Remembering Romare Bearden

The reporter who knew him best celebrates the famous artist


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In works like this one, (Back Porch Serenade, 1977 Collage on Masonite, with color inks and pencil, Collection of The Mint Museum), Bearden relied as much on his imagination of life here as he did his memories. To him, they were one and the same.

Courtesy of Romare Bearden

(page 1 of 4)

I was surprised but I tried not to show it.

I had just sat down in the cluttered living room of Romare Bearden’s fifth-floor walkup on Canal Street in Lower Manhattan. For weeks I had been delving into the life of the Charlotte-born artist, who’d lived in New York for decades. The rising star of his career would soon reach an apogee with his being called by multiple critics the foremost African American artist of the twentieth century. But the details of his early years in Charlotte remained unknown, even to him.

Full of questions, working on a story for The Charlotte Observer, I worried about what reporters always worry about: how do you establish a rapport with someone you’ve never met and get him to talk?

A steaming day in late summer 1980 filled the small apartment with heat, unrelieved by air conditioning or the sluggish air flowing through an open window. Bearden, who battled his bulk all his life, carried 206 pounds on a five-foot-ten-inch frame. With a shaved head, big ears, and benevolent countenance, he looked like a Buddha sitting in an armchair as his three cats prowled nearby. Unselfconsciously, he unzipped his blue jump suit and began swabbing his ample belly and hairy chest with a green washcloth.

Sensing I was taken aback by this sudden display of skin, and realizing that I, too, was sweating, he reached over and tilted a small fan in my direction. I smiled. He smiled. I flipped open my notebook and we began to talk.

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