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In Memoriam: African American Artists of Westbeth

It was a project like no other before.  The first subsidized housing for artists in the United States, offering affordable housing and work space in New York City, Westbeth is a large scale adaptive reuse of an industrial building for both artistic and residential purposes.  And it celebrates 50 years of life this year.

We are proud to highlight the remarkable history of Westbeth throughout this year on its golden anniversary.  Today’s post is in memoriam of all the African American artists who lived and worked at this place of great diversity and creativity.  We honor and salute them for the contributions they made to our society and hope that our post will encourage you to take a further look at their work and their  lives.

Benny Andrews
November 13, 1930 – November 10, 2006

Benny Andrews was a vivid storyteller, using memories of his childhood in the segregated South to create narrative-based works that addressed human suffering and injustice. Over his lifetime, his social concerns ranged from the civil rights struggle and the antiwar movement to the Holocaust, poverty, and the forced relocation of American Indians. His paintings, prints and collages are in the collections of more than 30 museums, including those of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Art Institute of Chicago.

For Benny there was no line where his activism ended, and his art began. To him, using his brush and his pen to capture the essence and spirit of his time was as much an act of protest as sitting-in or sitting-down was for me. I can see him now: thinking, speaking, articulating what needs to be done and in the next few moments trying to make real what he had been contemplating. He was honest to a fault, and I think it was his determination to speak the plain truth that shaped his demand for justice and social integrity. He never aligned with any political group, but would offer the full weight of his support to anyone he thought was standing for truth.”
— Congressman John Lewis

George Barrow
September 25, 1921 – March 20, 2013

George Barrow was a self-taught musician who learned to play the saxophone, flute and clarinet at the age of 23.  By the mid-1950s, he was performing and recording with Charles Mingus, Paul Chambers, Bill Evans, Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard, David Amram, Ernie Wilkins, and Roy Haynes.  He played on the acclaimed 1961 Oliver Nelson album The Blues and the Abstract Truth. That same year he also recorded the score of Elia Kazan’s film Splendor in the Grass, which won an Oscar for best screenplay.  Mr. Barrow played regularly at the Apollo Theatre. He also performed in Broadway orchestras, including the original production of ’42nd Street’ as well as Jelly’s Last Jam, among others.

Patti Bown
July 26, 1931– March 21, 2008

Patti Bown began playing piano at age of two.  She studied piano while attending the University in Seattle on a music scholarship. Starting in 1956 she worked as a soloist in NYC.  In 1958 she released the album Patti Bown Plays Big Piano for Columbia Records. The following year she was invited by Quincy Jones to join an orchestra for the European tour of the musical Free and Easy.While there she also played with Bill Colman in Paris. Through out the 1960s she worked extensively in the studios, recording with many of the greats.  Her musical compositions were recorded by jazz legends Sarah Vaughn, Benny Golson, and Duke Ellington. She also recorded with Aretha Franklin and James Brown.  She played in orchestra pits for Broadway shows and composed for film and television.

Patti Bown lived in  Greenwich Village for the last 37 years of her life, mostly at Westbeth, and played regularly at the Village Gate.

Carole Byard
July 22, 1941 – January 11, 2017

Carole Byard was a prolific visual artist and photographer, who was often inspired by her observation and love of nature.  During the course of her noteworthy career, Carole illustrated over a dozen children’s books, which include her Coretta Scott King Award-winning illustrations for Africa Dream (1978), Cornrows (1980), Grandma’s Joy (1981) and Working Cotton (1993), which received both the Caldecott and the King Honor Award. In November 2001, Carole did a one-woman show at the Atlantic City Art Center on the Boardwalk at New Jersey Ave. When interviewed by a reporter from the Press of Atlantic City who asked her why illustrating children’s books was so important to her, she replied, “I always loved reading, but none of the people in the pictures looked like me. When I worked on my first book I thought about the books I read when I was young. I knew it was important to make the most beautiful book I could make. This isn’t something I’m doing only for black children. Kids of all nationalities and races should see the world is made up of all kinds of people.” Equally significant was Byard’s “Rent Series,” a vintage collection of artwork beginning in the 1980s, which was inspired by a collection of her late father’s rent receipts kept in memory of his lifelong efforts to provide housing for their family.

