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Prominent black artist has show at LaGuardia

In celebration of Black History Month, the fifth floor of LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City now sports an exhibit that not only showcases the work of a prominent black American artist, but his portraits of prominent black Americans and their culture.

LaGuardia, at 31-10 Thomson Ave., formerly opened its exhibit of the early work of Massachusetts-based watercolor painter Richard Yarde last week. Until Feb. 26, visitors will be able to see paintings from two early series of Yarde’s. The first, “Picturing a People,” features portraits of prominent African Americans and the second is made up of paintings based on dancers and bands at the Savoy Ballroom, a hot dance spot in Harlem from 1926 to 1958.

“I think it brings a real level of spirit to the college,” said Cris Cristofaro, art gallery director for LaGuardia, “especially during Black History Month.”

LaGuardia’s exhibit is meant to complement a separate showing of the artist’s at the Wilmer Jennings Gallery at Kenkeleba at 219 E. 2nd St. in Manhattan. Kris Jefferson, the curator of both exhibits, said Yarde, who is ill and could not attend the exhibit opening, had despaired of not being able to have another show.

Jefferson curated the Manhattan exhibit first, but after a plan to set up another artist’s work at LaGuardia fell through, she suggested bringing Yarde’s early work to the college. The pieces at Kenkeleba are of Yarde’s later work, painted after his 1993 kidney failure, and are more abstract and centered around the theme of healing.

In a phone interview with the TimesLedger Newspapers, Yarde, who is 72, said it was wonderful for him to be showing in New York again.

“I feel like I’m on a path to get back in the groove so to speak,” Yarde said, “to get my work back into the public eye.”

Yet Jefferson said the trademark of Yarde’s work is his unique watercolors, which are painted in a series of block patterns. His art is significant for his mastery of such an unforgiving medium — mistakes cannot be corrected in watercolors — and the significant size of the paintings, which can be as large as 10 feet by 10 feet in his later work.

Jefferson said Yarde, who was born in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, was considered a child prodigy and began taking classes at the Boston Museum at age 7. He later received a scholarship to Boston College and went on to teach at numerous universities, such as Smith and Harvard. His parents brought him up with an investment in his heritage, which led to works such as the African-American heroes series. Those in portrait include dancer Josephine Baker, athlete and actor Paul Robeson, blues singer Bessie Smith, boxer Jack Johnson, writer Zora Neale Hurston and 20th century´╗┐ preacher Charles Manuel “Sweet Daddy” Grace, who founded the United House of Prayer for All People Church in Massachusetts.

“I hope people will recognize who is being portrayed and see the beauty in the portrayal,” Yarde said of his African-American series.

Yarde’s passion for African-American culture also produced his Savoy Ballroom series. A popular meeting place for people of all races, Yarde’s series features young black Americans in mid-dance, often twirling around their partners or leaping into the air. The work has been complemented by a LaGuardia-made video of footage from the Savoy.

“How you get joy, so much joy, off these two-dimensional drawings is so extraordinary,” said Gail Mellow, president of the college.

Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at rhenely@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.

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