As described on the site, it is a ceramic sculpture with a tile base. Inside a large black box is a small black box with a white book. Next to the book is a line of small white trees glistening against a dark red sky. Stark. Beautiful. Visually compelling. Mysterious. What truths reside in that book? During a recent conversation, Cedric would not only tell me about the book but how life, especially its challenges, had shaped his unique artistic expression that combines, as he describes, language, symbols and dreams.
I first met Cedric at the Riverside Gallery at the Cambridge Community Center. We were exhibiting in the same show. I would later tell him that he reminded me of my brothers. He is a tall, slim, African American man. Very humble. And like them someone too easy to underestimate, a sentiment I was reminded of when he described how surprised people can be to discover that he, this quiet gentleman, has created such bold work.
Having seen his work in person and online, I was drawn to his use of color and texture and his unique juxtaposition of words and images. Why particular words, images, even the use of such colors? “They come to me in a dream. I pick up the broken pieces that others throw away as trash. In my dreams I see the completed piece. And then all I have to do is make that image real.”
Born in 1957, raised in Kansas City, Kansas, member of a large family, he remembers how his parents stressed working hard. “You had to believe in yourself to achieve success. There were always stories about that.” After college at the University of Kansas-Lawrence, he met a nice fellow, and moved to France for a year. In 1982 he returned to Kansas where “I met the love of my life.” Eventually they moved to Massachusetts where Cedric would work in healthcare as an advocate for individuals with disabilities. He would do so for thirty years before becoming a full-time artist. “But when did you actually start producing art?” I asked, and he said quietly, “When my lover was dying.”
Cedric’s lover had contracted HIV. As they tried to figure out next steps, they set him up in a home on Cape Cod. Cedric commuted but eventually his lover’s condition worsened and Cedric took leave to take care of him. “When I moved to the Cape, that’s when I began making art. You know how in Provincetown there are so many shops and they sell box kits for people to put their shells in and other trinkets. To keep my sanity, I started buying the boxes and putting them together and painting them. The paintings became more elaborate. People started paying attention. They encouraged me.”
The pieces evolved. “Provincetown is a mecca for people throwing out great trash. Beautiful pieces of wood and other materials. If some object called to me, I would bring it home, break it down. Later I’d have vivid dreams about the finished piece specific to the object I had picked up. That was the hard part. Figuring out how to make that concept real.”
Cedric’s lover died April 7, 1994. “There were a lot of dishes broken that day,” he said with a gentle laugh. Later he would add, “Art brought me back. Gave me perspective. Something to hold onto and communicate with.”
Since then, his art has continued to evolve. “I began reading books on ancient languages, studying heiroglyphs, and exploring how one translates pictures into language and vice versa.”
“Exploring these ideas of language and symbols is what I want to do especially with something that already exists, that people have tossed away. I can take it and make it my own. My inspiration comes from my imagination. There are no boundaries.”
See Cedric Harper’s artwork firsthand. His work will be on display this weekend, along with eight other fine artists, at the Riverside Gallery Exhibit, Words in our Work. Opening reception is Sunday, February 28, 3:00-5:00 pm. The exhibit runs through March 2016.
As for what’s in The Book of Truth? The answers will be shared in a follow-up post. Take care.