five block radius, I can count the number of people who have been murdered in the last two years. I remember how they used to throw the sneakers up on the street cables, but now they create these memorials for the dead with the candles, balloons and photographs. If you want your life to end with a bunch of balloons that deflate in two days, that’s a hell of a memorial to your life! They put a photograph up, but when it rains, you can imagine what it looks like. You got a bunch of deflated balloons and a faded photograph. Life is cheap. For some reason, this new generation doesn’t put a value on life. I don’t understand. I think the prerequisite for graduation needs to be a trip. Some of these kids need a passport and they need to do two weeks in Africa or Europe or something, somewhere outside of their comfort zone. They need that to put their lives in perspective and see another world. That stuff on TV, there only flashes of life. They really don’t get it. They believe they’re not capable of moving or traveling. Number one, there’s no education. They can’t talk to anybody with slang. I asked a kid how can you interview for a job if you keep saying ‘Yo’ and ‘Kno’whatI mean?’ No. I don’t know what you mean because you’re not saying anything. I’m really perturbed by that.” Coles laments.
The Upward Hike
“Black people are an intrical part of this and we’re fighting against the world. We need to be competitive with the Japanese and Chinese and every other country. We need an upward hike. There are a lot of guys doing some great things out here creatively, but the ones who are doing things that are positive don’t get the press. In the art field and like the stuff you’re dealing with in TAON, you got a hell of a battle ahead of you. They have a monopoly out here and they have the money to make anybody famous. I’ve never seen so many famous, untalented white people in my life. And these rappers… Somebody recently told me that Kanye and his wife spent $75,000 on Christmas presents for their daughter. She can’t even talk yet. They could’ve put that money to use in the inner-city and used her name to do something positive in the community like a day care center or something. And if they do that, keep that shit to yourself. It’s too many poor families out here that can barely eat, and their kids don’t have shoes, it’s ridiculous.”
Picturing Miles Davis
Coles eludes to several tales that feature Miles Davis in the 1970’s and 80’s. Apparently, they too were casual friends and he was often invited to attend several of Miles’ parties. Sprinkled with a bitter frosting and disappointment he shapes humorous stories that reflect the man instead of the musical myth. One evening while hanging out with Earl The Pearl in D.C., a friend took a photograph of Miles. “It was the best shot I’d ever seen of Miles. It was an unbelievable photograph. Miles had on a black and white striped sweater. Graphically, Miles had funny skin. He was dark, but when light hit him, he had high cheek bones. Anyway, I took the photograph and my artwork to Miles’ house and I just dropped it off. One of his girlfriends came to the door. I think they started to run the album and they used my stuff for the inside and decided on the cover already. The close up they decided to use couldn’t touch the stuff I brought up there. I don’t know how this lady put her name on my work. I don’t know how she did that shit, but she did!”
Coles mentions how Miles tried to make it up to him with the album Get Up With It dedicated to Duke Ellington and asked Coles to design the back inside cover art. Resentful about their past dealings, Coles merely used a type font for the design that simply reads “For Duke.”
“I had a show in New York in the winter of 1979 during the worst snow storm in years. It was down on Prince Street and Miles was supposed to come, but he never came. No one came.” Admits Coles.
He continues, “I remember the time we went to Miles’ house on 77th Street and Roberta Flack was there and some guy was doing Miles’ hair. Roberta asked me was that a camera in my case and I said yeah. So, we went into the bedroom and Miles’ hair was all platted up. It looked terrible. Roberta said lets take some pictures. Miles was like “nah nah, not looking like this.” Roberta was like “Oh shut up Miles and let the man take the picture.”‘ Miles put a whammy on that shit. My battery had died in my camera and all the photos came out silhouette.” Says Coles.
“The next time I was over Miles’ house, the doorbell rings. So, this white dude is standing at the door and there was a limo outside. He said he was a chauffeur for Mick Jagger and Jagger wanted to come in and meet him. Miles told him “You better get the fuck away from my door and never ring my goddamn doorbell again!” Coles claims.
“Somebody interviewed Miles one time and they asked if he was dying and had one last wish in life, what would it be? Miles replied, “I’d jump a white motherfucka slowly.” Miles is a motherfucker, I tell you. I read that in the Village Voice in the early days. The Voice used to really be hip years ago in the 60’s and 70’s. I read an article one time in the Voice about the U.S. Government poisoning Ali at his training camp. They literally poisoned the land around his training camp. That land still won’t be inhabited for another hundred years or more. You never see it anywhere or never heard them say anything about it. It effected his whole central nervous system. If he hadn’t been so strong and well kept, he wouldn’t have survived this long.” Insists Coles.
Coles repositions a stolen moment of romance with Minnie Ripperton during a show at the Cellar Door in Washington, D.C. According to Coles, Ripperton invited him and his friends backstage after the show while performing for the group, Friends of Distinction. Coles was enamored by Ripperton’s beauty and her voice, yet he never quite advanced his attention. A year later, Coles and a buddy crashed a black film festival award dinner in California disguised as escorts wearing a couple of tuxedos. Coles noticed Ripperton seated with Pam Grier at one of the $2000 per plate tables. “By this time, Minnie was famous. And just as I was about to step to her, this white dude cuts me off and kisses her in her mouth. I didn’t know if it was her husband or her boyfriend, but I think he saw me looking at her. Her back was facing me, and after he did that, I never bothered to say anything. Then she died when I was in school in Paris. That just showed me how small the world can be sometimes. It’s all just a matter of random luck.” –
Story by ASK
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