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Sculptor James Earl Reid, whose work addressed racism and social justice, dies

James Earl Reid created a sculpture of jazz legend Billie Holiday.
James Earl Reid created a sculpture of jazz legend Billie Holiday. (Cook / Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

James Earl Reid, a sculptor who created the city’s monument to Billie Holiday, died of congestive heart failure July 18 at Harbor Hospital. He was 78.

Born at Stump Hope Farm in Princeton, North Carolina, he was the son of John Reid and Purnell Barnes White. His mother raised him in Baltimore’s Cherry Hill at the Banneker Homes.

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“He remembers hunger and tough times and his mother working long hours as a seamstress to support him and his sister... “ said a 1985 Sun story, which quoted Mr. Reid, “My earliest recollection has to do with my mother drawing pictures and as I remember it, she could draw very well.”

Mr. Reid was a Southern High School graduate. A teacher there, Al Kuzmicki, recognized his talent and assisted him in winning a scholarship to the Maryland Institute College of Art. The teacher also paid for Mr. Reid to study with local artists.

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Mr. Reid studied with artists Joseph S. Sheppard, Leonard Barr, Albert Sangiamo, Peter Milton and Tylden Street.

In an autobiographical statement, Mr. Reid said: “I knew that I really wanted to study with Joe [Sheppard]. The study of anatomy and the intense study of drawing with Joseph Sheppard actually enabled me to make a professional developmental transition from painting into sculpture, as my chosen profession. What I found was that the tactile medium of clay in sculpture was more important to me as my calling.”

He had studios on Mount Royal Avenue and on East Eager Street.

December 4, 1985 - James Earl Reid's nativity scene sculpture was rejected by park service as too political. Photo by Walter M. McCardell.
December 4, 1985 - James Earl Reid's nativity scene sculpture was rejected by park service as too political. Photo by Walter M. McCardell. (McCardell / Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

Mr. Reid earned a master’s degree in sculpture from the University of Maryland, College Park in 1970.

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He taught there for 11 years and was an assistant professor. He also taught at Spelman College, Atlanta University, Morgan State University, Goucher College and the Baltimore School for the Arts.

In 1979, Reid received his first major commission for a work of art when the City of Baltimore asked him to create a sculpture of jazz legend Billie Holiday, who spent part of her childhood living nearby on Argyle Avenue.

The sculpture was unveiled in 1985 and was described in The Sun as a “striking, 8-foot-6-inch-high, 1,200-pound likeness of the Baltimore-born Holiday, wearing a strapless gown, with her trademark gardenias in her hair and her mouth open in song.”

Erected on the site of the Royal Theater, where Ms. Holiday once performed, the sculpture rests on a 20,000-pound granite base that Mr. Reid intended, but was not originally installed.

“Because of a rush to judgment on the city’s part they put the statue on a two-tier cement pedestal, not a six-foot-high granite pedestal, as per my design,” he said in a 2015 Sun article.

When reinstalled, the statue’s base featured Mr. Reid’s panels — one of a Black man who had been lynched.

“Another design element, showing a crow eating a gardenia, represents the Jim Crow racism that ate the spirit of Black people, including Billie Holiday,’” Mr. Reid said in 2015. “This is a reality that people of color had to face, and it hasn’t ended. I’m trying to address this as an artist. It is my responsibility as an artist.”

In a 1989 Sun interview, Lena K. Boone, a Pennsylvania Avenue neighborhood leader, said: “His detail in terms of facial features impressed us. His statue looks very much alive to me. It looks like [Holiday is] going to walk down off of it. I think she looks like she’s singing ‘My Man.’ “

March 29, 1989 - James Earl Reid, sculptor who was commissioned to do a statue of the homeless for Advocate Mitch Snyder. His case is being heard by the Supreme Court today. Photo by Barbara Haddock.
March 29, 1989 - James Earl Reid, sculptor who was commissioned to do a statue of the homeless for Advocate Mitch Snyder. His case is being heard by the Supreme Court today. Photo by Barbara Haddock. (Haddock / Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

Mr. Reid later found himself in the center of a controversy that would take him to the United States Supreme Court.

Mr. Reid had been commissioned by the Community for Creative Non-Violence to create a sculpture for a Washington, D.C., Christmas pageant.His submission, Third World America: A Contemporary Nativity, featured a homeless family holding a newborn child over a steam vent, and featured the words “And still there is no room at the inn,” on the base.

Mr. Reid said he had been inspired by a homeless mother who lived under the Jones Falls Expressway.

The National Park Service refused to put the piece on display at first.

“The bigger issue, however, arose with the CCNV, when both they and Reid filed competing copyright claims on the work of art. After an initial District Court ruling favored CCNV, the case was taken to the Supreme Court, where Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote the decision in favor of Reid and all independent contractors,” said a 2015 Sun story.

Mr. Reid said in an autobiographical statement: “The case brought international attention to concerns for the rights of artists to retain creative and intellectual property.”

Over his many years in Maryland’s arts community, Mr. Reid made many friends.

“I’d pick him up and give him a ride to go check on one thing that might turn into a string of driving around and taking care of small errands,” said a friend, C. Ryan Patterson, who serves on the Maryland State Arts Council as a public art project manager. “It was never a bother because he was so generous with sharing stories about his experiences as an artist over the years and his vision for what he wanted to see happen with his artworks.”

A memorial service is planned for Mr. Reid’s birthday, Sept. 9. A place and time has not been set.

Survivors include his two daughters, Robin Reid and Sheri Rose, both of Baltimore; and a grandson. His son, Steven Reid, died in 2017. His marriage to Linda Reid ended in divorce.

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