Discovery is at the heart of T.J. Reddy’s drive to create, to find the ties that bind us to nature and each other.
For more than five decades, the 71-year-old artist, poet and activist has “done the work,” he said, and neither incarceration nor, most recently, a cancer diagnosis could derail his “creative resolve.”
Reddy was convicted in 1972 in a civil rights case known as “The Charlotte Three” and was released from prison in 1979 after his sentence was commuted.
While imprisoned and not allowed to have paints, he used ashes from cigarette butts and spent matches to create smudge paintings. He processed colors from the pigment of small flowers and dandelions around the prison yard.
When they took away his guitar, Reddy said, “I would whistle like a harmonica,” referencing a line from his book, “Poems in One-Part Harmony.”
“I knew that my mind was what was free and nothing could contain that — no walls, no guns, no bars. Nothing could stop me from being able to express myself.”
A retrospective of his work, “Everything is Everything,” is on view at the Projective Eye Gallery at UNC-Charlotte Center City.
And it is the work that is important to Reddy. “No matter how much anyone may dislike my work or myself, they cannot dispute that the work is there. It is done,” he said.
The nature of ‘Everything’
Growing up in Savannah, Ga., in the 1950s, Reddy’s inquisitiveness was stoked by hearing his elders talk about human nature — “that’s their nature,” he would hear, and wondered, “What do they mean by that?”
“Creativity for me is the art of discovery — which was prominent and positive in my life as a child,” Reddy said.
“As I began exploring, it became obvious to me that human beings are part and parcel of a much larger dimension of life. We cannot exist without nature being a precedent for the ecology of our being.”
He studied the elements of the periodic table, the nucleus of a cell. Dug into root sources, exploring trees in Africa, which lead him to look more closely at leaves, and the leaves lead him to look at fish. A narrative for his work began to take shape.
Reddy’s art, including his poetry, is rooted in three concepts: nature, education and human ecology. It is a narrative he started exploring, experiencing and experimenting with in the late 1960s, first with found-objects art.
Then in the 1970s, he started “looking at stuff more cosmically,” Reddy said. “The ‘everything is everything’ relationship began to have a meaning for me to use as narrative in my work — something I could speak to that was unique and definitive and would allow me a unique perspective for expressing what I thought, what I felt, what I saw, what I knew in my work as a visual artist.”
But he’s not just an artist, Reddy said. “I am a being whose connection is associated with my ancestry — an African origin. My blackness, my African-ness, my color is infused in every pore of my being. The source of the art comes from me.”
“Nothing has ever held (Reddy’s) creative energy back,” said curator Crista Cammaroto.
Cammaroto has known the artist for about 15 years and said he is always positive, progressive and forward-moving. She calls Reddy a “social surrealist,” saying his work is almost like magic realism.
Reddy feels very deeply about how we treat each other, she said, and that’s reflected in his paintings, which “always have a tribe of people present somehow.
“There are so many layers of paintings and we wanted to do big significant bodies that worked together in a narrative, a little bit of his life and the different philosophies” he’s expounded in his work, Cammaroto said.
Reddy’s poems, portraits of family members and a special collection of documents from “The Charlotte Three” history also are on display.
More Reddy thoughts, edited for brevity:
Sustaining creativity while in prison: Just because you’re incarcerated or in a place where you have walls and bars and guards, how is that any different from being outside of prison walls? We’re prisoners, we’re slaves, we’re detained, we’re incarcerated. If we stop to really, really think about it, what’s the difference between being inside or out? … Just because you put handcuffs on me, you think my mind is bound or binded by an inability to think?
Admiration for teachers: They are a great source to know how to make our lives relevant. (They provide) knowledge about sustaining and nourishing ourselves, and being nurtured. (One of Reddy’s body of works includes a series titled “Scenes for the Teacher.”)
Black on black crime: We are turning into what it is that we do not like about what others are doing to us as people of African descent. … We have become them — the colonial mindset, the imperialism, the aggression, the enslavement of the mind, the genocidal psychology that’s rampant.
We become the oppressors — to ourselves and each other — and we do the bidding of others who do not want us to be alive in the first place.
What still inspires the work? One word — children. … What have we left for future generations to reference what it is to be a person concerned about the well-being of others, the environment? ... The ruin of a nation begins in the home. ... What legacy are we leaving them to show that we really care about them?