Southern roots of blues music inspires exhibited artwork
William Burton Jr. and Robert A. Ketchens traveled through the Mississippi Delta in 2012 to share the experiences of African Americans in the South and how the blues genre began through works of art with children in the St. Louis community.
"We played a genre which was new to the kids -- the blues," Ketchens said. "After we played it, they started to ask questions that we couldn't answer, so we wanted to bring a richness of the African American blues experience to the young people."
The art exhibit "A Song from the Field" opens in the Rosemary Berkel and Harry L. Crisp II Museum Sept. 4. The name links the blues genre and sharecropping, a field of work once occupied by many African Americans in the South.
The exhibit will feature a compilation of art from Ketchens and Burton, who serve as resident artist and curator, respectively, at the Atelier D'Artiste 14 art gallery in St. Louis.
Four trips were necessary for Ketchens and Burton to complete their work. They began their trips in St. Louis and traveled on Highway 61 to towns such as Clarksdale, Mississippi, where it's said that Robert Johnson, writer of the song "Crossroads," "sold his soul to the devil."
"We needed to go more than once in order to get the whole picture of what they [African Americans] went through," Ketchens said. "We needed to smell the dirt, feel the Delta heat and experience the environment around us. We wanted to record the experience of the blues through different mediums and connect incidents that started the blues movement."
Although the birthplace of the blues movement is considered the Mississippi Delta as a whole, the specific town of its origin is unknown. Ketchens said that most people he encountered considered their town the birthplace of blues, and the subject wasn't something to discuss in other towns.
According to Ketchens, the experiences that the two shared played an important role in how the artworks were composed. The materials and colors each represents specific details regarding the environment. The yellow in Ketchens' pieces represent the warm temperatures, for example.
Other colors reflect on cultural issues, such as the blue color that Ketchens uses for African American skin in the art. He said that the color was a reflection of his thoughts about the darkest man he knew, whose skin was like a "mirror" in which he saw a blue tint and also a remembrance of his upbringing as a light-skinned African American.
"During the Jim Crow era, there was always an emphasis on how light or dark your skin color was," Ketchens said. "Not only was there racism from whites, but there was racism within our own [African American] community as well. This is still an issue today, and it's a major hurdle that we have to get over as a community."
Ketchens added that the blues had an important role in helping African Americans throughout their struggles in the South and that their communities have "lost one of the things that made them strong."
Peter Nguyen, director of the Crisp Museum, helped bring the artwork to Southeast. He said the subjects that Burton and Ketchens touch on are especially relevant to the African American community in the present.
Ketchens said he hopes that viewers will be able to experience the same joy that he had throughout his travels and reflect on the history and culture within the art.
"The details tell the meat of the story," Ketchens said. "They're composed to cause people to question the experience. Each piece serves to tell the message that the blues ultimately led to what we love today."
"A Song from the Field" will have an opening reception from 4-8 p.m. Sept. 4 at the Crisp Museum and will remain on display until Oct. 25. Admission is free.
"Viewers will experience and hopefully see how the blues was born out of the fields," Nguyen said.