On a Chicago sidewalk in 1944, rabbits hang by their feet outside a shopfront — the street looks surprisingly like North Adams today with its low brick shopfronts and snow on the pavements, but the car at the curb is vintage, curved like a Volkswagen bug, and the three men talking beside the shop are wearing fedora hats.
They are gesturing as they talk, friends standing around informally having a conversation on a winter day, and a woman walks by grinning. Los Angeles artist Lorenzo Baker has brought them to the attention of the Berkshires, in an art project that spans 365 days, and more than 300 years, and 3,000 miles.
He is exploring the richness of human experience and the daily lives of Black Americans in What Happens if February Never Ends? — a collaboration with Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts through 2022, from New Year’s Day to December 31.
Every day for a year, he has been posting an artwork to Instagram. He is creating a stream of collages. Uncovering photographs from Internet archives and other open sources, he overlays contrasting images, from planets to everyday tools in bright colors. And to cap it he has now opened an installation in the MCLA ArtLab at the center of downtown North Adams.
He is drawing on elements of comedy and the absurd, Afrofuturistic visions and technologies to build an experience of time travel, he said. The images in his feed do not appear in chronological or linear order. He weaves them like a web, connecting freely across centuries and space.
He has found himself drawn to images with a sense of vastness, and at the same time to images of people coming together, interacting in small groups, sometimes celebrating.
‘There’s not a lot of breaking news,” he said. “It’s about just living. Something can always be amplified.’ — Lorenzo Baker
“There’s not a lot of breaking news,” he said. “It’s about just living. Something can always be amplified.”
A woman leans out a train window dressed for a party. Another stands foursquare on a trail in the snow, and the understory trees around her are still bright with fresh powder after the storm.
“It’s exciting,” he said, “because the smallest moment can be historic, and huge moments can be too, and ebb the flow of that is what makes the subject of history so interesting.”
In his 350 images and counting, he has honored well-known leaders and historical figures, Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King, Malcolm X and more — trying to give unexpected and human views of them and holistic representations of their lives. And he has recognized people who often don’t appear in history books.
“I want to expand the conversation, to include the whole array of people involved,” he said.
In another image from c. 1944, a woman in glasses calmly works with a tool like a soldering iron — actor, writer, and Civil Rights Activist Ruby Dee is on the job as a wire worker for the Western Electric Company, an engineering and manufacturing concern, in World War II.
She would go on to win Grammy, Emmy and Obie awards and create the role of Ruth Younger in the stage and film versions of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun in 1961 — and emcee the 1963 March on Washington.
Looking back across a year of the February project, Baker recalls a wealth of surprises and discoveries.
“It’s incredible to me for many reasons,” he said. “Discovering propels me forward, and the historical aspects — I had no idea there were all these people buried under Central Park, or this person invented the photographic process used to capture the moon landing.”
George Carruthers was a NASA scientist, and he invented the ultraviolet camera and spectrograph for the Apollo 16 mission.
“Without (him) we wouldn’t have those images,” Baker said, “and this idea of what the moon looks like on its surface. It changes your perspective, and the perspective of what it means to be a person and alive.”
It’s a living project, he said. The work is evolving from day to day, and he has shifted his vision and approach over time. When he began, he often brought in art historical influences — geometric abstractions, hard-edged.
“As I went on,” he said, “I had an investment in light and how light plays a role in the depiction of an image. Photography is all light.”
He focused more on emphasizing elements beyond the main focal point in the image, he said. Over time, he has chosen different kinds of images.
“They are less politicized,” he said, “and more the everyday, and the strangeness of the everyday. Anything can happen.”
Images can clearly come from another time, he said, and feel immediately relatable.
“I saw an image of kids playing basketball,” he said. “The referee is throwing the ball — and the kids are in loafers and jeans and button-up shirts, but it’s an image so much like what you’d see in the NBA.
“Moments like that slow you down, and I think about human experiences and so many things passed down.”
“… Something not of this day and not contemporary puts you into a state of mind — it’s joyful — someone has the power to take this photo and document it, and you have the people in the photo and their awareness of being photographed. …”
“The project has become an ever-expanding guide on understanding America and Black people and contributions and perspectives,” he said, “and that gets so amazing. And it breaks open so many American myths we have — like the one that George Washington never told a lie. Here is one he told to keep a woman in bondage. And you look at the American flag and who did the stitching …
‘It’s (about giving) a more holistic depiction of the story that involves more and lines up with the idea that all people are created equal and that America is this cosmopolitan place.’
“It’s interesting because to me it’s not about disproving, or saying this group are legit and this one isn’t — it’s (about giving) a more holistic depiction of the story that involves more and lines up with the idea that all people are created equal and that America is this cosmopolitan place. We know more — it’s not just speculation — and it’s contemporary.”
On a holiday weekend, he watched the recent film Hidden Figures, telling the stories of three Black women mathematicians at NASA. In the midst of his ongoing search through the past, the movie leads him to wonder what else he does not yet know about the history of this country, and what he believes that might turn out to look different on closer examination.
“… The information and knowledge we have about something passed down like a game of telephone,” he said.
Details can get changed and omitted. Given political climate in the last few years and the prevalence of alternative ‘facts,’ it’s important for him to take a step back and know the whole story, and to encourage an expansive understanding.
“It’s an important moment for us,” he said, “for American society and Global society.”
To know clearly what did and did not happen, and what his high school history books did and did not talk about, and why — that breadth of knowledge makes history, and the present, and the future, much richer.
He looks to Carter G. Woodson, the scholar who led to the adoption of Black History Month, and and the idea of witness. Woodson’s goal was to make the experiences of Black people in America a part of everyday history, Baker said, so talking about their experiences becomes no different than talking about Irish immigrants in the potato famine, Jewish families on the Lower East Side, Lakota visionaries, and all of the people and lives and experiences making up this country.
“That’s different from saying that we’ll only talk about this or only emphasize this,” he said. “What happens if February never ends is that talking about these histories and people also never ends, and we merge 28 days into every day.”
And as he looks to the past, he looks equally to the future, he said — to bring ideas of the future into close proximity with today, and constantly place Black people and people of color in the future.
“It’s important, with all the atrocities that have happened,” he said.
And so in his hands a collage around a group of people laughing on a roller coaster can simultaneously hold a reference to 1970s technology and to Saturn rising in the sky behind them. Baker is collapsing space, making a ringed planet billions of light-years away look as familiar as the sun.
“What happens if you’re in a field of stars?” he asks. “When you encounter the image, you think ok, I know there’s so much more. Futuristic elements push open (those thoughts) and expand the mind.”