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Schroeder Cherry’s Pillars of the Community

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For artist Schroeder Cherry, message is synonymous with materials. On display in February at the Gallery at Baltimore City Hall, Cherry’s assemblage paintings combine wooden bits and painted portraits with common everyday household items like keys, playing cards, dice, and combination locks. His solo exhibition, Barbers and Porters: Pillars of the Community, drew parallels between these two unique Black American occupations, where hospitality, attention to detail, and a devotion to one’s craft has manifested in stability and strength within the Black community, both historically and in the present. On opening night, Cherry’s show broke all sales records for exhibitions at City Hall, the red dots proliferating across the walls a testament to a long and well-respected career in the arts.

He wasn’t always known primarily as an artist, though. Cherry’s background as an art educator, administrator, and museum professional is multifaceted and expansive. He studied painting and puppetry at the University of Michigan, earning a BA, and then completed a master’s degree in museum education from George Washington University, and a doctorate in museum education from Columbia. Cherry spent the next thirty years building a successful career as a museum educator and curator at various institutions including the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Baltimore Museum of Art. Cherry became Deputy Director for Museums and, later, Counselor to the Director, at The Institute of Museum and Library Services in Washington, DC, an organization designed to evaluate and support museums and libraries through grantmaking, research, and policy development. Throughout all of his various roles as a museum professional, Cherry’s inner artist motivated him to combine institutional goals with his own gifts as a puppeteer, historian, and storyteller.

Except for teaching a museum studies class at Morgan State University, Cherry is now a full-time artist whose practice reflects the strength of his training as a painter but also his decades working in museums. His creative practice still includes making and animating puppets, but has evolved into visionary assemblages, which carry the lineage of storytelling portraiture by artists like Jacob Lawrence, Kerry James Marshall, and Faith Ringgold, earning him an exhibit at the Walters Art Museum as a Sondheim finalist in 2019.

As a series, Barbers and Porters explores the folklore around these two historic professions which led to the rise of a Black middle class. Cherry depicts the Pullman train porters who worked on luxury railroad sleeping cars in the late 1880s-1920s, whose travel experiences influenced the Great Migration and whose wages and tips sent their families to college, creating a new educated class of Black men and women. Cherry’s barbers appear more contemporary but no less influential, emphasizing the way Black barbershops continue to function as safe havens for community and incubators for political organizing and cultural production.

Through evocative, material-laden storytelling, Cherry challenges conceptions of American history, as well as traditional divisions between art and craft, where functional materials like wood, fiber, repurposed hardware, and household objects are combined into dimensional paintings, scenes that feel purposefully decorative but also mysterious in the way that they ask questions of the viewer. Each of Cherry’s assemblage portraits creates a sense of familiarity, especially through the everyday objects and materials he repeatedly incorporates as symbols for larger questions and preconceived notions of American history and culture.

Schroeder Cherry, Barber Shop #65, Prep, 2020, Acrylic, Metal, Glass, with Objects on Wood
Through evocative, material-laden storytelling, Cherry challenges conceptions of American history, as well as traditional divisions between art and craft, where functional materials like wood, fiber, repurposed hardware, and household objects are combined into dimensional paintings, scenes that feel purposefully decorative but also mysterious in the way that they ask questions of the viewer.
Teri Henderson

 

Teri Henderson: Craft at its most basic definition is people making things with their hands, but I am curious about how you interpret that definition. What does craft mean to you?

Schroeder Cherry: In the art world they have this division between fine art and craft, but I think that’s an arbitrary line. Basically, craft means using materials to produce something functional, like weaving, textiles, ceramics, or wood-carving. Later on, though, craftspeople started also making objects that were nonfunctional, for purely aesthetic purposes. The lines between craft and fine art are diminishing more now because those designated as craftspeople are so talented and using the same principles as fine artists in terms of line, color, shape, and form in their production, blurring those lines.

How do you describe your art practice, since it blends art and craft techniques and materials?

I am an assemblage painter. I’m not really a sculptor. I’m doing a lot of cutting and carving on wood, but my stuff mostly goes on the wall or up against the wall so I’m still operating primarily as a painter. I was trained as a painter but I got to a point where I was abusing the canvas. I was cutting and scraping and burning and adding stuff, and I realized I needed a stronger foundation because canvas just can’t handle it. So I decided to try wood. I hung out in the lumberyards and asked the old guys, “How do you do X, Y, and Z?” And that’s how I learned to use the tools because I was not trained as a sculptor.

How do you consider paintings in a series?