Carol Cole
October 17, 1944 – May 19, 2009

Carole “Cookie” Cole was an American actress, music producer, and CEO of King Cole Productions. She was sometimes credited as Carol Cole. She was the daughter of singer and jazz pianist Nat King Cole and jazz singer Maria Cole, and the older sister of singer Natalie Cole. Cookie appeared on her father’s The Nat King Cole Show on television in the 1950s and went on to appear on TV and in movies in the 1960s and 70s. Her credits include Sanford and Son and the 1974 movie The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

Moses Gunn
October 2, 1929 – December 16, 1993

Moses Gunn was an American actor of both stage and screen. He is perhaps best known known for films such as Shaft (1971), Ragtime (1981), and Heartbreak Ridge, (1986).

He was the eldest of seven children. At twelve years old, after the death of his mother, he left home and rode the rails.

In 1954, Gunn enlisted in the U.S. Army where he served for three years. In 1957, he enrolled in Tennessee State University and received a B.A. degree two years later. From 1959 to 1961, he attended graduate school at University of Kansas where he studied speech and drama, but he didn’t receive an M.A. until he returned in 1989 to complete graduate work. Before moving to New York to begin his acting career in 1962, he taught briefly at Grambling University to earn enough to support his move.

Gunn start acting professionally at age thirty-two. He performed in several plays at Joseph Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park, and won an Obie award for his portrayal of Aaron in Titus Andronicus.  Gunn was also recognized for his work with an Emmy nomination for his role in the television mini-series Roots as Kintango. His numerous stage appearances included Othello and the original Off-Broadway  production of The Blacks, by Jean Genet. In 1968, Gunn co-founded The Negro Ensemble Company, a New York-based theater company, along with playwright Douglas Turner Ward, producer/ actor Robert Hooks, and theater manager Gerald S. Krone.

In 1981, he received the NAACP Image Award for his portrayal as Booker T. Washington in Ragtime.

Hugh Hurd
February 11, 1925 – July 15, 1995

Hugh Hurd was an American actor and civil rights activist. Hurd is known for his lead role in John Cassavetes’ debut 1959 feature film Shadows and for his organizing activities for African-American actors. Hurd was active in organizing work that combated racial discrimination against African Americans in general and African-American actors in particular. In the late 1950s he co-organized with Godfrey Cambridge and Maya Angelou fundraisers for Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Village Gate.  He co-founded the Committee for the Employment of Negro Performers with Godfrey Cambridge in 1962.  His was the fight of the black man in America seeking to be offered the elusive fair consideration for available opportunities. He asked for and expected what his talent and his citizenship had led him to believe he deserved: the right to compete, not with special privilege or preference, but on a level playing field.

Gilbert Moses
August 20, 1942 – April 15, 1995

Mr. Moses was a co-founder of the Free Southern Theater, a pioneering black touring company. In 1976 he and George Faison directed, staged and choreographed the Leonard Bernstein-Alan Jay Lerner musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on Broadway. The director’s emergence coincided with the proliferation of other black theater artists, beginning in 1969 with Amiri Baraka, then known as LeRoi Jones, and his play Slave Ship at the Chelsea Theater Center. Mr. Moses won an Obie Award for his production. After directing plays at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco and the Arena Stage in Washington, he moved to Broadway in 1971 as the director of Melvin Van Peebles’s earthy inner-city musical, Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death. He went on to direct Ed Bullins’s Taking of Miss Janie, at the Henry Street Settlement and then at Lincoln Center.

Madeleine Yayodele Nelson
September 16, 1948 – September 6, 2018

Madeleine Yayodele Nelson was the founder of Women of the Calabash, a company of percussionist/singers that celebrated the music of Africa and the African diaspora. The company performed in concerts and festivals across the U.S. and overseas. Nelson played a variety of percussion instruments, specializing in the shekere, a dried gourd covered with beads, which she handcrafted, played and taught. As a solo artist, Nelson recorded with Paul Simon, Edie Brickell, and Billy Harper. She was also involved with a number of groups in addition to her own, notably mbiraNYC, Kalunga, and Alakande!

Women of the Calabash often performed at clubs, theaters and schools, sometimes using other African instruments, such as the mbira and hand drums. Ms. Nelson had the distinct honor to perform in front of four presidents: Barack Obama, at a fund-raiser; Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president, who was then in exile in Africa; Thomas Sankara, the president of Burkina Faso; and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia and Africa’s first elected female head of state.

Laurie Ourlicht
August 9, 1953 – December 24, 2010

Laurie Ourlicht was a printmaker whose  work consisted of large scale monoprints featuring images of wrestlers and bodybuilders. ‘These figures suggest power struggles and bravura. I’ve always been interested in working with the human body.’ Her dramatic monoprints demonstrated her ability to apply color in an expressionistic manner while maintaining concise and distinctive figurative forms. … Through her art, she was interested in expressing a quality of beauty that extended beyond the narrow limits that dominate contemporary society.

