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African American History from a Black-and-White Point of View PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mike Terry   
Thursday, 10 January 2013 05:22

Local Artist Gordon Van Dusen's Portraits Of Black Celebrities And Other Historical Figures Are Being Showcased In The San Fernando Museum Of Art And History


(top) Canoga Park artist Gordon Van Dusen surrounded by some of his 24 portraits at the San Fernando Museum. (below) John Coltrane(left) and Jimi Hendrix

Gordon Van Dusen has always felt the tug of artistic endeavors, be it music or drawing. And he's been lucky to pursue them, and make a living at both.

At present, drawing and painting are the focal point for the Canoga Park artist, who is exhibiting 24 graphite pencil portraits of noted African Americans at the San Fernando Museum of Art and History.

The exhibit – "Impetus Fusion." hosted by the Hazze Hip Hop Culture Dream Center – is the museum's first exhibit of a black artist. It will run through February, and will include a special showing on Saturday, Jan. 26, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. to celebrate both Martin Luther King's birthday, and the Civil Rights Movement.


"This kind of exhibit is new to the community without a doubt," said Mama Hazze, a patron of Van Dusen. "There is more to San Fernando than is usually portrayed for whatever reasons…but San Fernando goes beyond just [a small community]. "So with the museum embracing us, and showing they are more open and diverse, is a new day for the city."

The exhibit was originally slated to run through January, but when Mayor Antonio Lopez saw it, he helped push for an extension through February, which is also Black History Month.

"I have great appreciation for graphite art," Lopez said. "You can see real emotion, especially in graphite. I studied architecture, and had classes in portrait drawing and painting. Graphite is a very natural way of drawing. And it shows at lot." Lopez said he hopes all kinds of people will come see the exhibit and relate to the artwork, as well as attract other diverse displays to the museum. "This is a great platform to have people come here and see this. I want people to know everything is welcome."


Pencil Portraits A Favorite

Van Dusen, 56, works in all facets of painting, including oils, watercolors, and pastels. But the pencil portraits are a particular talent he returns to again and again.

"The pencil feels comfortable in my hand," Van Dusen said. "It's like an extension of me. And I love black-and-white photographs and art.

"At times I wish the world was in black-and-white. To me it's a beautiful thing. Black-andwhite may seem dull to some people, but it's life to me."

The portraits range from entertainers like Duke Ellington and James Brown to intellectuals like W.E.B. Dubois and Frederick Douglass. Some are head portraits while others are full-bodied. Each image is striking, with gazes and postures that seem alive and involving. "I start with the eyes, and if I don't get the eyes right I don't finish the drawing," Van Dusen said. "That's where it is. The eyes say so much. I try to get in my drawing what they're feeling at the time. And the eyes say it all."

Passions At An Early Age

A native of Pittsburgh, PA, the fires of artistic passion for music and art were lit in Van Dusen at an early age. The music fire came from his late uncle Dennis Morphis, a local jazz musician. "I was five when I moved into the same room with my uncle," Van Dusen recalled. "At age seven he allowed me to pick up one of his horns, an alto sax. I used to watch him practice. He'd practice for hours. When he finally let me pick up his horn, I grabbed it and was ready to play. And from that day on he allowed me to handle it. And no one could touch his stuff, so I'm proud of that."

The desire to draw came from his mother, Vera Morphis. "She drew me a picture of Santa Claus. I saw it and was amazed," Van Dusen said. She gave it to me and I immediately tried to copy it. It came natural for me. At that moment, I knew that's what I was supposed to do. It was passion from that moment on."

So much so that Van Dusen admits he didn't have much interest in formal education. He did graduate from high school, but he was not a good student. He was also caught up in the times that were the 1960s and 1970s, as the Civil Rights Movement evolved into the Black Power era of the Black Panthers and other social militant groups.

"The things I was being taught in school, I didn't believe it," he said. "It wasn't interesting enough for me. There were a lot of African American organizations, a lot of 'Black Power' this and that. I was around a lot of that knowledge. And I was always wondering 'what's my history?' I was being taught so much being around the folks I was around, that school was foreign to me."

Even becoming an artist, at first, seemed an unreachable goal. "I would ask anyone about great artists, and it was always Leonardo Di Vinci, Picasso, Monet, folks like that. It was never any black artists," Van Dusen said. "I finally got an answer from a teacher when I was in the seventh grade. She introduced me to people like Charles White [a Social Realist artist whose works from the 1940s to 1970s are largely devoted to prints and murals documenting the life of black America], and Selma Burke noted sculptor, who did a bust of President Franklin D.

Roosevelt that he posed for]." "I began to feel better because I was thinking maybe I'm not supposed to be an artist, that I couldn't achieve greatness. But there's a lot of great art out there."

Leaving The East Coast

After completing high school, Van Dusen came out to California for good at age 19 to become a singer. He first joined Gospel One, a singing ministry that performed for prisons, halfway houses and rehabilitation centers. He went on to sing with an R&B cover band called Smooth, which found steady work on the Las Vegas hotel circuit.

"That was tough for me," he said. "We worked six nights a week, four hours a night. We worked all the major hotels and casinos – Caesar's Palace, Luxor, Bellagio, MGM Grand. I pursued music about 30 years. But it never really satisfied me. I always came back to the art." Van Dusen said he retired from singing about three years ago, and has felt an overwhelming desire to draw and paint.

"Now I have a sense of urgency; I have so much to express," he said. "And it's not just pencil drawings and portraits. I do other things. I'm trying to put together a collection of African American history, because I've always wanted to do that.

"I wanted to have enough drawings to make a calendar. I've achieved that. I'll always do this. But I also want to do abstract art. And I also do oils." He said he has done as many as 100 pencil portraits in a calendar year, but puts no time frame on their beginning or end. For example, a portrait of Jimi Hendrix in the exhibit took about eight working hours. A John Coltrane portrait took a month.

"I never rush anything; each drawing let's me know when it's finished," he said.

The museum is located at 519 S. Brand Blvd., in San Fernando. Regular viewing hours are 11a.m. to 3 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. For more information, call (818) 838-6360.

Last Updated on Thursday, 10 January 2013 05:33

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