Standing in the middle of nearly 40 drawings documenting the young life of Frederick Douglass, artist Mark Priest rebuffed the idea that he was ever much of a scholar of history.
But his drawings and paintings for more than a decade now belie that self-appraisal.
Priest’s most recent drawings, now on exhibit at University of Louisville’s Main Street gallery in its Cressman Center, document the early years of Douglass, the escaped slave whose writings and oratory became the voice of the abolitionist movement leading up to the Civil War and a voice for equality for African Americans and women after it.
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For Priest, a U of L associate professor of painting and drawing since 1993, Douglass is just the latest historical figure he has worked to capture in detailed drawings and paintings. Other projects have documented the life of Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who became famous for helping other slaves travel northward to freedom in the 1800s.
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“For me, this research has been a huge education. You don’t get this in school,” Priest said of his multiple series of drawings and paintings that vividly imagine the lives of 19th century abolitionists and the circumstances of slavery.
The paintings of Douglass, called the Frederick Douglass Series, are being shown concurrently with three other collections of paintings at the galleries in Schneider Hall on U of L’s Belknap Campus under the overarching title “Underground Railroad 2015: Works by Mark Priest.” Story continues below the gallery.
Those works include drawings and paintings from Priest’s Tubman Series; his Nalle Series, based on Charles Nalle, a runaway slave who had made his home in Troy, N.Y.; and the Stewart’s Canal Series, based on the site of Joseph Stewart’s Canal built by slaves in Maryland.
The exhibit at the Cressman Center focuses on scenes Priest has imagined from Douglass’ young life in Maryland, spanning from his toddler years spent with his grandmother through his childhood as a slave under several owners. Priest’s drawings of ink on paper, some with added acrylic paint and charcoal, emanate energy. Their vigorous and often detailed lines give a sense of motion and vitality to the scenes and the people portrayed in them.
“Douglass wrote so much and in so much detail,” Priest said. “He really defined what it was like being a slave. He described the slave owners and the overseers in detail.”
In one drawing, Douglass is learning to read from a woman who innocently taught the young boy, not knowing this kind of tutelage to a slave was illegal — until her slave-owner husband scolded her for it. In another, Douglass is fighting against his owner.
One huge drawing shows Douglass sitting still and watchful on a train as he is heading north of the Maryland border to make his escape. Then there is a scene removed from slavery with Douglass standing on the deck of a boat watching the spectacular 1833 Leonids meteor shower. (He was in the process of being moved from one slave owner to another.)
The exhibit also includes boxes, with one displaying the books that helped Douglass learn to read — the Bible; a spelling book; a dictionary; and the Columbian Orator, the collection of political essays, poems and dialogues used in many schools in his day. Another shows the materials that Douglass would have used when he worked in a shipyard and learned the trade of ship caulking.
The paintings and drawings in Priest’s three other series are on exhibit at the Belknap Campus galleries. They have the same energy as those in the Douglass Series, but the paintings there are injected with powerful colors.
“The paint itself has power that I’m trying to harness to project the image,” Priest said.
Many of his acrylic paintings radiate with splashes of yellow, red and orange. In several paintings from his Charles Nalle Series, the yellows heighten the tensions of scenes illustrating the attempt of slave catchers to apprehend Nalle.
Priest’s combination of colors burn in “Building Stewart’s Canal” create a striking drama. The scene depicts the backbreaking work of the slaves forced to build a Maryland canal that was used to transport oak logs that were in high demand in the shipbuilding industry following the War of 1812.
“What they had to go through moved me to make these drawings and paintings,” Priest said.
In the painting, the sky and the ground create a glowing landscape marked by shadows of men swinging axes and other tools and pulling oxen and wagons. The natural world seems pushed aside. In the painting’s shadowy lower corner, two cranes crouch in some of the only remaining vegetation.
