John Outterbridge, Who Turned Castoffs Into Sculpture, Dies at 87

LOS ANGELES — John Outterbridge, a Los Angeles cultural leader and artist who made powerful sculptures from what is usually dismissed as junk or castoffs — a means of exploring loaded social issues as well as celebrating a history of African-American resourcefulness — died here on Nov. 12. He was 87.

His daughter, Tami Outterbridge, confirmed the death. No cause was given.

Mr. Outterbridge managed to balance his artmaking with his work as an arts educator and administrator. In 1969 he became director of the Compton Communicative Arts Academy, an old ice-skating rink converted into a community arts center. His influence extended to the building itself, where he embedded the harp of an old piano in a wall so that visitors could play the strings as they entered the space.

“It was a magical place,” said the artist Mark Steven Greenfield, who described Mr. Outterbridge as “a poet-philosopher or contemporary griot,” referring to the West African storytellers and history-keepers. “There was always something going on in there — it could be a musical performance, a drum circle or a children art’s workshop.”

John Wilfred Outterbridge was born to John Ivery and Olivia Northern Outterbridge on March 12, 1933, in Greenville, N.C. He was the second of eight children and is survived by four siblings: Freddie, Marvin and Robert Outterbridge and Jackie Outterbridge Parks.

He liked to say that his parents were the first artists he knew. His mother played piano, made drawings and wrote poetry, while his father scraped together a living by hauling and scavenging junk, which he often stored in the family’s backyard. John’s uncle Buddy was “a concert pianist with no concert stage” because he was Black, Mr. Outterbridge told the historian Richard Cándida Smith in 1989 for an oral history project at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The family home was covered with paintings by the children — even some window shades were hand-painted. And he was surrounded by the beauty of homemade things: his grandmother’s soap bars, stacked like buildings; wood floors bleached bone-white by all the lye; tall poles outside decorated with gourds that rattled and scared away the birds.

He enrolled at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in 1951 but left after a year to join the Army, to take advantage of the G.I. Bill. He trained as a munitions specialist and was stationed in southern Germany for two years during the Korean War.

Even his military years proved creative. He made small paintings of sights foreign to him, like villages with old cathedrals and cemeteries. During a barracks inspection one day his commanding office was rummaging through Mr. Outterbridge’s locker when a stash of paintings fell out. The officer confronted him: Where did you get these paintings?

I did these,” Mr. Outterbridge said, having to repeat it several times before he was believed.

The officer, who collected art, was impressed. He created a studio space for Mr. Outterbridge and gave him commissions to decorate officers’ clubs.

Asked about rags by curators and writers, he shared his memories. Sometimes he talked about the clothes his mother had sewn, or the fabric necklaces that his grandmother had stitched, with pouches for medicinal herbs. Or he recalled the rag collectors he had seen in Chicago, with their colored bundles.

“It was very exciting to hear the ragmen move in and out of the alleys calling up for rags,” he told Mr. Cándida Smith. One South Side ragman did particularly lively musical call-outs in the morning accompanied by a conga player.

His rags are layered with such personal and cultural history. They have stories to tell.

Sahred From Source link Arts

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