Cordell Reagon
February 22, 1943 – November 12, 1996

Bob Zellner, Bernice Reagon, Cordell Reagon, Dottie Miller (Zellner), and Avon Rollins in Danville, Virginia, June 1963. Photograph by Danny Lyon
Cordell Reagon was a Nashville, Tennessee native. Reagon was 16 in 1959 when he emerged as a leader of the civil rights movement in Albany, Ga. Reagon was a SNCC activist in Albany and Southwest Georgia from 1961 to 1963. In 1962 he became a founder of the Freedom Singers, usually a quartet of two men and two women who sang gospel-style freedom songs to rouse support for the civil rights movement. He was married to fellow Freedom Singer Bernice Johnson. In the late 1960s and early 70s, Mr. Reagon became active in the movements against the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons, and environmental destruction. In 1988 he moved to Berkeley, where he founded the environmental group Urban Habitat and Urban Justice Organization.

Freddie Waits
April 27, 1943 – November 18, 1989

Freddie Waits was “the house drummer” for Motown Records, performing with the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, and Stevie Wonder, among others.  After moving to New York, he worked with Little Willie John at Small’s Paradise in Harlem. Later he was an original member of the New York Jazz Sextet and a member of M’Boom, the percussion choir. Mr. Waits performed with numerous artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, Donald Byrd, Sonny Rollins, Freddie Hubbard, Johnny Hodges, Richard Davis, Jackie McLean and Reggie Workman.  His son is African American jazz drummer, Nasheet Waits.

Dudley Williams
August 18, 1938 – May 31, 2015

Photo by Ruby Washington for the New York Times

Dudley Williams was a leading dancer for the Alvin Ailey company for more than four decades, performing into his 60s.

Mr. Williams was dancing with the Martha Graham Dance Company when he was recruited by the choreographer Alvin Ailey as a last-minute replacement for an Ailey troupe member in 1963. He performed with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater until 2005.  He continued to dance with with a group he formed called Paradigm, a trio of older dancers including Carmen de Lavallade and Gus Solomons Jr.  In 2004, when Mr. Williams was preparing to retire after four decades in dance, an interviewer asked about the unique longevity that characterized his remarkable career. He simply replied, “Good Lord. I love it. I absolutely love it. I think God gave me a talent, and if I don’t use it, shame on me. That’s the way I look at it. I love dancing. I love performing, and I can still do it. Why not? Why not?”

At 75, in 2013, Mr. Williams returned to the stage for an Ailey company New Year’s Eve performance of Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham, the rousing finale of the troupe’s classic Revelations, which was choreographed by Ailey.  He continued to teach dance at The Alvin Ailey School until he died.


The Richard Meier-designed fire escape balconies at Westbeth’s inner courtyard. Photo courtesy of Bob Estremera.

In 2011, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) voted unanimously to landmark Westbeth, following through on a promise made to Village Preservation and other community groups working to extend landmark protections in the Far West Village.  In 2009, Village Preservation’s nomination of Westbeth was accepted by the New York State Historic Preservation Office, and the complex was listed on the State and National Register of Historic Places, providing opportunities for grants and loans to help with restoration and maintenance of the complex.

Westbeth remains an affordable housing complex for more than 350 working artists, providing live/work spaces, studios, and galleries.

For more information on the history of the site, you may view the NYC LPC designation report or the State and National Registers of Historic Places nomination form. Also, you can access oral histories conducted by Village Preservation with many of the key figures behind Westbeth’s founding.  You can see more about the first-of-its-kind artists loft tour of Westbeth which GVSHP and the Westbeth Artists Residents Council held in 2010, marking Westbeth’s 40th anniversary andVillage Preservation’s 30th, which showcased dozens of artists’ collections and their Richard Meier-designed live/work spaces.  See the links below:

Village Preservation’s Westbeth State and National Register of Historic Places Nomination and Listing
Announcement of and information on Westbeth landmarking and landmark designation report
Village Preservation’s Westbeth Historic Plaque Unveiling
National Register of Historic Places listing of Westbeth’s Bell Telephone History
Village Presevation Westbeth Oral Histories
Village Preservation Westbeth News
Village Preservation Westbeth Blog Posts
Recap of, information about, and pictures of Village Preservation and Westbeth’s Artist Loft Tour

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