The Book Cooks
Joe Overstreet was born in Conehatta, Mississippi, in 1933. He spent his teenage years in California, where he studied art at various institutions, worked as a merchant seaman, and became an early beatnik. When he moved to New York in 1958, his art became abstract expressionist, though in the ’60s he also painted several social protest pieces, including Strange Fruit, inspired by Billie Holiday’s anti-lynching song, and worked as art director for Harlem’s Black Arts Repertory Theater/School. In 1974 he co-founded Kenkeleba House, a gallery space and artists’ center, where he still has his studio and is artistic director.
[The following extract, which focuses on the painting Strange Fruit (see above), comes from the second of my two interviews with Joe Overstreet, and took place in New York in the spring of 2004 – GL.]
Graham Lock: Did you ever see Billie Holiday live?
Joe Overstreet: I saw her not long before she died. She came to San Francisco and played at the Black Hawk club in 1956, I think, or 1957.
Lock: Was she still a powerful singer then?
Overstreet: Oh yes. I never really thought of her as a great singer; I thought of her as a great orator. Like a storyteller. You know, Sarah Vaughan could sing; Billie Holiday . . . her voice was gravelly but her timing was wonderful. She was very beautiful to watch and she took control of her stories. I was much younger then and captivated by her reputation. Her reputation was enormous at that time: she was “Lady,” everyone was totally overwhelmed by her presence. But I don’t profess to be a jazz expert by any means; I’m just a lover, a listener.
Lock: That’s okay. I’d like to hear about how you respond to music, how it affects your work.
Overstreet: Music allows me to work, to live. It keeps the beat going. I think jazz has certainly helped to keep us alive, to keep us inspired; and the blues too, rhythm and blues, rock ’n’ roll, all of those things. It’s probably our greatest contribution to America, to the world. Music has helped us, African American people and white, to bridge our cultural differences in this country.
Lock: Do you think “Strange Fruit” was important in that context? Not only because it was written by a white person and sung by a black person, but also because it brought lynching under the spotlight. I think it was one of the first times the subject had been broached in the context of a popular song.1
Overstreet: It was a story about a tragedy. And I think the only performer who could have put it in its proper context was Billie Holiday. With her voice and her background, the background of her pain. One of the things I’m learning more and more: it’s impossible to bring alive something that you don’t feel. It’s impossible to express a story or a feeling that you don’t have an understanding of.
Lock: Did she sing “Strange Fruit” when you saw her?
Overstreet: I don’t remember what she sang. I know the song from the album; I probably have it upstairs in my collection.2 But music is something that is so personal for me, in the sense that I’m ashamed of myself for even mentioning it, because I’ve known some great musicians, and if I tried to talk about . . . I mean, I would never sit and talk to my friend Jackie McLean about music. I’d be afraid! [Laughs.] We talk about painting.
Lock: Okay, let’s talk about painting. When we talked about your Strange Fruit last year, you said then it was to do with the fear of lynching. Given that you were born in Mississippi, was that a very personal . . .
Overstreet: Part of my life? No. It was only . . . you know when I really felt the most outraged at that time? I was in John Chamberlain’s studio—you know him? He’s a famous American sculptor—I was in his studio in ’63, ’64, about the time I painted Strange Fruit, and I picked up a magazine. There was a photograph where they had lynched—down in Kentucky or some place, I can’t remember—but they had these three bodies hanging, and the people were sitting out eating lunch.3 It’s a famous photograph. These were three young black men they had lynched, and one of them sort of reminded me of my brother. He was like an innocent kid and they maimed and disfigured him and the neck was stretched.
Overstreet: I had no real reason to fear then: I had a family that was very secure, very protective. I do remember the stories that were told, that I overheard, which were very frightening, about how people were treated. But I couldn’t be who I am today if I’d suffered such fear that I’d be afraid to reach out. I’m glad they protected me, so I’m not afraid to view people, one on one. I think that’s the only way we can look at each other. You look at me as who you feel I am; I see you as who I feel you are. And we didn’t have that, black people in the South—we weren’t allowed that freedom. That’s all it is—freedom to look at people without fear.
