Earle Taylor with "This is our Land"; portraits of Selma Burke and Miles Davis hang in the background. (Photo by Harry Kollatz Jr.)
She sits embracing her knees on a rock outcropping, barefoot in a white dress, her hair wild, the vista behind depicting ridges like breaking waves, a curtain of undulant mountains. Earle P. Taylor captured the somber, reflective portrait years ago at Rock Fish Gap along the Blue Ridge Parkway. He called the image, “This is our Land.” The subject, he says, is Water Lily Custalow, of the renowned Mattaponi tribe family.
The 88-year-old photographer, educator and social advocate is the subject of a hybrid portrait, “Earle of the Pine,” by painter Jeromyah Jones, on exhibit with a sample of Taylor’s photos at Pine Camp Cultural Arts & Community Center. The exhibition closes with a reception, Nov. 18, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., with Taylor and Jones scheduled to attend. “I wanted to recognize a giant in our community,” Jones says, “an humble giant.”
Taylor began his photographic instruction at Pine Camp in 1978 and taught until two years ago. His longevity and iconic status inspired Jones.
Taylor is proud of his background, which comes from strains of (he lists on long fingers) “African, Cherokee, Powhatan and Irish. We’re all scattered. We have the endurance of the African, the perception of the Indian and the aggressiveness of the Irish. My maternal grandmother was freed from slavery at age 9 [in South Carolina]. She died in my house.” His maternal grandfather, Franklin Milton Gregg, from the Pee Dee River country, at 16 joined the Confederate army and was promptly wounded in the leg at the Battle of Seven Pines and sent home due to his age. “I am in communication with my double-eighth Irish cousins,” Taylor says, eyes bright as he chuckles. “We’re all mixed, and always have been. We love conflict.”
The painting that captures Taylor is also a combination of approaches. His profile is rendered realistically, though he stands, holding a camera, in a somewhat fantastical version of the Pine Camp Cultural Arts Center and dressed in Renaissance-style clothing.
Jones refers to his style as “jariety.” He and his father, Jerome W. Jones, Jr. have painted landscapes alongside each other. In his portraiture, the Hampton University graduate seeks to blend the artistic movements that have inspired him. Jones explains: “The traditional classicism of William-Adolphe Bouguereau, the melancholy of Edward Hopper, the narrative of Jacob Lawrence and the pop art of Roy Lichtenstein.” He recently illustrated a children’s book, "Riley and How It All Started" by Ariel Wilkerson.
Taylor grew up in a Richmond neighborhood that brutalist urban planning wiped off the city’s map. Navy Hill, demolished by the interstates and the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park, got its name from a planned memorial to the deeds of the U.S. Navy during the War of 1812. But a market crash ended that plan. Prominent African-American families took root there before moving to newer homes in Jackson Ward later in the 19th century. The names are familiar: Banyon, Bell, Cephas, Christmas, Circus, Fountain, Gilpin, Mitchell and Swan, among many others. Taylor recalls the 1000 block of North First Street: “You’re not going to believe this when I tell you, but every house on either side of that block gave Richmond leaders. Quiet folks, but movers.”
Taylor came up Catholic in Navy Hill, one of six siblings including four brothers, and culturally adventurous. He was raised to understand that success was in his genes and that failure couldn’t happen. Prompted by such an attitude, he and his younger brother — “I was around 13 or 14,” he says — walked from the Catholic school to 19th and Grace streets, where they undertook art instruction at the Craig House. During the 1930s, one of Richmond’s oldest wooden frame houses was the venue for arts classes offered to African-Americans — one of the few places in Richmond where it was encouraged. Sculptor Leslie Garland Bolling exhibited work there and co-founded the arts education program.
Taylor took drawing lessons from Carnegie Fellow Philip Cox. But he learned not so much how to draw as how he didn't prefer it. “I have patience for you, but none with myself,” he says. What he did next changed his life. He purchased an ABC Photography Kit, which included developer and a little light box. “Put your negative down, put the paper on top of it, close it and push the button,” he recalls. “I was my own model. And I taped the camera on the back of the chair and ran the string and did this,” he jerks his finger to demonstrate, “and so I’m basically, to a point, self-taught through reading and experience.”
Among the photographs on display at Pine Camp is Taylor’s portrait of sculptor Selma Burke.
“She is my artistic inspiration,” he says. Though a prolific artist and educator, she is best known — controversially — as the creator of Franklin Roosevelt’s profile on the dime, that seems based on a bas-relief she made for installation at the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C. The coin’s engraver, John R. Sinnock, denied that he used Burke’s work. But Burke had Eleanor Roosevelt’s signature in her guest book to prove that the former First Lady came to her studio to approve the likeness.
Burke continued sculpting into her late age. Taylor, who became acquainted with Burke, took her portrait during the 1991 unveiling ceremony of a sculpture she created for the Pearl S. Buck Foundation.
He continued studying photography while in the U.S. Army Signal Corps at Ft. Gordon, Georgia. After this military stint he pursued photography at a University of Virginia extension in Richmond, where an instructor at the technical center criticized Taylor for the darkness of his images. They needed to be bright as postcards, and that wasn’t for him.
There are portraits of Miles Davis and Jasmine Guy. Taylor says he took 41 images of Davis, most of them during Richmond Jazz Society-sponsored concerts. The one in the show resembles a death mask: eyes lowered and closed, face foreshortened. Taylor relates how, during a press preview, Davis arrived dressed in a black leather outfit and sat at a table under lights, his face slick and bright with perspiration. “I knew that eventually he’d have to wipe his face or be blinded by sweat,” Taylor and gives a small chuckle. “So I waited for that shot. He grabbed a handkerchief and just before he brought it up, I got this of him. ”
Likewise, the Guy image shows the actress-director-singer-dancer at the previous location of the Black History Museum in an uncharacteristic mid-gesture, a finger to her cheek, “She’s thinking,” Taylor says. “I took a bunch of pictures of her posing, but this was the best one.” He deplores the rapidity of contemporary image taking, “People say they take, 70, 80, 100 shots, and it's bam bam bam! Why, I ask you? When do you take the time to think about what you’re looking at? You’re just firing off and hoping you get something.”
During the 1970s, Taylor helped produce black arts festivals around the city until he was approached by Pine Camp to teach photography. The center possessed no equipment and not even a darkroom. “We used the public bathroom as the darkroom,” he says. He taught youngsters — even taking them up in small planes to capture landscapes — and adults.
Taylor became a board member of the Last Stop Gallery on Main Street in Shockoe, which lasted from 1974 to 1995, and exhibited work of international and regional artists. He says the Last Stop started its Friday monthly openings in 1980. Taylor’s exhibitions have primarily taken place in university settings, which he prefers, because he’s not selling the work. He’s shown throughout the country, and in galleries in Brazil and the Caribbean. “My life has been really about supporting the cultural, political and Catholic life in Richmond,” he says. Taylor’s involvements have ranged from scouting to the Very Special Arts, which provides arts education for children and adults with disabilities.
Taylor lived in his family’s Navy Hill home until the bulldozers came and took it away in 1965. Almost all that is left of that old neighborhood are the sentiments etched on a memorial stone that sits now at Fourth and Jackson streets. “I wrote those words,” Taylor says.