Jerome Harris Artist’s Talk
October 1, 2020
Be Here Now, TCNJ Art Gallery
Jason Alejandro: I’m Jason Alejandro, assistant professor graphic design at the College of New Jersey. Thank you all for being here. Today I’m really excited to have Jerome Harris with us. I’ll read a little bit about his bio and then welcome him to present after that.
Jerome Harris is a graphic designer, educator, and curator. His research on 20th century African American graphic designers has grown into a touring exhibition, with its next stop at Boston University this fall. Jerome takes on select freelance clients freelance projects, focusing on arts, culture, advocacy and community.
I happen to just be a big fan of his design work. Jerome holds an MFA in graphic design from Yale and a BA from Temple. He’s currently the design director at Civic Nation and also previously worked at Housing Works and taught at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art).
Jerome Harris: I’m Jerome Harris. Jason did a great job of introducing me. I’m going to redo my bio, a little bit in a little more detail. I was born and raised in New Haven, Connecticut. I went to Temple University in Philadelphia. I moved to New York. I was a professional dancer for three years.
The one thing I can brag about is that I danced in Step Up 3D, the movie. You might not see me because I was just a dancer in the cast. But if you watch the credits, my name is in there.
And then I moved back to Philly. I was a teaching artist teaching dance in the public school system and decided to switch gears to do graphic design. This whole time, I had been doing graphic design freelance mostly like party flyers for nightlife.
I applied to grad school and applied to Yale and RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) and did not get in to RISD, but I got into Yale. I went thtrough their three-year program.
The preliminary year, which is just the first year , is just like graphic design boot camp, because I was completely self taught up until that point, and then went through the MFA program, which was stressful. And then it was everything. It was like a bad relationship and good relationship, it was…, it was crazy.
Anyway, I went on to take on a teaching fellowship at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and was there for two years. I moved back to New York. I took a job at Housing Works. I was the design director there for a year until COVID-19. And then I decided to leave New York because my life there was so based in social interaction. I couldn’t do it anymore. So I’m now in Richmond, Virginia, because rent is cheap and I can have more space for less money. And I have friends at VCU.
So in addition to graphic design, I kind of do dance on the side, I have an Instagram account called 32 Counts, where I teach people — 32 counts is just four counts of eight. So I just teach people short pieces of choreography. This used to happen in person before COVID-19 but now it’s become an accidental graphic design project where I send people the choreography and then I edit two or three or four videos together. And more recently, I’ve actually put 16 videos together. So it looks really cool to see people in their domestic spaces doing choreography all the same time.
I also used to DJ. Now I just kind of do mixes and put them on SoundCloud. My DJ name is DJ Glen Coco and there’s, you know, if you if you know the reference, you know, the reference.
And then this is just some work from Housing Works. And let’s keep going.
Okay, so I’m talking about my exhibition, As, Not For, which is a survey of 20th century African American graphic designers. I did it for a couple reasons. This is just a list that I’ve made of all of the moments in graphic design history that are talked about in popular graphic design books and this is not complete. This is just like the names that a lot of design educators know, there’s nobody black in here at all, or not white, anyway. Maybe – who was it in Fluxxus? And Telenor Yoko’s in there too, but other than that, it’s all white people.
This is basically just the kind of my problem statement: there’s a severe under representation of African American graphic design theories, methodologies, aesthetics, and practitioners in the field as a whole. And that’s just my own words.
I think I have not surprised there. And then this is data from the 2019 Google AIDA and Google Design census: just 3% of the industry is identified as black and this doesn’t count people who are probably self taught, or are probably working outside of traditional fields, outside of advertising or outside of studios, maybe designing party flyers, like I was before. So maybe this number, this number could be bigger, but also those people don’t get included in these numbers.
This is a quote from Cheryl D Miller, who’s releasing a book soon, a Black graphic designer. This is a piece she wrote in 1987, a trio of pieces that she wrote. This is Black designers missing in action. And as black designers still missing in action. And then there’s black designers found in action, which is the most recent one.
