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A biographical reflection on the art and life of Horace H. Pippin—the best-known African-American artist of his time—Primitive is a critique on current perceptions surrounding African-American folk art, as well as the absence of key African-American history in present-day curricula. Award-winning poet Janice Harrington connects readers with a fascinating, odds-defying artist, all while underscoring the human need for artistic expression.
Poet and children's author Harrington (The Hands of Strangers) pays tribute to African-American painter Horace Pippin (1888 1946), presenting ekphrastic poems about the painter's work alongside historical insights into his aesthetic choices and his journals. Pippin, a WWI veteran, began painting to work through trauma, depression, and a wounded right arm. Harrington highlights the war's impact on Pippin's work, particularly in the poems "Horace Pippin's Red" and "Tell My Heart": "Watch closely: A wounded vet, Negro doughboy,/ coddles a hog-bristle brush dipped in leftover house paint." Several poems, including "A Canel" (meaning candle) and "Finding the Words," borrow lines and brief passages from Pippin's journals. "You called it teribell grond of sarro," Harrington writes, "spelled/ so that we hear the voices ringing with terror." The artist's own words lend poignancy to the poems and underscore the sense of dread that haunts his images. This collection not only recalls specific paintings by Pippin but returns to the ideas of satisfaction emerging in the process of painting, and painting exactly what he saw. These two recurring ideas lend weight to his experiences as a veteran during the Jim Crow era. Harrington gracefully honors Pippin's words and work through her spare lines, strong sense of narrative, and subtle sonic repetitions.