The power of an image can foment social change.
Images can depict reality opposed to stereotypes, can promote understanding and whittle away at entrenched racism.
Peoria artist Michael Adams understands that power. He drew on his experiences as an African American growing up on Peoria’s Southside, studying at Bradley University, years of traveling, living in Chicago and teaching art at Peoria’s Quest Academy to conceptualize and create paintings and drawings that tell stories.
One of his recent works is a charcoal drawing of Frederick Douglass, iconic American figure who was once a slave and became a leading intellectual, abolitionist and orator.
New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote: “Frederick Douglass made himself the most photographed American of the 19th century, which is kind of amazing. He sat for 160 separate photographs (George Custer sat for 155 and Abraham Lincoln for 126 …) Douglass used his portraits to change the way viewers saw Black people.”
Adams approached his work depicting Douglass understanding how students in his art classes at Quest would see a historical figure who was a social reformer. Many of the issues Douglass championed more than a century ago are current today –– human rights, equality, justice, universal voting, women’s rights.
The portrait Adams created is both “historical and fashionably forward,” the artist said. “The kids could be inspired. Kids are driven by popular culture — cool and violence. In Douglass, they see total focus.”
Brooks wrote in the NYT that by sitting for so many portraits, Douglass “was using art to reteach people how to see.”
Brooks wrote, “With his portraits, Douglass was redrawing people’s unconscious mental maps. He was erasing old associations about blackness and replacing them with new ones.”
Adams donated his portrait of Douglass to the local scholarship fundraiser Soup for the Soul. At auction, it was purchased by Erica Asbell, wife of Peoria County Sheriff Brian Asbell as a gift for her husband. It hangs in the sheriff’s office.
Here is what the sheriff wrote:
The portrait was purchased by my wife Erica from a silent auction at this year’s Soup for the Soul event. This is one of our favorite fundraising events of the year, and we always look for ways to support meaningful community programs, such as the Hope Renewed Youth Conference project.
My wife made this purchase for a couple of reasons. The first being this was an incredible work of art completed by a local artist, Michael Adams, and second she saw the importance of the man memorialized, Frederick Douglass. My wife believes in the message I often deliver in relation to criminal justice reform, and understands with my role as Sheriff, this often takes courage because it challenges the system.
Frederick Douglass is the epitome of courage. Frederick Douglass was a brilliant man who used his words to fight for the freedom and rights of African Americans. He was extremely influential and became a trusted voice to President Abraham Lincoln, which ultimately led to the Emancipation Proclamation.
By no means can I be compared to either of the great men just identified, however I live by a code which is best summed up by a quote from Bryan Stevenson, ‘Always do the right thing, even when the right thing is the hard thing.’
My wife saw this message in this portrait and now it is proudly displayed in my office as a reminder of how significant courage can be.
Adams said he likes that symbolism.
The artist describes himself as a Libra who is balanced, diplomatic and focused on justice.
“We have created a society that makes truth taboo. Things that once seemed so farfetched aren’t anymore,” he said. “Society separates us but it also connects us.”
He said, “Art gives us the ability to control. It gives us license over computers. Art gives us a language. Humans can read a portrait with emotion. A computer can’t.”
He cited teachers who influenced him at Bradley including John Heintzman, Ken Hoffman, Ann Coulter, Oscar Gillespie, Fisher Stolz and Harold Linton. At Trewyn Middle School there was Don Mason and at Manual High School there was Larry Hendricks.
These were art teachers who recognized and mentored him, he said. understanding that he has always been spiritual, deplores wasting time and values law, balance and justice.
With upcoming art exhibitions on hold due to COVID-19, Adams is working primarily from his home studio. His work can be viewed on his website, www.thelowid.com. His website is derived from what Adams said is the way many Black pastors pronounce “the Lord” and it reflects his own spirituality.