Lock: I don’t know if it’s possible to explain this, but when you decided to paint
Overstreet: One of the things about painting, I’d have to say one of the problems, if you have in your mind what the painting is going to be, is how you’re going to execute the painting. See, painting is about technique. No matter what anyone says, if it’s not executed well, no one’s going to look at it.
Lock: It has to work as a painting?
Overstreet: It has to work as a painting, as an art form. That’s very important. To execute an image takes a certain amount of skill and training. To bring out the impact of a feeling takes an extreme amount of emotion, of recall—emotional recall. So the two have to work together somehow. You have to have the technical ability to bring out the emotional recall.
Lock: Ann Gibson has talked about the rope in Strange Fruit . . . 4
Overstreet: It’s at a diagonal!
Lock: Yeah, and much of the painting is aligned to that diagonal, so the whole scene has an out-of-kilter feel, like the world has gone askew, morally askew.
Overstreet: [Nods.] And I made that rope really taut. I tried to express all the hatred that goes into lynching in the tautness of that rope.
Lock: Whereas the legs are limp, and they hang down vertically. Did you feel that showing the whole bodies would be too horrific?
Overstreet: There’s no need to show the whole bodies. You know they’re black. But I put in the jeans and sneakers to show these were young guys, kids.
Lock: And you turned the song title around, by giving the Klan those weird hoods?
Overstreet: Right. Those guys are strange, and they’re like fruit, their hoods, like apples, oranges. I got them in all different colors. I had fun doing that.
Lock: Were you alluding at all to the Aaron Douglas painting, An Idyll of the Deep South, where he depicts a lynching scene in a similar way—just the legs dangling?5
Overstreet: I don’t know about that. I love his paintings; I’ve probably seen it, but I never paid that much attention to it. I love his silhouettes, his outlines. Aaron Douglas was a very interesting painter.
Lock: I read a statement of yours, I think it was about Facing the Door of No Re-turn, where you said you were trying to put together the pain and the beauty.6 And talking about Strange Fruit, you’ve just said a painting has to work as art—is that where the beauty comes in? Does the painting still have to be beautiful?
Overstreet: The beauty is in the process, I think. The action is the beauty; that I get up and do something, that’s beautiful. The subject matter is something else, because to recall the emotion, I want to evoke what’s in me, I want it to come out. So if I’m making these colors that I think are lovely, and the execution of the line is beautiful, that’s the beauty of doing it. But I want the feeling to come out; I want myself to feel . . . not necessarily anger, but I want to be truthful to the way I really felt.
1. For more on “Strange Fruit,” see David Margolick, Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights (Philadelphia: Running Press Books, 2000).
2. Joe Overstreet was unable to locate his copy of the LP but since he remembers first hearing the song in the 1940s, it seems likely that the original 1939 recording is the one with which he is most familiar. Holiday certainly sings there with a tight, controlled intensity that may perhaps, on some unconscious level, have found its way into the tension of Overstreet’s rope. This 1939 recording was recently reissued in Billie Holiday, The Complete Commodore Recordings (1939, 1944; reissue, Commodore-GRP CMD 24012, 1997).
3. It was a photograph of a lynching that also prompted Abel Meeropol (Lewis Allan) to write the poem that became “Strange Fruit.” See Margolick, Strange Fruit, 38–39.
4. Ann Gibson, “Strange Fruit: Texture and Text in the Work of Joe Overstreet,” in Joe Overstreet: Works from 1957 to 1993, ed. Peggy Lewis, exhibition catalogue (Trenton: New Jersey State Museum, 1996), 27.
5. This painting, and the three others that make up Douglas’s Aspects of Negro Life series, can be seen at the Schomburg Center in Harlem.
6. “Our reality is that we have been violated through a passage of history that continues. With all the bitterness and anger, that position remains unchanged; thus, the paintings represent the duality of pain and beauty. Undermining the pain brings forth the beauty of the land and the people and the potential happiness of an ultimate resolution; so in this way, the paintings represent hope and optimism.” Joe Overstreet, “Facing the Door of No Return,” Joe Overstreet: Facing the Door of No Return: Recent Paintings, exhibition catalogue (New York: Kenkeleba Gallery, 1993), n.p.
Oxford University Press, Inc., © 2009.