In the following poem, Robert Gibbons not only looks at David Driskell’s painting, he also thinks about it, draws on a deeper knowledge of the artist’s work and thought, and his own experience of confronting the challenge of American history and distortion.
Robert Gibbons and David Driskell had an ongoing correspondence over several years. Robert comments that Driskell responded, “on the very day I wrote the piece, July 4, 2018.” Among more personal details, in his note Driskell says, “What a treat to read your beautiful and insightful poem after you viewed OF THEE I WEEP . . . No one has ever looked at my work with the discerning eye you show and I am honored to have you see me worthy of your pursuit.”
Robert Gibbons is the author of 11 books of poetry. He first met David Driskell at Colby College after the artist’s conversation with then Museum Director, Sharon Corwin. Their extensive three-year correspondence is close to 500 pages in length. Gibbons read the poem included here at Greenhut Galleries in Portland during Driskell’s exhibit in 2018.
Betsy Sholl, Maine Arts Journal Poetry Editor
On David C. Driskell’s, Of Thee I Weep
On the eve American Independence Day am I
seeking Freedom more
than any other
day in life
since those early ones in the blue bedroom
wondering if I’d ever
find a way to be so?
So I make a pilgrimage down the road
from our fourth abode
in less than three years in order
to revisit a work of art that may better help me
understand the depths
of its meaning: David C. Driskell’s,
Of Thee I Weep.
Just last year the artist was in Paris giving
his vision of the importance of color,
not only as it transports content
of the work before the viewer’s eye
but again, as he has done so often, reiterates
it as demarcation,
The color line, that separation
of races over the course of American history
accounts for the instigation of uniqueness
in the black aesthetic,
& yet, rising out of the cruelty,
as he calls it, that mean spirited otherness
imposed by powers that be,
he sees Art as that entity
that rises… transcendent voice… above the color line.
There in Paris,
in addition to the essential scholarly trace
to Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. DuBois,
& the First Pan African Conference
in London in 1900,
David is not afraid
to put forth his own version
of what Peter Weiss terms, The Aesthetics of Resistance,
by citing such works of art
as Norman Lewis’, What Kind are You;
Elizabeth Catlett’s, Target Practice;
or Faith Ringgold’s, The Flag is Bleeding.
It’s Lewis, who in 1968,
the same year as Driskell’s, For Thee I Weep,
proclaimed, …violence is as homogeneous as apple pie to America.
Catlett’s sculpture could well be mistaken there
at Quai Branly for a Benin bronze head,
but for metallic crosshairs mimicking riflescope aimed at it.
Ringgold’s Flag is far from Jasper Johns’.
That better explains it for me, when I turn the corner
in the museum to view David’s anti-war, anti-oppression, anti-
status quo, pro-Liberty (in mourning) collage,
as something analogous to a bull’s-eye: My Country Tis of Thee,
first performed on July 4th, 1831
at a celebration of children’s Independence Day
at Park Street Church in Boston.
Image at top: David Clyde Driskell, Of Thee I Weep, acrylic and collage on fiberboard, 12 x 11 3/4 in., 1968, Colby College Museum of Art purchase from the Jere Abbott Acquisitions Fund.