Jeffrey Hargrave deals with angst through art

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 7, 2011

By Katie Scarvey
Artist Jeffrey Hargrave had a tough childhood growing up in Salisbury, where he attended Overton Elementary, Knox Middle, Henderson and Salisbury High schools.
He was picked on because his family was so impoverished — “dirt, dirt, dirt poor,” he emphasized recently during a phone interview. His home life was challenging since some family members were struggling with drug abuse, although he says his family was a loving one.
Hargrave also had to contend with racism in his life.
“My best friend growing up was white,” he says. “He would call me the ‘n-word.’
Since he grew up in a religious environment, Hargrave would forgive his friend, he says — but then, “he’d do it again.”
Experiences like this, one senses, left an indelible mark on Hargrave and inform his art, which unflinchingly confronts a catalogue of black stereotypes. His work, he says, deals not only with race but religion, sexuality and pop culture.
Hargrave has a show opening Oct. 14 in New York City, where he has lived since 1997. Also exhibiting is one of his early mentors from Salisbury, James Donaldson. The two-man show is called “Insight.”
Viewers may be uncomfortable with the intentionally crude, cartoonlike images in Hargrave’s work, which co-opts some of the most offensive African-American stereotypes.
Hargrave hasn’t shied away from a controversial approach. He titled one of his previous shows “The Nigger Inside Me.”
“It’s really about my own inner angst about being a black man,” he says of his art.
But it’s more than personal. He also wants people to understand that “racism still exists,” he says.
“To grow and develop is to face and confront disturbing images,” he adds. As a society, we evolve when we face our demons, he says.
Although Hargrave speaks openly about a childhood that was in some ways painful, he was lucky, he says, that people who saw something in him stepped up to offer help and support.
One was Donaldson. Hargrave, born in 1973, grew up in a Salisbury neighborhood called Jersey City, and Donaldson lived up the street.
“I met him through my brother Kevin,” who is also an artist, says Hargrave, who has five brothers and sisters.
He recalls that Donaldson had painted images of birds on the brick chimney of his house.
“We would sit in his living room and talk about art,” Hargrave says. “I confided in him what I was going through.”
Donaldson would even sometimes pick him up from his job late at night when he didn’t have a ride, he says.
The men have stayed in touch over the years, and when Hargrave travels back to North Carolina, he sees Donaldson.
Their art is linked, Hargrave says, in the sense that they both deal with issues of being black in the South, although Hargrave notes that his work is more political than Donaldson’s.
Donaldson wasn’t the only one who stepped up to help Hargrave when he needed it.
“I feel really lucky and blessed to be surrounded by angels,” both then and now, he says.
One was a teacher at Overton Elementary named Mrs. Clark (he can’t remember her first name and hasn’t been able to track her down), who would open her house up to him, feeding him and letting him swim.
Hargrave also speaks gratefully of artist Cara Reische, who got him interested in applying to the North Carolina School of the Arts, where he was accepted and attended during his last year of high school. She also inspired him to apply to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, where he attended from 1993-1995.
“I never knew someone could be so talented,” Hargrave says of Reische.
Another one of Hargrave’s angels was Jimmy Hurley.
“When I got to the North Carolina School of the Arts (his last year of high school), I didn’t know how I’d pay for it. My aunt introduced me to James Hurley. He paid for my whole year. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know what I would have done.”
Hargrave also has kind words for Piedmont Players Theatre director Reid Leonard, who cast him in several youth productions, including “Alice in Wonderland.”
He also found support at Waterworks Visual Arts Center, where he worked as a volunteer.
“That was a great thing, too,” he says. In 2000, he was part of a four-person show there.
Hargrave considers his art to be therapeutic, a way to exorcise the painful images, to rob them of whatever power they may have had.
After 9/11, he particularly needed the healing power of art. He was living near the World Trade Center at the time. As he was leaving his building for a doctor’s appointment, he witnessed the explosion.
“I got so depressed for a year I could barely function,” he says. Getting back to painting helped him immensely, he says.
Hargrave’s art these days is sometimes described as folk art, but the style is the conscious choice of a skilled professional whose work has been reviewed in the New York Times and The New Yorker.
Although he says he used to get offended when people spoke of him as a folk artist, he doesn’t mind it now.
“I love it,” he says. “One of the best artists I’ve seen in New York is this homeless guy who sells his work in the subway. I love the whole ‘naive’ thing.”
“I want to be the serious contemporary artist,” he says. “I can be open to many different kinds of art.”
A turning point in his style of art came in 1997, he says, after he moved to New York and was taking a class at Cooper Union.
It seemed a risk, but he did a self-portrait of himself as Aunt Jemima, he recalls. “That was the start of it,” he says.
Hargrave has been an artist-in-residence at the Millay Colony, Henry Street Settlement, and Art in General. He’s done numerous group shows, he says, including one in Milan, Italy and another in Johannesburg, S. Africa.
He’s also had solo exhibitions at The Phatory, John Jay College and Exhibit A Gallery in New York.