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At St. John’s College, another side of artist Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence, (1917-2000), Boy with Kite, from the Hiroshima series, 1983, silkscreen. ©Jacob Lawrence, courtesy of Landau Traveling Exhibitions.
Jacob Lawrence, (1917-2000), Boy with Kite, from the Hiroshima series, 1983, silkscreen. ©Jacob Lawrence, courtesy of Landau Traveling Exhibitions. (HANDOUT)

For once, painter Jacob Lawrence’s trademark optimism and equanimity seem to have deserted him.

In “Playground” from the artist’s “Hiroshima” series, on view online through Dec. 18 at the Elizabeth Myers Mitchell Gallery’s website, five stylized figures gape toward the sky. The skin on their heads appears to have been peeled away, exposing red and white skulls. The figures are loosely arranged in a circle, their hands gripping cords from which flightless objects droop: a fish, possibly the black feathers of a bird. In the foreground stands a small, skeletal dog.

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The artist’s anguish is apparent. But so is his tenderness for these tortured souls.

“Jacob Lawrence approaches hard subjects, but always with a kind of compassion for humanity,” said Lucinda Edinberg, art educator for the gallery located on St. John’s College’s Annapolis campus. “He depicts unspeakable brutalities, and he doesn’t soft-pedal them. But he always aims to get to the other side.”

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Lawrence, who died in 2000, was renowned for his depictions of African American history and contemporary life.

Since the Mitchell Gallery typically plans its exhibitions two years in advance, Edinberg couldn’t have predicted how relevant the artworks would feel in 2020, a year characterized by a paralyzing pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests nationwide.

“Little did we know how on target these exhibits would seem,” she said, “given what’s going on right now politically, socially and economically.”

Jacob Lawrence, (1917-2000), Playground, from the Hiroshima series, 1983, silkscreen. © Jacob Lawrence, courtesy of Landau Traveling Exhibitions. - Original Credit: Jacob Lawrence
Jacob Lawrence, (1917-2000), Playground, from the Hiroshima series, 1983, silkscreen. © Jacob Lawrence, courtesy of Landau Traveling Exhibitions. - Original Credit: Jacob Lawrence (HANDOUT)

So when college administrators announced the campus would be closed for the rest of the year, Edinberg decided to mount the exhibits online. She hopes to bring the works back for an in-person exhibition.

She also thought that the vivid colors in silk-screen prints would translate better on a computer screen than the more textured and nuanced paintings by Lawrence on which they are based.

“Hiroshima” is the last of three of his series that the gallery put online sequentially that began in September:

“Genesis” consisted of eight silk-screens illustrating a passage from the Book of Genesis in the King James Bible and ran online from Sept. 2 through Oct. 6.

“Toussaint L’Ouverture” contained 10 of the original 15 prints inspired by the life of the general who led a 1791 revolt by enslaved people that toppled Haiti’s government. It ran Oct. 7 through Nov. 17.

Finally, “Hiroshima,” which opened Nov. 18, commemorates the 75th anniversary of the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Lawrence’s eight silk-screen prints depict eyewitness accounts of the explosion as described in John Hersey’s book, “Hiroshima.”

Alitash Kebede is the Los Angeles-based art dealer who owns the traveling exhibition. She and Lawrence were friends, and she said she thinks he would have approved of the online-only exhibition.

Painter Jacob Lawrence, shown in Seattle in this Nov. 21, 1991 file photo, June 9, 2000, at his Seattle home.
Painter Jacob Lawrence, shown in Seattle in this Nov. 21, 1991 file photo, June 9, 2000, at his Seattle home. (ROBERT SORBO / AP)

“Jake could always take something that maybe wasn’t so pleasant, like the pandemic, and turn it into something positive,” Kebede said. “I think he would be happy that since the exhibit is online, more people can view it.”

She doesn’t recall discussing the “Hiroshima” series with Lawrence. If the artist found something positive in the tragedy, Kebede doesn’t know what it was.

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“Those images are very disturbing,” she said. “They are meant to be."

Still, the colors are beautiful, she said, and inherently pleasurable. They almost force a viewer to keep looking, to take it all in, to start thinking about whether there is another side to the devastation and how to get there.

“Jake was always very interested in what could be built after something is destroyed,” Kebede said.

“Hiroshima” runs online through Dec. 18. To view the exhibit, visit sjc.edu/annapolis/mitchell-gallery/exhibits-and-programs.

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