Sold Down The River - Where Art Stands As A Light In The Middle Of the Desert
With Martin McKinney
A slow, tentative smile turns into an enormous grin in James V. Allen's face as he recalls the happiest times of his childhood. Such as when he recalls playing in the yard while his dad worked on his old truck, James flashes a rare, but copious, smile. We’re sitting in a coffee shop on a bright and sunny afternoon day and James lights up the room as we sat and talked without regard to appointments, phones, or even the constant flow of people in and out of the store. “At one point, somewhere, I had a wonderful life,” James’s voice trailing off, as he looks down, the happiness fleeing his face as easily as it had arrived.
When I first met James, I was both unnerved by, and drawn to him, concurrently. His presence is ubiquitous and he seems to be in consistent thought. The innocuousness and simplicity of the question so many of us conditionally ask about the meaning of an artist’s art seemed to completely escape him as he took me on a journey of his life, and his life expressed through his art. He immediately began to speak of his own illness and the pain that he experienced when those whom he loves left him in turmoil and helmless. It was in these immediate moments, and my ill-preparation for what was to come, that I began to commune with James prodigiously. Our human condition incites us to use stories to shelter us from pain and to camouflage our fears; James was, having known me for a mere moment in the span of our lifetimes, helping me to understand that his stories are meant to display his pain…to help me. It is in the presence of these same visible wounds that James creates the art that has brought him some measure of armistice in a life that has been a daily battle.
James’s childhood was not ideal. In this moment, it’s easy to think of what experiences we wished could have been different in our past lives, the superficial thoughts that don’t require us to peel back layers of unhappiness and the lasting stings that define what we are working invariably to hide. No, James’s life, like so many of ours, includes the power others used against a helpless child, and the desolation that loss creates and sustains. His mother died when he was 9 and his father when he was just 17. By then, James had experienced molestation at the hand of an older child that was friends with a neighbor with whom his family shared a fence-to-fence relationship. Even today, James expresses deep pain for children who are sexually abused, and the tendency to hide in shame as a result. His father, a union leader and member of the NAACP, associated with other progressive groups, including communists in the era of McCarthyism. Refusing to succumb to the accusations, his father was blackballed and lost his job. James recalls that this series of events was too much for his parent’s relationship to bear and for James, it was the beginning of a slow spiral into a hidden life of sexual abuse, mental illness and love gone astray.
After high school, James went to Cuba, where he began to build his consciousness and encountered Fidel Castro. Upon returning to California, he worked for several years in the community as a revolutionary working idealistically to create change in his community. Later, he fell in with a bank robber, serving as his driver. James recalls easily “it wasn’t like on TV. We didn’t drive screeching fast down the street, police in hot pursuit. I’d just slowly merge into traffic and blend in.” Calling the raider his employer, James looks at me and with a slight smile says, “when that guy got arrested and went to prison, I wanted to keep my lifestyle, so I took a little piece of wood carving that fit nicely in my pocket and started robbing banks.” He spent 6 years of a 26 year sentence in the Lompoc Federal Correctional Institution for nonviolent offenders. It was at Lompoc that James began to engage with the power of art to enlist and focus against a yet diagnosed ADHD, studying with a blind and deaf art teacher assigned to the prison.
As I engaged with James, I began to think of the ease with which I was able to move my thinking into a pity response. 'This is so bad for James' I thought as I listened to him talk about his bouts with depression and ADHD. Here I was mimicking the social response to oppression that this happened, and continues to happen, to James and not to me, and to my family and to others that I love and care for deeply. In that moment, I began to wrestle with that cultural understandings that the outward signs of mental illness are represented by James, and not me, when, in fact, this is not the case. In reality, I am James and he is me in complete, unabridged ways.
James has found the courage to walk in his shoes in a lowly, hopeful way telling about his life of curling up his secrets and putting them in an emotional pocket that only resulted in drug abuse and shame as a coping apparatus.
We are taught to externalize identities that we find a threat to our sense of normality. Such as when we describe mental illness, we tend to invoke terms like “crazy” and “insane” because it is against those descriptors that we can accept ourselves as natural, like most other people, and we can rise and continue about our days in happy, obscure and specious delight. James has found the courage to walk in his shoes in a lowly, hopeful way telling about his life of curling up his secrets and putting them in an emotional pocket that only resulted in drug abuse and shame as a coping apparatus.
What might it be like to meet someone and immediately engage around our own encounters with sexual violence, the death – or absence – of a parent, our failings as partners and friends, or our substance abuse, not just today, but at a past time in our lives also? In that moment, might we be forced to admit our future fears, that our past somehow might be the wrecking ball of our future selves? In our short time of knowing each other, James is teaching me to find the courage to simply talk about the past and to dwell in it as a means of helping someone else, even if without intention. But to also to be in the constant state of healing that comes through intentional relationship. It is in these times of relationship that our stories connect.
James paints his art through his experiences and struggle. James V. Allen’s show, entitled “Down By The River” will be on display at The University Church of Chicago in Chicago’s Hyde Park community beginning on March 21, 2016. He will have an opening reception on April 2, 2016 at 6:00 pm with special guest soloist Valary Lewis, Yvonne Gilmore of Cornel West Theory and Gregg Hunter.
Select the INTERACT link above to engage with the poetry written in honor of James's work. See the Facebook event here.