And in 1987 she was questioning this as well: What is missing in the design profession as a result of so little input from the largest of all American minority groups? Now in 2020. African Americans are no longer the largest.
So I started the research when I was in grad school. I this had to do a design history project and I started with Buddy Esquire. Buddy Esquire designed these handbills and if you go to Cornell University’s Hip Hop archive, they’re all free on there, you can just browse them, there’s hundreds of them.
He designed these like letter size party flyers, which are amazing. Funny enough, like if you think about the time that he was making these, there was this whole postmodernist movement with April Garmin and he was totally mashing up different art movements in different formal properties, taking Art Deco architecture, bringing in influence from manga, influences from graffiti. So you have all these different things happening, which was totally a characteristic of post modernism and he most likely had no idea this was happening in the Bronx. He passed away 2014.
Then I started looking at other places just for things that look designed, that Black people had been involved with. I was looking at Black Greek fraternities and sororities; they have these awesome seals and logos and they have a brand identity system that defines each one, like color is kind of mascots, if you will, and a whole lexicon of symbols. But I couldn’t find out much about them because they’re secret societies. So, who can I talk to about that?
I moved on to looking at the Harlem Renaissance and found work by Aaron Douglas, who I actually left out of the show because Aaron Douglas was more of an illustrator than a graphic designer. Aaron Douglas design the Fire book cover over here on the left. I would suggest go checking out his work, amazing work. And then the other artist is Winold Rice. He was a German painter who was interested in documenting subculture in the United States, and he was a huge supporter of the Harlem Renaissance. But he was a white man, so I also couldn’t include him.
I was also looking at the Negro baseball leagues and this is just in my search for something, right. I’m just like, you know, rummaging in the dark for something as I was doing my research. I was looking at these things and I couldn’t find out who designed them at all. But these logos are really nice. And you think about their uniforms as well. And you think about signage at the at the stadiums and things like this, somebody was making these things. I never found out who it was.
I was looking at Afrofuturism kind of like Parliament and all this album artwork from the 70s, and I couldn’t figure out who designed these things either. Africa del Bato – I have no idea who made this thing. And coming back to Buddy Esquire, thank god, you know, Cornell had this huge archive. This is kind of my starting point.
Then I was looking at clothes that I wore as a kid in the 90s, so I’m looking at all these black fashion labels, but I couldn’t find out who designed these brand identities, either.
And then I kind of got desperate and was just looking at artists that worked with type. So this is just a long list of fine artists that worked with type and I was just kind of going to force them into the show as graphic designers. I ended up not doing that, because I wanted it to be true to the canon of design history. So at the end of the day, I ended up finding the names and fragments of information of about 36 people, which are listed here, but I could only find work in archives on 14 people. So, from this — right all these people — this would have been an amazing show. I also don’t think I could have done it because this would have been a lot of work. But 14 is manageable.
So then I added Sun Ra, because when I went to University of Chicago, I was looking for work by Sylvia Abernathy actually who’s in the show, the only woman in the show, which we’ll talk about later. And I saw that Sun Ra I had a had an archive there. So I’m looking through his stuff, and there was a book in there called The Unmeasurable Equation and he was the author of it, and I just assumed that he designed it, so it’s speculative, but I just included him in the show. There are just poems that look like they were typewritten with a typewriter. So I’m just calling him a graphic designer.
Then there’s the show. This was also, from a personal graphic design standpoint, this is the first time I was able to be my own client and make something, not care what anybody else thought. I would suggest, I don’t know who’s watching, but I would suggest, everybody: try this, just go make something. And don’t ask anybody’s opinion. Really just like figure it out. Because when I put this out there, people really responded to it. I get a lot of freelance offers from people to make stuff look like this. And I don’t want to do that. Like, this is something that is specific to this project, right, and as a designer, you’d make work that suits the project.
