Steve Prince's Portrait of a Marriage
An Old Love Made New Each Day
Valerie Sweeney Prince
"(T)his piece, like each of the others is about us:Prince and me," writes Valerie Prince in the article that follows. 'The Old Testament Series,' (Steve) Prince explains, 'is about an old love made new each day.' It represents his musing on what it has meant to be married for nearly 22 years."
Normally we do not seek commentary on the work of an artist from a close relation of the artist. However, we were intrigued by an image in an announcement for the artist's current series and wanted to know more. Valerie Prince is a gifted writer of creative non-fiction and criticism as well as the female subject of the series, so we knew we'd get the best scoop on the series if we went directly to her.
Job 3: 23-26 NIV
23 Why is life given to a man whose way is hidden, whom God has hedged in?
24 For sighing has become my daily food; my groans pour out like water.
25 What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me.
26 I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil.
In 2008 Father's Day fell on June 15. That was the day my mother-in-law died. Almost three years after Hurricane Katrina, she died in New Orleans of ovarian cancer that had metastasized to the brain, blood, and other major organs. Her last years were full of the stress of illness and the storm. Katrina's rank baptismal pool is the unseen backdrop for the large scale linoleum block print, Job: Take Me to the Water —one of 43 planned pieces to comprise my husband's Old Testament Series — where his mother is memorialized in the "X-code" wall marking the date 6-15 (at the top left of the image). In Job, Prince not only takes us to the water, he takes us home.
The waters of the mighty m-i-crooked letter-crooked letter-i-crooked letter-crooked letter-i humpback-humpback-i spilled into the basin of the city when the levees broke in the hours following the storm. Images of rooftop pleas for help, heat exhausted residents dying outside the Convention Center, and desperate citizens stranded at the Superdome are now stirred into the rich historical rue that is New Orleans. So that by the time Prince went home to bury his mother the city he had known so intimately had been forever altered.
It is the pathos of this moment, Prince's changed city, that he renders so effectively in Job. The stoop that has been such an integral part of the black migrant experience is a fitting platform for a couple whose grief lies beyond words. It is a space just outside, nearly at the threshold, a place where one goes to be both at home and out-in-the-world, a place where one can see and be seen among the city dwellers. The mystery of the home behind the door that invariably awaits is exacerbated by the X-code that marks the moment in place and time. The X-code was the sign that indicated that an official had been there and reported what was found. The sign is both strange and eerily familiar to those surveying homes in the aftermath of Katrina. The search for victims of the flood was documented in florescent spray paint near the front doors of water logged houses. That the home has been tagged with an X-code is a collective acknowledgment of distress. And so we witness the couple, not as a neighbor sitting on our own stoop in a semi-private domestic world, but as a viewer through the interested distance enabled by the lens of a camera.
Nevertheless the title reveals in its plea, "Take me to the Water," a personal desire for renewal and restoration that resists the distance some might wish to have in such situations. The title is drawn from an old familiar song still sung at baptisms in black churches. The full immersion practiced by many is a public identification with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. Yet the kind of immersion forced by Katrina—a name that means cleansing—parallels in many ways the historical experiences of Africans in America. Full immersion seemed to bring destruction at least as often as renewal. The title calls for change even as traumatic changes have already been thrust upon residents by the storm.
According to the I'Ching the ancient Chinese Book of Changes, Hexagram 29 consists of a doubling of the trigram K'an (the Abysmal), which is when "A yang line has plunged in between two yin lines and is closed in by them like water in a ravine." The obvious danger of the water is balanced by water's life giving power. The Hexagram is rendered as water over water, strength over strength. The message is that water fills up until it overflows. Likewise, the abyss of Katrina's murky waters recalls the Middle Passage when, in a sense, water also filled to overflowing and something died at the precise moment of conception. But the image in the I'Ching, is that "water flows on uninterruptedly and reaches its foal," suggesting as is consistent with the Book of Changes, that every moment is new even as one must act irresistibly according to one's nature. The nature of water is to flow; the nature of people is to rebuild. Prince captures a snapshot in this process. This push and pull, yin and yang, this surrender even as one seeks meaning and order is depicted masterfully in Job: Take Me to the Water, reflecting the skill that Africans have mastered in America.
Although we can pan out to see the ties to the broader community, for Prince this is personal. And he states the claim directly by representing a couple who looks like us. Certainly, this is not autobiography. We were living in Virginia — not New Orleans — in 2005. Our home was not flooded. We never sat on a stoop together to consider how to pick up the scattered pieces. Yet this piece, like each of the others is about us: Prince and me.
"The Old Testament Series," Prince explains, "is about an old love made new each day." It represents his musing on what it has meant to be married for nearly 22 years. Perhaps, one can glimpse a bit of his thinking in the cavernous eyes of the man whose face is cut in stark contrasts of lights and darks. Prince pulls upon contrasts in technique —from the delicacy of sparse lights and bold darks that define the man's hair to the strident cuts that give the cloth of his clothing the feel of sinewy muscle. The woman is nearly folded into the wide arch of the man's legs. His legs wide and spent; her legs are crossed and tucked. Prince softens the broad cuts with the frailty of her posture. His lean mirrors that found in an 1899 Winslow Homer painting of a man awaiting rescue while stranded alone on the ocean, reinforcing the K'an through the depth of the eyes rather than the depth of Homer's sea. The leagues are spanned, however, through the solitary touch of his hand on her small shoulder. The touch functions like an open boat crossing the abyss.
For some who are familiar with Prince's work, the Old Testament Series seems like a departure from the politically charged narratives of his Urban Epistles for instance. From my vantage, the Old Testament Series is a return. It is a move that is necessary for a husband who has spent a considerable amount of time pursuing the things ambitious, young men pursue. After going out into the world to discover, claim, experience a man will return to see what his efforts have yielded. What could be more political than that? Take, for instance, "Genesis: In the Beginning" which appears as a deceptively simple piece representing a couple at home in bed. The title of the man's book is suggestive as are the woman's gap legs, intertwining with his. His hand lying softly on her inner thigh, while they each are occupied by other tasks. Or consider, Psalms 1: Slow Dance, the image of a couple whose entire room bends and arcs with their sensual movements. That Prince chooses to title each of the pieces after a book in the Bible and to render snap shots from the often mundane or often sensual moments but drawn from the work-a-day lives of African American experience is provocative and political. Prince operates out of the liberation theology that fed the spirituals and then gospel —the songs sung in fields and then in marches and still often in churches that lay claim to the stories of salvation and deliverance despite the reality suggested by the world around him. This series does not preach. It remembers.
Prince has created seven of the 43 and I anxiously await the others. He has been appointed artist-in-residence at Allegheny College, where he will continue working on the series. He has also been commissioned by Montgomery College in Maryland to create a sculpture for the Germantown campus. And he will be erecting a sculpture at Christian High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In the meantime, the Old Testament pieces have been on exhibit September 1 - October 2, 2012 in a show titled "One Fish: Old Testament" at Dordt College in Iowa and June 7 - July 7, 2013 in a show titled "Old Testament: Covenant of Love" at Studio G in Washington, DC. Studio G is owned and operated by a fellow printmaker, George Shomari Smith, whose position as an elder statesman within the community is highly valued. It is in spaces like this one created by Baba Shomari when one is at home among ones kinsmen that the true value of ones work is assessed. It is here, where one receives the blessing.
Valerie Prince, Ph.D., is associate professor of English at Allegheny College.