By Franklin Abbott
Paris-based painter Ealy Mays is featured in a show at Atlanta’s Hammonds House Museum through June 26. “To Pass Through and Be Gone,” an exhibit by Thorton Dial, Thorton Dial, Jr. and their contemporaries, is also running concurrently until Sunday.
Mays, who has spent the last 15 years living and working in Paris, is hailed as one of the most outstanding African-American artists of his generation. The child of a doctor, Mays grew up in Dayton, Ohio where he was evaluated as being “slow” and put in special education classes in his all white elementary school. He proved his teachers wrong when he attended medical school in Mexico. While in Mexico he found his true calling to be a painter. He was deeply influenced by the major Mexican artists of the day including Frida Kahlo, Diego Riviera, Clemente Orzoco and Rufino Tomayo, who became a mentor. Tomayo’s paintings of red watermelons were inspirations for Mays’ paintings of blue watermelons.
Mays received a fellowship to study at the prestigious Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and took a sabbatical from his medical studies. While at Skowhegan he met other fellows including Nan Goldin, Anish Kapoor and Jacob Lawrence, who took a special interest in Mays and proclaimed him “a pure painter.” After his time at Skowhegan, Mays followed in the footsteps of many African-American artists and writers and moved to Paris where he continues to live and work. He is associated with Cite International des Arts Paris and exhibits his work in Paris and in galleries and museums around the world. He was the second African-American artist (their first was Henry Ossawa Tanner in 1897) to have an exhibit at Carrousel de Louve, a modern gallery associated with the great museum.
Mays believes that “everybody is an artist – it just gets beaten out of us.” He also believes that “everything is art” and the subjects of his paintings are drawn from everywhere. Political themes often emerge, though Mays is quick to let those who observe his paintings come up with their own meanings. His paintings are often abstract and figurative at the same time again both confusing the viewers and drawing them in. Mays describes himself as “a global contemporary artist,” one who is intent on reclaiming his narrative. He says, “I can control my narrative because I am still alive.”
Mays has a remarkable memory and can recall thousands of images, movies and song lyrics. He says he works from both his memory and his imagination. One of his daily rituals which gives him inspiration is his 5 p.m. walk through Paris where he explores the “glorious garbage” discarded by the rich. He says, “the older I’ve gotten the more in tune I am with what I am doing.” He believes that when a work of art is finished it has a spirit that shines through it. Shining through Mays’ paintings are the spirits of his mentors Rufino Tomayo and Jacob Lawrence, images of Mexico and Paris and Mays himself who says in claiming his own soul, “you’re not going to beat me in the game of passion.”
For more information about the exhibition, visit hammondshouse.org.
Franklin Abbott is a psychotherapist and consultant, writer and community organizer living in Atlanta.