So, the show is, as I said, an incomplete historical survey of work created by African American graphic designers between 1865 and 1999. I think it was important for me to start around the Emancipation Proclamation because history before the abolition of slavery is kind of is complicated, so, I guess, you know, start from freedom and move forward or, you know, “freedom.”
And then these are just some kind of post-rationalized goals, because when I was thinking of the show, it was more of a selfish searching for representation. I didn’t care about sharing the information, I just wanted validation, because I was always the only black person in the room all the time, you know and if it wasn’t going to happen in the room, it is going to happen, at least in my mind. Or I could feel like I had a history in a trajectory to reach back to, you know. I just wanted to feel validated that what I was doing was right, because I’m learning about all these white men in a room full of white people all the time. A lot of white men and a couple of white woman.
So these are the archives that I ended up looking at. I was at the University of Illinois Chicago campus, University of Chicago, University of Houston. They have the Pen & Pixel archive, I would suggest looking at. That’s amazing. That’s all the Cash Money stuff, Master P, Snoop Dogg artwork. Cornell University, Cooper Hewitt, Archives of American Art have a lot of Art Sims’ work. So it’s a lot of Spike Lee’s movie posters by Art Sims. The Library of Congress has a bunch of stuff — that’s where all the W.B.; Dubois infographics came from; Delmark Records is where I got Sylvia Abernathy’s album artwork. I just called them and asked them if I could use it and they just gave me permission over the phone, like “we don’t care.”
So I just went ahead with that Def Jam records. I’m saying Def Jam records, but I got, I went to visit Cey Adams and he handed me the stuff like, “here, put this in your show.” I was like, “Okay, thank you.” You know that’s another amazing part that I talk about later.
And then I found some like really weird super pro-Black websites and blogs that were horribly designed but had PDFs on PDFs of the Black Panther newspapers — just scans and that was awesome. I don’t know who to ask for permission for that but I use them. And of course, Wikipedia.
The title of the shows a little misleading sometimes, so I’m just going to try to explain where it came from. I had no idea what to call the show, so I was just reading about black people making art and I was reading work by Fred Moten and then I was also reading Alain Locke, who was a philosopher during the Harlem Renaissance and this is from The New Negro, his book about
how black designers should carry themselves in the world and the kind of work they should make. And so this is just a quote from the book [that] says “Our poets have now stopped speaking for the Negro they now speak as Negroes,” and the title is kind of a paraphrase version of this. It’s kind of a call for authenticity and not a performance of blackness. It’s not making it palatable to white people, in particular, but it’s just doing the thing that you do, and just letting it be what it’s going to be.
And then this is just from the same paragraph it’s just where he expands on that last line, “… [w]here formerly they spoke to others and tried to interpret…they now speak to their own and try to express.” So, again, just like a call for authenticity and not trying too hard, right, like just doing the thing exactly the way it should be done.
I’m not going to read this and also every time I show people this quote, they’re like, what did I just read. The reason why I found this important is because he is saying when you think of something in absolutes, it does you a disservice. You have to be flexible, but also understand all the consequences in the context of the way that you think about a thing. You have to think about it…you have to think about the whole context in which the way that you’re thinking, so that you can make good decisions. I don’t know, it’s, it’s hard to explain. I’m not a philosopher, I’m a graphic designer.
These are just some social media graphics. I came up with this language of scribbling because I felt like it felt urgent. Also, it felt like the handwriting for me was a gesture that I ended up using because it felt like how I felt when I was looking through the black Greek sororities, just looking for information, like I feel like handwriting looks like seeking visually, in a way, so just a subtle metaphor of my process.
And then it’s a little bit of archival imagery. So it’s like Buddy Esquire. And then like Emmett McBain here. But then I have Jackie’s Back and Sparkle there, but that’s like inside jokes into black popular culture, because Jackie’s Back is kind of the ass and Sparkles is kind of the four, because it was not made by Black people, it was a Blaxploitation movie where Jackie’s back was a movie that was parodying Blaxploitation movies, made by Robert Townsend. So there’s a lot of that in the poster: a lot of small gestures to black popular culture as well, which I totally reference meme culture, you know, in that way, subtly bringing in.
