Henrietta Mantooth makes big, gutsy paintings that brim with life. Figures, often arranged in crowds or family groupings, animals and birds, flowers and other nature imagery are depicted in colorful gobs and swirls of paint. She paints ordinary people — refugees, rebels, farmers, displaced families — from around the globe whose stories of displacement are culled from the news but are distilled into narratives that explore the essence of the human condition. The story-telling is never literal but from the heart and hand; the paint itself, in blooms of deep red, blue or green, intermingled with black, is raw, expressive, and direct, evocative of the combines and collages of Robert Rauschenberg in their dynamic pairing of the graphic and painterly and of the figure-packed canvases of German Expressionist Max Beckmann in their composition and pathos. Mantooth describes her work as a kind of “witnessing,” in which her protagonists have a voice and victimhood and grief are replaced by empowerment and joy. Her figures are embraced and released by nature; flowers bloom and birds glide amid the floating faces or confining grids.
Mantooth, who divides her time between New York City and Lake Hill in Woodstock, is now having a solo show at the Byrdcliffe Kleinert/James Center for the Arts. “Henrietta Mantooth: Jailbirds & Flowers,” which opens Friday, October 24, followed by a talk by the artist at 3 p.m. Saturday, October 25 and opening reception from 4 p.m.-6 p.m. that day, is inspired by the inequities and unsafe conditions of the nation’s prisons. The centerpiece of the show is two large installations, entitled Jailbird and The New Jim Crow, which depict birds behind bars. A panel discussion with experts on the New York State prison system will take place on November 15.
Mantooth’s work reflects a long, rich, extraordinarily creative life. Born in Kansas City, Missouri, the artist, who is approaching 90, spent 18 years in Latin America working first as a journalist and then as a painter. She studied with cubist Andre Lhote in Paris during a seven-month sojourn in Europe and settled in New York City in the mid 1950s, where she acted and designed sets for Circle Rep theater company. She taught at York College — The City University of New York, in Jamaica, Queens, for 15 years, and has been the recipient of grants from the Joan Mitchell Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Pollack-Krasner Foundation, and the New York Foundation for the Arts, among other organizations. Her work has been shown at the Queens Museum of Art, the Sao Paulo Biennial, the Museums of Modern Art in Sao Paulo and Bahia, Brazil, and numerous galleries in New York and other cities in the U.S., Brazil, and Italy. Mantooth speaks fluent Spanish and Portuguese and is a member of Actors Equity and SAG.
Almanac’s Lynn Woods recently spoke to Mantooth, who was at her home in New York, by phone.
LW: Describe your installations at the Kleinert.
HM: Jailbirds and The New Jim Crow are on the stage area and on the sides are a couple of paintings concerning jailbirds. The rest of the show consists of my general work. The installations are on brown paper and corrugated cardboard and are painted with acrylic; the others are a combination of canvas and paper and some have drawing.
I’ve worked a lot doing visuals for theater with very open-minded directors, where I’d paint the whole floor. That’s kind of influenced my studio painting.
LW: You use the simplest of materials in your art.
HM: It comes from my childhood. When I was a kid, my sister and I were left alone during the day because my parents had to work. We spent summers in a big house in the country and there was a big mud hole out front. We used any materials we had —cardboard, paper, Big Chief tablets [bought at the five and dime]. We made objects out of mud and corn silk. We made paints out of bluing, which was used to make clothes look white, and berries from a mulberry bush; my sister discovered if you boil onions you could make yellow. We had a lot of fun because nobody bothered us. Nobody paid us much attention but nobody discouraged us either.
LW: Bars and birds would seem to represent opposite ideas.
HM: I want to explore how it feels to be behind bars when you cannot fly away. Birds are often in cages, and while most in our environment are treated with respect and care, prisoners behind bars are not treated with respect. You are liable to be treated not only with disrespectful words but also physical violence, including sexual abuse. Right now the U.S. has the largest prison population of all so-called Western countries. It’s become a big business. The more people who are in jail, the more income, and a lot of people are in jail who’ve done minor actions, like stolen a pair of jeans. According to the book The New Jim Crow, the great majority of prisoners are black or Hispanic. I spoke to a person the other day who works in the prisons in New York and she said in her ten years of working there, she’s only had two Caucasians.
LW: What are the roots of your interest in issues of social justice?
HM: I was political even as a kid. It was the time of the Great Depression and there was a lot of poverty. I grew up with lot of racial prejudice, because Kansas City was very segregated. I had a couple of uncles who at age 15 and 16 became morphine addicts. They were country boys, and one got on morphine when he went to the dentist. I watched these uncles go in and out in jail, get picked up as vagrants, and sent to a place called The Farm. They were the nicest two people on that side of the family, and they ended up really badly.
My sister was three years older and a wonderful artist. I thought art belonged to her and I should choose something else. Since I had to make a living, I chose journalism. I went to Latin America and got a job as a stringer for The New York Times, then a paper based in Venezuela. I was there when the country had its first democratically elected government, in the late 1940s.
I was very involved in politics. I got this great job in Venezuela traveling around with a photographer interviewing farm families. We’d go out in a Jeep and I’d write up my interviews for the local papers, which sometimes were sent to the U.S.