WRITTEN BY SHAWANA BROOKS, GUEST CONTRIBUTOR
Go across the pond and you will find the name Harewood in a grand abundance. Here in Jacksonville, there is only one that is on everyone’s lips at this moment, Professor Dustin Harewood. The name is getting much notice, and his art is a standout around our city. Murals line walls in Springfield and across the newly-formed Phoenix Arts District. In the past two months Dustin’s face has been on the cover of Folio Weekly (twice in the last six months), mentioned in the Resident, and he was featured in a full-page spread article in JACK Magazine. He was recently interviewed at the local on-air news syndicate Channel 4. Social media fame is on the rise yet he still gets mistaken for fellow artists Overstreet Ducasse or Roosevelt Watson III. Puzzling? Though they all share similar characteristics and are artists, the only true thing they have in common is the perception of the color of their skin. Is this lack of identification because he has been focused on exhibiting overseas, like in his homeland of Barbados or that of his wife’s homeland, Japan? Or is it because he’s been shepherding sheep for the past 12 years as a professor of art at FSCJ Kent Campus? The misidentification can be troubling to the tenured teacher, but for now his mind is focused on his stewardship.
From the moment a visitor walks into Professor Harewood’s classroom it’s clear how much Dustin loves the kids. A student working an on upcoming project interrupts our interview to get his attention. No apologies are necessary, and the student is quick to give a shout-out to the readers of this blog. Dustin gives solid advice without directly telling where the creative process should take him. “We’ll see how it turns out,” he says as he constantly pulls on his beard and peers through narrowed eyes. These are all tell-tale signs that Dustin has a secure critique in mind about the work in front of him. “Oh, now see this is a little different. Let’s see where it goes. Now it’s all about how well you paint it.” The student launches into why he chose the pattern and recounts what was said in an earlier class, ready to defend or amend his choices. It’s obvious the student wants a firmer hand, but Dustin is a master at evading this trap. No Jedi Masters here, he doesn’t want to put his creative mind onto the students. He’s walking the difficult tightrope of leading without influencing.
“Every artist starts off being influenced by someone but the longer you continue to investigate and analyze how you’re doing that, you will hopefully find yourself in an original place. In my head the stuff I’m doing right now is very original.”
Coming off the success of a pop-up exhibition in San Marco it’s hard to not agree. Dustin is always looking to stay the student, “I move between three things so that the work doesn’t get boring, or feel contrived.” Two out of those three things are combined in an original way: it’s the first time he made the art speak to each other (for the LIFT exhibition) his Floating Heads, which he started very early in his career, and the non-objective abstract art (try saying that five times fast).
“Trying to find your voice is fine, nothing wrong with influence. Sometimes the mistake is when you present yourself as a full-blown developed artist and you have not taken the time to quietly develop your craft.”
Get Up Stand Up
Dustin has been developing his voice since coming out of graduate school and moving to Jacksonville in 2004. “These past 2 years I think I’ve been finding my stride. The work I’m making now is the best I ever made, which is exciting. I assume when I hit 80 I will be producing that fire.”
That is exciting. Several artists throughout history received more fame and recognition as they got older just like one of Dustin’s art heroes, Gerhard Richter. “Artists who take the time to mature have a different quality to what they’re making than a prodigy; it can be a mixed blessing to get too many accolades too early.”
“One of the reasons I think Jean Michel Basquit might have committed suicide/overdosed (considering your perspective) is because he believed his career was washed up. People were commenting that his best work was done. This is not discussed. I don’t think he coped well.” Dustin has the credentials to give this commentary: he came to Jacksonville right after he garnering his MFA. Born in New York, Dustin’s family moved back to their homeland of Barbados when he was eleven.
“My parents are both Barbadian but they met in New York. That was supposed to be the big move back. Get this nice big yard; everything is happily ever after but mmm… My Dad came back to the United States.”
Dustin, his sister, and Mother stayed behind. There was a lot of competition to get in the only University on the whole island. His father valued education and wanted his children to move back to America with him in North Carolina. Dustin was accepted into North Carolina Central University (NCCU), a Historically Black College and University (HBCU). “Barbados was 95% black.” It wasn’t a culture shock to continue to be in a space dominated by other folks that resembled his identity. “My dad purposefully felt I should go to a HBCU because they would nurture me more and I’m glad he did that.”
University of North Carolina Greensboro would be the follow-up to his undergraduate studies. There he developed relationships with two students, Tonya Lee and Barrett Fiser. They were a year ahead of him and convinced Dustin to put Jacksonville on his radar. Graduate school did look different from Dustin’s youth, “UNCG is the first time I remember being the only black person in a lot of my classes.”
His dad, a better advisor than most counselors, knew it was important for his son to get the full scope of America. 12 years later Dustin looks around to see he is again an anomaly. He is the only black Professor of Arts in all of Jacksonville, Florida. Sure there are instructors sprinkled around but no other fellows for this fellow. When he first moved here it was a shock; now it’s a reminder of how much progress has not happened here. Among academics it’s barely discussed.
“I owe a debt to my parents because they were putting me in a position to succeed. They exposed me to arts which are unusual for West Indian parents – they are normally like no, no. You need to be an Accountant.”
The classes he took at Brooklyn Museum when he was seven years old have put art at his core. Dustin wants to be here in the classroom. He’s invested in the success of his students. “For a lot of artists it’s about them and what is next for me, which is understandable, but in this job it’s about this community of artists. A win for them is a win for me.”