So, there’s the poster. There were a few specific references that I looked at. There was this Condition Report (2000) by Glenn Ligon and he points out the flaws (I’m sorry for the pixelated image), but he points out the flaws in this protest sign, the “I am a man” work. Museum do this when they go to fix a piece of art. They’re like, “oh, there’s dust here there’s scratches here,” but he’s treating this thing that’s usually not so precious—a protest sign — in a way that’s a piece of fine art.
And then, of course, Basquiat, the way that he approached work, your eyes jumping around like compositionally and the use of handwriting is very compelling for me and his work and I just wanted to just give a nod to him.
I also use Caslon because it’s it has an ironic history. It’s a British type face and when the founding fathers decided to letterpress the Declaration of Independence, they used Caslon while also claiming their independence from Britain, which is, you know, a bad decision and also it wasn’t everybody’s independence, either, because they had slaves. So it’s just a big contradiction in the document and choice of font.
This is just details of the poster. And again, it’s like Richard Pryor from The Wiz. So it’s like his Wiz machine is crossed out. But him as himself this little coward comes out from behind the machine and that’s his As, Nor For.
The show is broken up into four sections: Parties and Protest, Advertising and Commerce, Black Data, and Musicality. Parties and Protest was the party fliers, in addition to the Black Panther newspapers spreads, which I don’t have a photo of here.
These are photos from the first show at MICA. This was a part of my fellowship and this show kind of took off from there.
Advertising and Commerce was just images made to sell things. Black Data was W.E.B.Du Bois’ infographics that he made with his students at Atlanta University which depicted the condition of African Americans in the early 20th century. These are all free on the Library of Congress site — high resolution, go get them. Go print them out, put them in your house.
I also included this book, (I stopped including it because it’s so big and heavy), but it’s like a comprehensive history of hip hop culture, up until about 2010. [First name?] Adams designed this.
Musicality was all work about music. Here we have [name] Adams violator artwork for the Violator album that came out in 1999 and we have Sunrise Poem from the Immeasurable Equation – I’m calling him a graphic designer.
This was a cool moment. I like to talk about because it is like a past-present-future moment where we have work from black designers in, the 20th century, we have me who’s working in the industry and we have Howard University graphic design students and Miriam, who I met there who’s the professor graphic designer.at Howard. This is just one of my favorite things that happened over the course of doing the first iteration of the show.
I have to update this list, but this is all the things that came out of the show — I did not know all this is going to happen. I was like, for podcast and I got picked up, got a bunch of articles written about the show I lectured a bunch, did workshops. I’ve exhibited the show 17 or 18 times now, and it’ll be at Boston University in a month or so.
I have lots of documentation, so I’m just going to flip through some photos. The cool thing about this show is that it became an educational tool. I got to do workshops. I would send the files to a university or an institution and they would get students to design the exhibition. I would tell them they could take the way that I organized the show and separate it into Parties and Protests Advertising Commerce, or if they want to organize by formal properties of the work, they can do that. And then the show look different every single time. So the students clearly had a lot of fun. This was at MCAD in Minneapolis, and this is a ‘zine making workshop that we did. This is at ADO, which is now closed, in Brooklyn and we did a RISO workshop there. People just took work from the show and collaged it. This person made a little calendar, which I thought was clever. And then they collaged and photocopied on the Riso, and made these cool posters.
This was at City Tech, New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn. This was at VCU. I also had a live band play. I wanted to have music at the show and I found a small band and they played music through the opening, which I thought was cool. I actually ended up DJing at several of my openings as well.
This is Nontsikelelo Mutiti’s research practice class at VCU that actually started making an addendum to Philip B. Meggs’ History of Graphic Design He wrote the book at VCU, so they were kind of trying to include my research and the artist in my show into his history which he doesn’t done yet.
