Radcliffe Bailey searched for his family history in his art, but what he found were universal themes.
The Atlanta-based artist, featured at Anderson Ranch this week, has massive mixed-media renderings hanging on the vaunted walls of the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But they began humbly, he says, when his grandmother showed him some aged and time-worn family photographs 20 years ago.
In the winter after he graduated from art school, Bailey’s grandmother gave him hundreds of family photographs. They inspired him to make a series of paintings and sculptures that interwove his personal family history with African-American history — a continuing project. The pieces often use the photographs themselves, in multi-media work that layers meanings and symbols evoking both Bailey’s personal history along with America’s.
“I was trying to find a way to incorporate my family, and things that were personal in my work,” he says. “I felt like if I didn’t do that, all I would be doing is making references to art history.”
With his expansive vision, the personal illuminated the historical.
Bailey’s paintings often include railroad tracks, recalling his family trips to visit relatives as a child, his father’s work as an engineer, along with the Underground Railroad that sped slaves to freedom in the north. Positioned in a collage with a speaker playing a John “Trane” Coltrane saxophone riff, their meaning expands. Water hoses in a Bailey piece might recall both innocent childhood memories and the hoses turned on protesters in the segregated south.
His work has a rare tactile vibrancy about it. Trained as a painter and sculptor, he’s used the standard materials along with steel and glass, sugar cane and tobacco, sheet music, indigo and rum. Bailey tends to layer his work both physically and in meaning.
His 2011 sculptural installation, “Windward Coast,” was made from piano keys, piled to look like a choppy sea, with a plaster bust of a man floating in it. It recalls, at once, the migration of slaves over the Middle Passage from Africa and the African-American jazz idiom. But to some it also resembles the wreckage after Hurricane Katrina and, for Bailey, it summons nostalgic memories of fishing in ponds with his father as a kid.
He aims to fill his work with symbols that carry a multitude of meanings, not one message.
“I try to leave it open,” he says. “It doesn’t equal just one answer. It’s several answers.”
Bailey’s studio, he says, is strewn with found objects, odd materials and photographs — and always filled with the music of Coltrane and other jazz instrumentalists.
Bailey speaks today, July 5, at Anderson Ranch Arts Center, as part of the Snowmass Village institution’s Featured Artists Lecture Series. The lineup this summer also features prominent working artists like Marina Abramovic, the performance artist behind “The Artist is Present,” a two-and-a-half month project where she sat silently in the Museum of Modern Art’s atrium and spectators were invited to sit opposite her. Christo, of Christo and Jean-Claude, the artist couple behind “The Gates” in New York’s Central Park, closes the series next month.
When talking to students, Bailey says, he talks about his specific paintings and sculptures, along with his experience as an artist in the south, outside of the New York hub of the business. But, more importantly, he says, he also stresses the importance of an artist’s work ethic.
“Younger artists nowadays sometimes think about an artist as some kind of star, and they’re not as committed to the work as they are about the image of being an artist,” he explains. “I think it’s important to really have a solid studio practice and for young artists to discipline themselves.”
He remembers, fondly and with vivid specificity, his first experiences of putting in the hard work of an artist. It was in the late 1980s, when he was still a student at Atlanta College of Art.
“Everybody left on spring break, and I said, ‘Oh, let me just work,’” he recalls.
What followed was 12 hours, then a series of sleepless nights, without food or water, in his windowless campus studio.
“I kept going for literally two days because it felt so good,” he says.
The result, he says, was the beginning of a career in mixed media art. In the decades since, he’s kept chasing — and sometimes finding — that feeling of losing himself in the work.
“I find I’m always trying to get back to that space where I have no awareness and all I have to be concerned about is that paintbrush expressing myself,” he says.
At 43 and having logged years in the studio, he says, he now spends more time conceptualizing his work and thinking about it before he dives in.
“It becomes like a game of chess, where I’m playing myself,” he says.
Speaking to workshop students and aspiring artists at Anderson Ranch is particularly exciting for Bailey, he explains, because a visiting artist at his school set him on his own artistic path. He had been planning to focus on graphic design (“People say graphic design is what makes money, right?”) until the Cuban avant-garde painter Luis Cruz Azaceta spoke on his campus and inspired him to start making multi-media objects.
Hearing Cruz’s passion for his work led Bailey to combining painting and sculpture in his signature style.
“I remember hearing him talk and I felt like he was having so much fun,” he laughs. “So I hope that I would be able to share what he shared with me.”
Friday, July 5
Schermer Meeting Hall
2013 Anderson Ranch Featured Artists Lectures Series
All presentations are at 12:30 p.m. in Schermer Meeting Hall. Visit www.andersonranch.org  or call (970) 923-3181 for details and reservations.
Thursday, July 11
Born in 1981, Angel Otero is a contemporary visual artist specializing in painting. Otero’s work is characterized by an interest in personal history, expressionistic abstraction and Spanish Baroque painterly traditions.
Thursday, July 18
Based in Detroit, Hernan Bas graduated in 1996 from the New World School of the Arts in Miami. His work indulges in the production of romantic, melancholic and old world imagery, and makes reference to Wilde, Huysmans and other writers of the Aesthetic and Decadent period in literature.
Friday, July 19
Anderson Ranch’s 2013 National Artist Honoree, Bill Viola is a contemporary video artist. He is considered a leading figure in the generation of artists whose artistic expression depends upon electronic, sound and image technology in New Media.
Thursday, July 25
Serbian and based in New York, Abramovic is a performance artist who began her career in the early 1970s. Active for over three decades, she has recently begun to describe herself as the “grandmother of performance art.” Abramovic’s work explores the relationship between performer and audience, the limits of the body, and the possibilities of the mind.
Thursday, Aug. 8
Xaviera Simmons produces installations, sculptures, photographic, video and performative works. In 2013 Simmons will be a visiting critic and lecturer in the Graduate Department of Sculpture at Yale University and an Artist In Residence at Anderson Ranch.
Thursday, Aug. 15
Diana Thater is an American artist, curator, writer, and educator. She has been a pioneering creator of film, video and installation art since the early 1990s. She lives and works in Los Angeles, California.
Thursday, Aug. 22
Petah Coyne is a contemporary American sculptor and photographer. She is known for her large-scale sculptures composed of unconventional, and often organic, materials.
Friday, Aug. 23
A famed and controversial conceptual artist, Chrsto partnered for nearly 50 years with his wife Jeanne-Claude, who died in 2009, on large-scale works aimed at transforming both man-made and natural environments. His ongoing project is “Over the River,” a planned installation on the Arkansas River that would put nearly 6 miles of translucent silver fabric panels above the water between Salida and Canon City.