“Slavery’s Chill” Sets the Record Straight
Sometimes the best way to educate is to startle and disturb.
Jon McDonald, a working artist and professor of illustration at Kendall College of Art and Design, does those things and more with a series of 12 paintings, oil on canvas, showing at Grand Rapids Art Museum through April 14.
One of McDonald’s paintings in the series entitled “Slavery’s Chill” depicts the dark, dirty and disturbing scene inside a confined ship cabin where chained slaves went mad, starved, were overrun with disease or killed themselves to escape the misery.
“They were crushed in there cheek to jowl,” McDonald said of slaves. “Chained to the board and chained to someone else. If someone died, they stayed there until a deckhand came to take the body out.
“Eventually someone would come and unhook the body and throw them overboard,” he said. Those who stayed on the ship were left to wonder why, only partially understanding what had become of their lives, of their families, of their dreams.
At the market, a white boy holds a puppy that’s certain to have a better life than the painting’s commoditized humans.
On the plantation, slave owners and overseers carry leashes and guns while dogs scurry freely and buzzards circle in the sky. A noose hangs empty, eerily from a tree branch. The skies hold foreboding cloud formations.
“If you think you could’ve gotten away, you were crazy. You couldn’t,” McDonald said. “You were boxed in. You couldn’t go to the courts, you couldn’t go to the churches. You were doomed.
“If you decided to run, they would cut off your toes, castrate you, beat you, or occasionally kill you,” he said.
The chill of these travesties remains with us.
Dr. David M. Rosen, president of Kendall College of Art and Design, called McDonald’s work both disturbing and beautiful.
“Jon’s work shows the power of art to initiate difficult and important conversations, and to inspire significant positive change,” Rosen said.
For McDonald, the paintings are an expression of truth around the damage caused by slavery. The portraits and illustrations move from the African villages during the capture to the boat scenes, replete with weeks or months of rape and torture. They move from the marketplace that sold “choice negroes” to the plantation where generation upon generation was born to servitude. And eventually Slavery’s Chill comes to some relative form of freedom.
He started on the journey with this collection of misaligned and mistreated subjects as a way to teach his grandson in the earnest and shameless fashion that mainstream education mostly fails.
“What I wanted to do was set the record straight for him; set the record straight on slavery and all the things it set into motion,” McDonald said. “This type of experience isn’t what you’re going to get from high school or other places you might learn about this part of our history.
“I thought that if I could create a series that deals with slavery from beginning to end, that I would be doing something unlike anything else that’s been done, and that I could do it in a way that would have much more emotional and social impact than if I were just to paint a depiction of the underground railroad and then just sit on it for 20 years,” McDonald said. “This approach was the only one that was going to work for me.”
McDonald was born in Jackson, Mississippi and moved with his family to Grand Haven, Mich. at the age of five. He contends that one of the reasons his parents moved north was because he was unafraid to look white people in the eye, something unspoken yet disapproved of that had carried on from days of slavery even into the artist’s early life.
“There was blatant racism in Jackson, then when I moved to Grand Haven, everyone and everything was very nice,” he said. “But the discrimination was still there, a couple layers down. It was less about color and more about who was poor and who was wealthy.”
So McDonald was victimized from both angles, and through all the silence and doubletalk, he landed on a realization.
“This stuff happens to Jews and gays and women too,” he says. “It’s all born in the same place, and it will continue until we make it stop.”
The artist vows for the historical accuracy of the depictions. No frivolous images were allowed, nothing created for effect. He painted 12 pieces for Slavery’s Chill, one for each month of the year, not necessarily for a calendar, but to make a statement that this type of discourse should remain available; not just during February, Black History Month, “when we can actually come out in the open,” McDonald said.
"Leaving Home," the first in the series
McDonald hopes his work speaks to his students, and hopes it helps explain the pain we’ve doled out. He feels his role as teacher and head of the department requires that his students see him as the working artist as well.
“It’s essential,” McDonald said. “I feel like we grew up with a stupid generation, really. That sounds harsh, but it’s true. The younger people today don’t think the way we did. They don’t have the fear we’ve seen. These kids are the ones who really will grow to change.”
Julie Burgess, a curatorial assistant at the GRAM, said McDonald spoke to an audience of more than 140 people at the opening night gathering for Slavery’s Chill.
“We were excited about such a positive response to someone we consider to be a local treasure,” Burgess said of McDonald. “We hope this exhibition will continue to be seen by a wide variety of museum visitors, from Grand Rapids and beyond. We think it is important for art to challenge people to think about the important issues of our past, present and future.”
The collection first showed in Grand Haven and Muskegon, and hung at a few other West Michigan locations before landing at the GRAM. The show is in search of a buyer or buyers, to donate the paintings to the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University in Big Rapids.
~ Patrick Revere