Being an invested art teacher among a faculty that isn’t widely diverse has isolated the professor from the black art community. The art world is nothing if not connected. Dustin is working a different circuit. He hasn’t exhibited in other black-themed artist interest shows in the past. Not that he hasn’t wanted to. “It made me realize that it was a problem and it might be time again to reintroduce myself,” but the art intellectual hadn’t found the right fit for his work in that context. Then along comes the Cummer Museum. Dustin being chosen to be a part of LIFT: Contemporary Expressions of the African Experience comes at no surprise, but his apprehension to commit at first does.
“I had to rethink about what I was doing to make sure I was adding dialogue to the show. One of the first floating heads exhibits I did was of famous reggae artists (Lee Scratch Perry, Buju Baton, Sizzla), one of the first political shows I did. I was asked, ‘Are these your friends?’ Even famous faces are misidentified or relegated to ordinary citizens when they are people of color.”
The representation is immediate entering the Jacobsen Gallery. Old and young black male images spring forward at you from works of Ingrid Damiani and Marsha Hatcher. Turning to the immediate left are three floating faces. While the Kendrick Lamar floating head and Peter Tosh are not always easily recognized most do identify the third, Nina Simone.
Nina turned her art into activism in a very less than subtle way during her heyday, but you would have to know who she is to enjoy the subtlety in Harewood’s artwork. “There shouldn’t be a novelty to exhibiting. We have to be interesting as contemporary artists period. Or you will unwillingly brand yourself as such.” A sample from Kanye West’s, “Blood On the Leaves” is what reminded him of the depth of Nina’s lyricism. “I didn’t start off thinking of Nina, and I didn’t want go to images like Billie Holiday. I was a little apprehensive.” The chills he felt when he heard her voice solidified his choice. Nina’s commitment to unapologetic blackness interfered with her artistic success, something that can be parlayed on to contemporary black artists of today. To be labeled as a black artist or not to be is always the question.
It Goes Down In The Diem
“LIFT has been fantastic. I love that we are in this thing.” Harewood is exuberant when speaking about the caliber of artists who are in this group show. He has respect for each of them. The cross-connections continue to be abundant. Harewood has previously been in a group show with Rashid and Ducasse but has seen how his recognition has increased since the exhibition of LIFT debuted. “People here didn’t really know me. The Cummer Museum put me on this beautiful platform. But then, what do you do with that? I would be a fool to sit around waiting for someone to do that again. I’m very grateful to run with the ball the Museum gave me.”
Dustin is clearly no fool. While other artists are clamoring over what they view as limited artistic opportunities for a living artist here, he believes it’s important for artists to innovate their own. Carpe diem their talent and find ways to exhibit past the lack of galleries that our artistic talent craves. It’s what he did with his latest exhibition, How To Now.
“The people who complain about it need to shift their focus and think about the advantages. We are in the circumstance that there are a bunch of people here who are interested in art. Find innovative ways to introduce the art. Instead of talking how it’s (Jacksonville) not like New York or Atlanta, we can talk about the opportunities; there are so many possibilities.”
This might be why Dustin Harewood admires fellow LIFT artist Hiromi Moneyhun. Dustin and Hiromi have a lot of connections beyond art, of course the most superficial being she is Japanese and so is his wife, but it was the art that forged their bond. “You can put this down in my article that I am the biggest Hiromi Moneyhun fan!” He is not alone. Dustin was instrumental in presenting and curating Hiromi’s first solo show. “I’ve always been a huge fan of hers. With Hiromi it’s not about the glitz and glamour it is all about the work. The quality. The craftsmanship. If you are serious you are constantly developing your craft.” The studio that sits in the back corner built into his classroom decorated with new works in process that Dustin shoos my peering eyes away from shows he is that serious too.
I Am The Upsetter
The recent Art Ventures grant recipient did not grow up with familiarity with “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”. He became familiar with the song once he got drafted for this show. This was the first time he even dealt with James Weldon Johnson as a subject matter.
“The emphasis of my secondary education was West Indian. Even some of my U.S. History gets sketchy now and again. When I came over here I realized I was missing something, I realized it after the fact. I would have to self educate.”
Hidden history is no mystery in our educational system. LIFT serves as the symbol of the novelty with which African American history is treated. Trotted out most during February and vapidly disappearing the rest of the year. “I love that it didn’t open in February,” although it does close that month. Dustin is aware that you have to distinguish yourself outside the protective bubbles we create for our own comfort. A lesson learned once he re-adapted to his American roots. In plain sight with no angles Dustin is always his artists’ keeper, “Do they need to know as long as I am helping them? No one needs to hear about it. I’m quietly doing what needs to be done.” It’s commendable that in an often, at times opportunistic self-serving society Harewood is fine with unsung heroics. I’m glad to shout it out for him.
As our interview comes to a close The Professor is called to arms one more time. This time he is helping a student to shape her portfolio for graduate school. He surveys the art and tells her the strongest images to submit. The help that his former graduate classmates gave him comes back up in conversation. He doesn’t forget the hand they extended to help form his life. He uses the best of the resources available to him to create art opportunities for his students and also curates shows at Kent Campus and selects specific artists around town to exhibit. That is viewed as unusual amongst artists, but Dustin is undeterred. He once made work for an exhibition out of town but it left a bad taste in his mouth. It was a missed opportunity in the fact that he created art but now he doesn’t feel like it belongs to his body of work. “I won’t do that again. I never show it.” This lesson was important to learn for visual communication. It is why Dustin shares his criticism and creativity with anyone who chooses to engage him if they are smart enough to listen. It is refreshing to see he has no fear with giving things away.
“No one can take what is mine. At this point I don’t want to regurgitate. If we are so creative, why are we so standard with our practices? Are we really that innovative?”
That is a good question Professor, but while we are waiting for the answer Dustin will be planning his next move.