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Exploring black history through art

James Whitten is East Meadow’s resident artist for February

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One of the first works you may notice when viewing James Whitten’s East Meadow art exhibit this month is a sepia-toned illustration of a black boy wearing a button-down shirt, a bow tie, suspenders and a straw hat.

After painting the portrait and centering it in a pink circle on a multi-colored background, Whitten titled it “Carnival Kid.” He first spotted a photograph of the boy in a collection of postcards at Queens Public Library in Jamaica. Although he couldn’t recall where or when the photo was taken, Whitten said, “His smile and everything about him just made me happy. It reminded me of my spirit.”

Whitten’s spirit could also be seen in portraits of family members and historic black figures in the exhibit at the Samanea New York Market, the former Source Mall, in Westbury, where he is the East Meadow Public Library’s resident artist for February.

Employees of the library created the gallery at the market, where many programs are being held while the facility on East Meadow Avenue is being renovated.

Whitten, 68, was born in Jamaica, Queens, and has been drawing since his childhood. He earned a degree in advertising art and design at New York Technical College in the mid-1970s, and then became a designer for Arnold Press, which produced work for companies like The New York Times. Back then, Whitten recalled, designers for print publications laid out pages by hand, cutting and pasting photos, text and other graphics elements on page mockups using rubber cement and a wax adhesive.

“But those techniques are gone now,” he said. “Computers do everything.”

Whitten worked for Arnold Press from 1978 to 1981, but the company did not survive the advent of digital graphic design.

For the past 26 years, he has been a desk clerk for the U.S. Postal Service. He puts his art skills to use there, too, frequently creating designs and murals. But he still uses classic techniques in some of his paintings, combining images and media. He said that a lot of his style is “old school,” and focuses on geometric shapes, the human body or a combination of the two.

Next to “Carnival Kid” is a painting called “Stilt Fisherman/Sunset,” depicting Sri Lankan villagers fishing in their riverside communities. The image is based on photos Whitten has seen in magazines and on postcards, and is augmented by his imagination. “I’ve been drawing for so long now that I understand the way the human body looks and moves,” he said. 

Jude Schanzer, the East Meadow library’s director of public relations and programming, met Whitten at an arts-and-crafts fair hosted by Freeport’s Long Island Arts Council and the Long Island Black Artist Association, of which Whitten is a member. Schanzer said she was immediately drawn to his work, and invited him to put together an exhibit in honor of Black History Month. His work will be on display all month.

At an opening reception last Saturday, guests filtered in and out of the gallery, viewing Whitten’s work and enjoying refreshments while Richard Arriaga played piano.

The most enticing thing about Whitten’s work, Schanzer said, is that he “extracts creative ideas and inspiration from his Bahamian roots.”

One painting depicts actor Sidney Poitier in front of a bridge connecting Nassau to Paradise Island, a structure that was named after Poitier in 2012. Whitten’s mother was raised in Nassau, and he frequently visits, and crosses the Sidney Poitier Bridge.

His first visit to the Bahamas, as a teenager, was a “culture shock,” he said. “We had to pump water from a well and take a bath with a metal pail,” he recalled. “It made me realize how much I took for granted growing up [in America].”

A lot has changed since then, however, and his cousin Rosco Turnquest still lives in the Bahamas, under more optimal conditions, he said. Whitten’s oil painting “Jammin’ Junkanoo” depicts his cousin at a Bahamian cultural festival and parade called Junkanoo in a vibrant, frilled costume with a whistle in his mouth and a cowbell in his hand.

Although the origins of the holiday are unknown, according to the Bahamian government’s website, Junkanoo started as a festival that slaves were allowed to celebrate at Christmastime. Today it takes place at the end of December and again during the summer.

Turnquest competes in a costume contest in each festival, and Whitten recalled visiting him and getting a behind-the-scenes look at the preparation and craftsmanship involved in creating the costumes for the Bahamas’ biggest carnival.

“They brought me to these shacks that look like museums on the inside,” Whitten recounted. “You walk in and see these magnificent costumes made out of cardboard, papier-maché and glue — a lot of glue.”

Experiences like these become Whitten’s greatest inspirations, he said. More portraits of his family and friends are on display throughout the exhibit, alongside those of Barack Obama, Booker T. Washington, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Stevie Wonder.