Kevin Blythe Sampson: Black and Blue

image of installation piece in Kevin Blythe Sampson's exhibition "Black and Blue"

This seems like an especially good time to take a look back at Kevin Blythe Sampson’s 2018 solo exhibition, “Black and Blue.”

Sampson is a multi-media artist whose work often takes a critical view of social, political, and cultural issues. A self-proclaimed “civil rights baby,” he was born and raised in Elizabeth, NJ. His father was a community leader whose passionate activism and knowledge of African American history provided Sampson with a lasting legacy of inspiration. After serving as a New Jersey police officer for twenty years—eleven of them as a composite sketch artist—Sampson moved to Newark, NJ, where he has lived and worked as a professional artist since 1992.

Sampson is a process-oriented artist who continually walks through his neighborhood in the Ironbound section of Newark, talking with people and collecting discarded objects—activities that he considers equal and essential components of his art practice. Retrieving and combining bits of cement, tiles, wood, fabric, bones, string, and other ephemera, he transforms them into intricate vessels, memorials, and power objects. Sampson sees traces of the personal histories and spiritual energy of his community embedded in the detritus of daily life.

image of the "Kron Printzen" by Kevin Blythe Sampson

The Kron-Printzen, 2014, mixed media

“Black and Blue” presented Sampson’s mixed-media sculptures, drawings, and a site-specific mural. The exhibition also featured several porcelain pieces Sampson created during an Arts/Industry residency at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, WI.  Struggling to reconcile his identity as an African American and a retired police officer, Sampson appropriated symbols from both sides of the media debate on policing and race to make a series of powerful ceramic sculptures responding to the Black and Blue Lives Matter movements.  For this community-based artist who derives his motivation and inspiration from the human condition, it is clear that no matter what medium he employs, Sampson sees art as a healing mechanism.

"Black and Blue" by Kevin Blythe Sampson

Black and Blue, 2017, porcelain

I recently checked in with Kevin Sampson to see how he is coping during the Covid-19 shutdown.

Mary Birmingham: Why did you decide to concentrate on making paintings during the Covid-19 shutdown? (As opposed to sculpture)

Kevin Blythe Sampson: I started painting again after about 20 years at the very end of February when the virus hit big time. My family, my kids had me on lockdown, I was barely able to leave the house at all. In order to keep my sanity, I returned to painting. I started out as an illustrator and am an accomplished airbrush artist, having taught the technique at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art for more than 16 years, so painting was more or less a return to my roots. Painting has become a way of healing myself and keeping my sanity during this crisis. Most days I paint from the time I get up until I go to bed and I have completed about 19 paintings in three months more or less.

MB: I know you like to walk through the neighborhood, talking to people, and collecting objects. Did you have to stop this completely, or are you able to do it on a limited basis?

KBS: I have had to limit my walks and talks in the neighborhood. But I have a core group of friends, like Ron Nitti and Jose Alves, who own and work in the woodshop downstairs, that I still talk to daily. Otherwise, I do a lot of video chats and talk on the phone a lot.

MB: As a “civil rights baby,” how do you feel about the current protests? Do you think there is something more universal going on now, and does that give you any hope? Or is it the same old story?

KBS: You always have to have hope and yes, I have seen it all or so I thought. At my age and having lived through so much of the civil rights movement, I tend to have a “watch and see” attitude.

I think that although these marches center on the Black Lives Matter movement, that there is so much more going on. A wise woman that I talk to daily said something at the beginning of the protests. I am speaking about my step-mother Gran Ruby; she said that the virus has become the great equalizer, that young white America got a taste of what Black America has been going through for years. No jobs, no insurance, frustration and an uncertain future.

The virus has shown us how badly communities of color have been suffering. It has shown us a breakdown in our health care systems, care for the mentally Ill, and a Black community that is suffering far beyond the white community.

But I don’t think that a great wave has washed over the country and removed racism, even amongst many of the marchers. Everyone has to look inside themselves and understand that although they might not know it, racism and prejudice go much deeper that many would like to believe.

Hope—one can’t live without it, but the most important thing is that we have to take all of this energy and VOTE. Truly, you can’t get anything done without it.

Here are a few examples from Kevin Sampson’s “Painting in Isolation” series:

"Strange Fruits" by Kevin Blythe Sampson

The Virus – Strange Fruits, 2020, Acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 in.

Goddess of the Jungle and the Zebra by Kevin Blythe Sampson

Virus Painting #12 – Goddess of the Jungle and the Zebra, 2020, Acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 in.
Inspired by the African legend that the Goddess of the Jungle got tired of watching a black donkey and a white horse fighting so she meshed them into one creature.

Medicine Bird by Kevin Blythe Sampson

Virus Painting#14 – Medicine Bird, 2020, Acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 in.
“Some Native American tribes considered the Pelican to be a medicine bird, and to see one in a dream meant that you had been granted spiritual powers.”

"Natarja, Lord of the Dance" by Kevin Blythe Sampson

Virus Painting #10 – Nataraja, Lord of the Dance, 2020, Acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 in.