Celebrating artist James Pate

Credit: Lisa Powell

Credit: Lisa Powell

His grandmother raised him in Cincinnati and liked to tell him stories about his childhood. While his siblings would be busy on the floor playing with toys, she remembered, he would be in the middle of it all, focused on his drawings.

That scene hasn’t changed much over the years. Today, the floor is a studio space in the Wright-Dunbar Historic district and James Pate is still focused on his art — drawings, paintings, large scale mural projects. He believes art can assist all of us in our personal journeys.

“I look at art as sorta like having a conversation with people,” explained the artist/educator who received the Dayton Art Institute’s Pamela P. Houk Award in 2013 for Excellence in Art Education. The DAI commended Pate for the way he uses his art to inspire youth to achieve what may seem impossible, and the way he engages them in dialogue about issues vital to their lives.

“You’re extracting something from yourself and expressing something that people can relate to,” said Pate. “It’s offering up advice from your point of view, offering different perspectives. And I think people should participate when they see the art and leave with some insights.”

Pate said teaching is like a life blood to him because there are so many “learnable” moments.”You learn so much about yourself and you sharpen your communication skills,” said Pane, who has taught classes at the Dayton Art Institute, K-12 Gallery and TEJAS and many schools. “Kids learn skills they didn’t realize they had. It ultimately builds confidence and lifts spirits.”

Pate is in the news for a couple of reasons at the moment. The Dayton-based artist will be receiving the only Individual Artist Award at the upcoming Governor’s Award for the Arts luncheon this week in Columbus. And his dramatic series entitled “Kin Killin Kin,” which has been on tour to other cities, has most recently been featured on 13 Dayton billboards. He hopes that it will help to reduce gun violence by expanding awareness, inspiring conversation and empowering the community to take action.

How others view him

Carol Rogers, an art instructor at Belmont High School, has worked closely with Pate for more than 15 years and is one of many who supported his Governor’s Award nomination. She says he is one of the strongest visual communicators you’ll ever encounter.

“James shares his art in humble, in your face, relevant ways that can change lives,” she said, adding that Pate’s artistic skills are only surpassed by his social commentary on the world we live in and the role we play through our choices for a healthy society. “His broad range of mediums is amazing and he has created many large scale masterpieces all over our schools and communities — most of which were made with student artists.”

Artist Willis “Bing” Davis, who was honored at the Governor’s art luncheon in 2009 with the Irma Lazarus Award — given only occasionally to someone of artistic excellence who has gained international recognition —has been a mentor and friend to Pate for more than 20 years. In 1968. when Pate was a high school junior in Cincinnati, Davis received a letter from the art supervisor for the Cincinnati Public Schools about an award-winning student who was not only artistically gifted but had a ‘specialness’ about him. “He said if I ever got a chance to work with him, I should do so,” recalls Davis who took that suggestion to heart.

“He is one of the most gifted, talented and hardworking young artists that I have had the chance to know and work with during my 50-plus years in the field,” said Davis. “James has the drawing skills of Charles White, the compositional skills of Romare Bearden, and the storytelling skills of Jake Lawrence. What sets James Pate apart and guides his artistic vision is his deep, sincere and well-informed commitment to youth and community. He knows what it means to be an at-risk youth. He knows what it means to grow up in a neighborhood where crime and violence is ever present and temptations are not singers on a stage, but a reality lurking just around the corner. James has not forgotten where he came from or those families, friends and foes that are still navigating that reality.”

Credit: Amelia Robinson

Credit: Amelia Robinson

How he works

Pate begins each new work by gathering information. “I want to saturate myself with all that surrounds a concept,” he explained. “Then I can go to work and look forward to the evolution of what I’m doing as well as the intuitive things that happen when I’m making art.”

He typically works for three or four hours at a time — often at night. “I’m painting, drawing, doing graphic design, Photoshop or Illustrator. It’s all creative. Sometimes it’s very quiet, other times I’ll listen to ESPN. I’m a sports junkie.”

Pate worked on the “Kin Killin Kin” from 2000 to 2010.

“For years we have known that America has a problem with youth gangs,” said Dr. Ed Jackson, executive architect for the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, another one of Pate’s nominators for this week’s award. “Through his artistry, Mr. Pate was able to stop, to suspend, to freeze that moment in time and show the horror of armed warfare on our streets, and the the tragic loss of life of innocent bystanders, with the intent and hope of motivating communities across America to use their power as citizens, leaders and representatives of neighborhoods to change and eliminate this cancer that is destroying our communities from within.”

Pate admits the series — which has been purchased by Tyler Perry’s manager, art collector Arthur Primus — has been controversial and is embarrassing to those African-Americans who believe he shouldn’t be “airing our dirty laundry” in public. “But I’m trying to go to the laundromat and clean that dirty laundry up,” he insists. “Most people — both white and black — say we needed this. Most people appreciate it.”

He’s currently working on a piece entitled “Umbilical Mic” that deals with the distribution of music that influences kids in unhealthy ways. “A lot of music on radio glorifies adult activity — glamorizes getting high or drunk, partying, making money,” he explained. “I’m creating a piece set in a music studio where a cord from the mic flows across the canvas to bottles of alcohol and other things.”

He knows, he said, that kids who grow up participating in violence and unhealthy activities don’t start out that way.

“It’s a developmental thing and the development of kids is my No. 1 priority,” he said. “I’m one of those people who have a whole lot of love for humanity.”

To contact James Pate: e-mail jamespate3@gmail.com

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