Faith Ringgold on Becoming an Artist in Harlem

Christina Mulligan |
Faith Ringgold

Faith Ringgold was born in 1930 in Harlem. Video still from "Treasures of New York: Art Underground."

If Faith Ringgold knew what type of struggles she was up against nearly 65 years ago, she may have never chosen the artist path that got her to where she is today.

“I didn’t know what I was doing. If I had any idea of how difficult this choice would be, I can’t truthfully say that I would have picked it,” the renowned artist admitted. “I went in with my eyes closed, blind.”

Ringgold’s Art in NYC. Click to Enlarge Image:

The now 81-year-old artist and educator, best known for her painted story quilts that combine painting, quilted fabric and storytelling, decided her fate in 1948 at the City College of New York.

Growing up just blocks away from the campus, she always admired the students coming up the hill and going down the avenue and she dreamed of going there, too. She suffered from bad asthma would often  have to come home from school. Her mother always made sure she had art supplies, so she thought she could be an artist because she couldn’t imagine herself without it.

“I was always doing art. I never stopped,” she said. “I never thought of it of something to be, just something to do.”

Faith Ringgold recounts growing up among famous people in Harlem and setting them in flight in her mosaic, “Flying Home: Harlem Heroes and Heroines,” at the MTA’s 125th Street 2/3 station in “Treasures of New York: Art Underground.”

But deciding what to be or do would be a struggle with societal prejudice. Not only was Ringgold a woman, but she was an African-American and she never noticed all those children on the hill were all white young men. When she was accepted to City College and asked what she wanted to major in, she said she wanted to be an artist.  The college told her only men were allowed in the liberal arts program and she had to pick something else. Devastated, Ringgold pleaded that she had to go to the college, all her life she wanted to go to that school. An official relented and said she could major in art, but she would have to minor in education. Coming from a family of teachers, she knew her family would approve, so, she agreed and City College is where Faith Ringgold continued on her artistic path.

Since then Ringgold’s life has been all about the arts. She was involved in a movement to open up the Whitney Museum of American Art to African-American artists in the 1960s, was the first to hold a demonstration against a museum in New York, and joined the women’s movement in the 1970s. With all that she has overcome, she says being an artist still continues to be difficult every day.

“It’s amazing how closed the art world is,” she said, “I always tell my students (at the University of California), if there is something else you can be doing, then do it, because this takes real commitment.”

Ringgold’s next project is the Faith Ringgold Online Museum (FORM), which she hopes to realize by the summer of 2013. It will consist of all her work since college, classified into categories.

“I have done so much work in my life and I really need to have it all seen together.”

Faith Ringgold designed the 50th Anniversary poster for THIRTEEN, done in the style of her artistic tributes to Barack Obama and Mahalia Jackson, and is available upon making a donation to the PBS station.

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