Priest, a Louisville native who earned his undergraduate degree in painting in 1987 from U of L and his graduate degree in painting from Yale University in 1989, began to plunge into all this history around 2002 after his son Balthus recited a paper about Harriet Tubman to him and his wife, Licia Priest. Before that he had created many paintings reflecting the workers on the actual railroad. For nearly seven years, he worked as a laborer and repairman for the 5,700 miles of the old Louisville & Nashville Railroad tracks.
The story his son read aloud about Tubman set him on a new path.
“It was a true story, and I thought about how vivid it was,” he said. “Then I started with the Harriet Tubman series.”
Priest then began to do more than read books about Tubman. He began making pilgrimages with his wife to areas of Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay where Tubman once lived. Those trips led him early on to local historians. Priest called John Creighton and J.O.K Walsh valuable resources for his research on the nearly dozen trips he has made to the Chesapeake Bay area. Creighton works with the Harriet Tubman Organization in Cambridge, Md., and Walsh served for 27 years with Maryland’s Caroline County Historical Society.
Creighton said that before he met Priest, he mainly had worked with writers and historians.
“I think Mark was the first artist I worked with and the most persevering to work at visually documenting stories from Tubman’s life,” said Creighton, who recalled in a telephone conversation how he first met the Priests and their son while giving a historical tour for the Harriet Tubman Organization.
Creighton described Priest as being “entranced by the landscapes” on his trips and asking questions about how it would have looked during the 19th century when Tubman was secretly traveling through the wetlands and forests of the region. Creighton recalled taking a kayak with Priest along a remote waterway and almost getting stuck on a mudflat.
When Priest began considering a series on Douglass, who was born less than 30 miles from Tubman, he worked closely with Walsh but continued trips with Creighton.
Last year, Creighton took him to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, where the artist was able to talk to the workers who maintain the museum’s fleet and learn about ship caulking, which Douglass did as a slave.
Priest also sought out Zoe Trodd, a professor and chair of American literature at England’s University of Nottingham who has a book about Douglass coming out in October. Her research led her to seek out photographs of Douglass and discover that he was the most photographed American of the 19th century. Trodd shared some of the images of Douglass from his younger years with Priest.
“I had seen his Harriet Tubman Series, so I was excited to share the photographs with Mark so he could get a good sense of Douglass’ face and how he changed over time,” she said.
Trodd said Priest’s images are not only important in recognizing and understanding the history of slavery in the United States, but also in bringing attention to the slavery that exists throughout the world today.
“I’ve seen groups and politicians campaigning against slavery start to look toward Tubman and Douglass and use their depictions to stop human trafficking and contemporary slavery,” Trodd said. “Every time we reimagine these figures who were responsible for one of the world’s great human rights movement, we can see their stories as inspiration, as lessons and as legacies when we have more people enslaved than at any other time in human history.”
Priest has already committed so much time to making so many paintings related to the people who struggled for freedom from slavery, and he will likely continue to do so, especially creating images pertaining to Tubman.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be finished with this,” he said. “There is just so much about her life, and I have ideas that are so vivid about it. I see images for this. But which one do I do first?”
Reporter Elizabeth Kramer can be reached at (502) 582-4682. Follow her on Twitter at @arts_bureau.
‘UNDERGROUND RAILROAD 2015’ BY MARK PRIEST
The exhibit at two University of Louisville galleries includes four series of paintings and drawings by Priest: The Frederick Douglass Drawing Series; the Nalle Series, based on Charles Nalle; the Tubman Series, based on Harriet Tubman; and the Stewart’s Canal series, based on the site of Joseph Stewart’s Canal in Maryland.
The Frederick Douglass Drawing Series
When: Through Feb. 28. Gallery hours are 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday
Where: U of L Cressman Center for Visual Arts, 100 W. Main St.
Information:louisville.edu/art/ and www.markapriest.org; (502) 852-0288
The Nalle Series; The Tubman Series; and Stewart’s Canal Series
When: Through Feb. 28. Gallery hours are 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday; 1-5 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Schneider Hall Galleries, U of L, Belknap Campus, Schneider Hall
Information: louisville.edu/art/ and www.markapriest.org; (502) 852-6794