The first ones were in 2018 and the series keeps growing. I’m working on painting number 65 right now in the barbershop series. I keep getting more and more references to barbershops because people see the work and say, “You need to meet my barber!” I’m just going to keep going with this series because I get inspiration from shops that I’m visiting, but also from learning more about the history of Black barbers in the USA. I don’t think many people know that Black men were allowed to cut white men’s hair, because white men wanted to emulate European aristocracy. That’s how it started as a profession.

Schroeder Cherry, Barer Shop #56, Ace, 2020, Acrylic, Metal, Glass, with Objects on Wood

Can you talk more about Black barbers in American history?

There were enslaved men who were barbers, but in the hierarchy of the slave institution, they were on a higher level because they weren’t out in the fields. There was this duality, in terms of their status in the hierarchy of slavery, because on one hand, these barbers were independent. They were professionals, employed but also in servitude. It’s interesting to consider that the barber’s chair was a safe place for white men to discuss politics and family business away from their wives. The porters came later on in American history and were influential in establishing a Black middle class. That’s important, despite the fact that they were seen as men who worked as servants.

You worked in museum studies and museum education and have been an advocate for “informal learning.” What does this term mean?

Informal learning means you’re not learning for a degree or credit, learning for your own sense of gratification. That’s what museum education is about because people are visiting during leisure time, unless you’re coming with a class with a specific purpose.

I viewed your work in the Sondheim finalists exhibit at the Walters last year and I was struck by how much visual information it contains. How do you choose recurring symbols?

There are three things that reappear throughout the Barbers and Porters series. They are particularly keys, watermelons, and, with the barbershop series, cards. Keys for me represent tools of access. And what I’ve come to know is everyone I know has got at least one key that they don’t know what it belongs to, but they don’t want to give it up. So what is it about the power of keys? They have some kind of power to them. And everybody’s got keys, and got a key story. So I started collecting keys and now people are giving me keys.

I’ll give you a key!

I’ll put it to good use. I’ve got two mystery boxes from people I don’t know. They found me online and they really liked my work and asked me for my mailing address. One was from Chicago and the other was from New Orleans, and they sent me this box of stuff. I think they were cleaning up the drawers, but for me it was like treasure stuff. They just gave me a bunch of keys. Mary Deacon Opasik, an artist here in Baltimore, gave me a bucket of keys. So I’ve got keys now. And they become part of the material.

And the watermelons?

When I moved to Baltimore, I had been living in desert areas. Everything was brown. But when I came to Baltimore everything was green. There was also a bumper crop of watermelons that year. So I started eating one every day. And as I was eating it and enjoying it I was thinking about how this fruit has been maligned for many years. It’s been used as a negative stereotype. I decided to change the script, to reclaim the object in my life.

A friend of mine who is an archivist sent me an article on the history of watermelons and I learned that prior to the Civil War, Black people in the South made a living growing and selling watermelons. It was a successful business. After that period, whites took that image and made it a negative thing, which makes sense. And many of my pieces have watermelon slices in them. I’m having fun with that reclamation. It’s also gotten me into some very interesting conversations because we have a number of people in the US who are scarred by watermelon.

Schroeder Cherry, Barber Shop #42, Cuts, 2019, Acrylic, Metal, Glass, with Objects on Wood

You make everything that’s in the painting besides the keys and the cards. How do you make the frames?

I get the framing elements, the parts of frames usually thrown out, from two Baltimore framers: Terrie Fleckenstein and Brian Truax. I glue them, cut into them, reshape them, and they become part of my assemblage. But they’ve also evolved to represent what I consider framing a story, because I think as long as you’re alive, your story is never completely framed. My pieces are all framed, but asymmetrical and not enclosed, because as long as you’re alive, your story is not enclosed. If you talked about different phases of your life, how do you frame these parts of your life? We try to force ourselves into these arbitrary pockets of time and we can’t.

What would you do if you weren’t doing the things you’re doing right now?

I would probably either be a veterinarian or a dancer. I grew up with Alvin Ailey dancers, and reflecting on that experience, I realized I learned a lot from hanging out with them. I learned about the importance of rehearsal and preparation. Those are serious lessons that you don’t get in other disciplines so markedly and I think artists don’t really conceptualize it that way. They think, “I’ve got to go to the studio,” but I don’t know that we’re trained to think of that as practice. It’s like pianists, piano players have to practice their skills. We as artists have to practice our craft.

That’s a great quote.

It comes back to your first question about craft. You know, the making of things. How do you make things? You have to work at it. You have to work at it. You have to work. Artists have to practice their craft.

 

Header Image: Barber Shop #6o, Done, 2020, acrylic, metal, glass, with objects on wood

This story is from Issue 09: Craft,

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