And this is just a workshop in Baltimore. We did a version of the show called As, Not For Indexed, and we did repro’s of the work instead of my oversized posters of the work. We actually created everything to scale. And this is at a small arts library called the Menial Collection in Baltimore, really cool.
In San Francisco, students at CCA decided to exhibit all four parts of the show at four different locations. So you had to go to all four locations to see the entire show. This was at 2727 California street in Berkeley. This is W.E.B. DuBois at the CCA Oakland campus, which I think is closed now. These were wheatpasted on Valencia Street in San Francisco in the Mission. And then this was at CCA’s main campus in San Francisco. So you had to go to all the places to do it, but again, like the show itself is cool, but the most exciting part for me is that it became an educational tool. It became an exhibition design tool, while people also learn about all these designers that they’d never heard about.
This was a video just of the show in Seattle at the Jacob Lawrence gallery. This is like right when all those old people got sick and got COVID-19. I was out there and this is before it got bad, but this is a one of the last shows. There was one student on graphic design student, Razia who took on the charge of designing the exhibition and also did the graphic design for the show. I sent her all the assets and she just kind of ran with the brand identity system and did an amazing job.
The show was exhibited in two places. Part of the show was at University of Washington. The other part was at a studio called Civilization, and they printed it on glossy paper here, which was cool. It was on matte the other places. It was nice. They also had a little bit of a library, so they had the books that corresponded with the work in the show. So again, it becomes this educational tool beyond just the posters themselves.
This is just a video of students at UIC in Chicago, University Illinois Chicago campus installing the show. These are masters students, and they did a great job putting together the show. They came up with four different kinds of structures to exhibit the different pieces of the show, like the triangular stands there on the particle board were Black Data, the sandwich pieces were Advertising and Commerce, and then Parties and Protests were put on stands that looked like protest signs, so it was a nice mix. The music stuff was hung from the ceiling. So they came up with this whole system of exhibiting the show. They also did this really cool 3D painting of part of the poster which which I loved. It was amazing.
This is in Cincinnati at 21c Museum Hotels — just really cool. Funny story: I walked up to these people and they’re looking at me weird because I was taking photos, and I was like “I curated the show!” And they were just like, “oh,” they didn’t care.
This was in Athens, Ohio, at Ohio University.
This was one of the most exciting moments. This show went to Belgium. So is that a Arts Festival over there and I got sick, so I couldn’t go in February. But, they did it and it was really cool because they had to do all the didactic in English and French. So as you can see, you know, parts of the posters in both languages, which is amazing.
In February of 2019 I interviewed Phase 2 and then shortly after, he passed away. I am honored to have been the last person to capture his voice before he passed away. That interview is on a AIGA Eye on Design.
And then cool things happen because I’ll be on emailing with Phase 2 because he was a recluse, he didn’t want to talk on the phone and he only wanted to talk on email.
I got to get driven around San Francisco by Emery Douglas himself. He gave me and a couple of friends a tour of San Francisco. And then he brought us to his studio, which is just in his garage and his house, which is amazing. He’s such a he’s such a nice guy. He doesn’t have a cell phone, he only uses his landline and he was like, “Meet me here at 3:30,” and I was there and he showed up. It was crazy. And then I also got to meet say Cey Adams who’s just the pioneer — he did all of your favorite Def Jam album artwork and now he’s tired of graphic design, and just makes these really cool paintings.
And that’s it. That’s, that’s the end of it, I have to say. It’s been an amazing journey, and I wish I could have had the show at the College of New Jersey – but COVID-19. And again, the content of the show is less important than it having transformed into this educational tool. It’s democratic: anybody can take it, anybody can exhibit the show. It’s also not about me anymore. It’s the thing that that really extends way beyond me, the individual.
We’re tired of design heroes. Let’s just like make design better in general.