Last June, a chartered van left Saginaw Valley State University and rolled 100 miles southeast to Detroit. The riders were my art students, and their mission was to compare and contrast the murals at the Detroit Institute of Art by Diego Rivera with those at Wayne State University’s Manoogian Center by Ann Arbor artist Jon Onye Lockard.

Lockard has been a visible presence in Ann Arbor since the mid-1960s. After art study in Detroit and in Canada, he started out painting portraits in a State Street home interiors shop. Then he had a studio on Fourth Avenue, about where Gallery Project is now. I first saw his paintings in the window of that gallery when I was barely into my teens.

Lockard’s art is about African American struggle, its pain and joy. His visual style is assertive, athletic, muscular, buxom, bountiful, busting out all over. His oil-and-acrylic painting “Life Dance” is the most loving exploration I’ve seen of the female form in our time–a voluptuous dancing black woman, atop rows of muted movie-frames unspooling from her lover’s memory of each of her parts. Lockard lent the work to a retrospective show at SVSU two years ago. Why isn’t she in a top museum collection?

The Manoogian murals are a five-panel cycle titled “Continuum,” and my students and I see something new every time we study them. There are figures inspired by Mexican muralists Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and New York painter Harvey Dinnerstein. There’s a baroque swirl of figures ascending and falling in the panels depicting African American experience, and a variegated splendor in those that embody the historic cultures of Africa. While the continent’s ancient civilizations slumber, a male figure is ripped westward, as so many Africans were. Women are depicted proudly pregnant in their homelands, or groaning in childbirth under antebellum slavery. And there’s a utopian, almost futuristic, black family with an only child whose athletic, attractive parents might have been inspired by O. J. Simpson and Nichelle Nichols (Lieutenant Uhura on the first Star Trek).

Those images are a reminder that the murals are now thirty years old. Lockard painted them during a Michigan winter in an ad hoc backyard studio made of lumber and plastic sheeting. I’ve viewed a lot of community murals, in northern and southern California, Philadelphia, and Dakar, and count these panels among the best. Certainly “Continuum” is one of the top ten or dozen public artworks in Michigan and a fine response to Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry,” by a Detroit-born artist who grew into awareness a generation later.

Born in 1932, Lockard grew up in the time when Detroit industry was strong and vital, but also when black people were largely invisible in the mass media (or flattened into limited, often subservient social roles). Perhaps that’s why he gives his painted figures maximum solidity and presence by shaping them under “Hollywood” lighting, with a key light (often in a hot color) from one direction and a fill light (often cool) from another. His art says, “Black is Beautiful, and black people are undeniable.”

Though Lockard won mural and portrait commissions around the Midwest, his public profile diminished locally after the 1981 Ann Arbor Art Fair. That year, the long-exhibiting artist was bounced from the original fair for entering two stained glass windows that he had designed but that were fabricated by a student. Lockard responded with a lawsuit hoping to crack open the fair’s secretive, clubby processes. “He has a reputation for being … difficult,” one local art administrator opined a decade later. But I still agree with WEMU’s Arwulf Arwulf that the event “ain’t art and it ain’t fair.”

For about four decades Lockard taught at the U-M and Washtenaw Community College, and he is numbered among Ann Arbor’s great teachers. My own parents, like many local residents of European ancestry, were queasy about Ann Arbor’s racial integration in the 1960s, yet suggested I make use of a semester away from my out-of-state college by studying at WCC with Lockard. They compared his observational portrait technique to their own bravura favorite, John Singer Sargent.

Lockard didn’t want his students paying tuition to lazily “do their own thing,” and his classes were dedicated to learning to represent the human figure accurately. No thrashing around with media you weren’t ready for: you had to demonstrate skill in drawing a model in a full range of values with a single black or brown Conte crayon before using both together, then move on to mastery of chalk pastels before starting to paint.

Lockard’s own paintings use light, chiaroscuro, and value range adapted from classical European style, then dialed up to eleven, to create incredibly solid forms in cramped and complicated visual spaces. He then alternates these forms with areas of decorative flat color. “It looks very Seventies” sniffs an art historian at SVSU. But I remember that decade as a crucial one in both politics (the first African American mayors in Detroit and Ann Arbor) and popular culture (many of the same modeling techniques were adopted by comic book cover illustrators like Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo). Academia was still under the spell of abstraction, but even then, one could argue that Lockard’s artwork had an influence on campus. Two alums from that era, Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw, creatively resisted abstraction and embraced figuration. Today, they’re blue-chip international art stars, commissioning billboard painters to execute their designs in mural-scale paintings and installations in museums in Europe and the U.S.

The Postmodern era has made room for successful African painters in London, Chicano muralists in California, and new African American artists in the critical eye. It’s definitely Lockard’s turn to be studied, debated, and appreciated. So when I teach my biennial mural class again next year, another crop of students can expect to climb into a van to see his masterwork in Detroit.

The following letter appeared in the the March 2011 Ann Arbor Observer:

To the Observer:

I have two beefs with the latest issue:

(1) The anti-union bias of Jim Leonard’s article on pension funds.

(2) The slur against the [Original] art fair’s jurying process in Mike Mosher’s article. If it was then (which I am not competent to evaluate), it is sure no longer “secretive” and “clubby.”


Laura Strowe