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Cleveland Artist Spotlights
A layered and acute sense of history is evident in the work of local visual artist Louis Burroughs. His large-scale paintings are vibrant, bold and colorful, but upon further inspection the works often give way to darker themes of slavery and unrest throughout African American history. “My paintings reference a history that dates back 500-600 years. It’s energy-infused work. I put the energy in the slaves in order to show their humanity without limits.”
Not only an artist, Burroughs spent many years as an activist, litigator, business person and historian, seeking out knowledge and social justice. As a means to convey a more honest, unrevised historical truth through his work, he manipulates the figurative elements in his paintings and sculptures into more abstracted imagery. This attempt to “minimalize the visual” oftentimes results in multiple iterations or studies of the same image, interpreted in visually different ways.
Though Burroughs took time away from his art-making practice, he has discovered his need to create is still essential in his life’s work. “There is a need to express myself beyond going to court, beyond anger and rebellion and a need to add my voice to the ongoing racial conversations in this country about the meaning of freedom. I needed to re-channel that energy I had spent fighting, litigating and protesting into some other form.”
Can you describe briefly the work that you do?
I am a writer, artist, and research consultant. My writing is about the evolution of African and African American art, and I make art that refracts the struggles of African Americans. My intention is to counter the American propensities toward forgetfulness, on the one hand, and historical revisionism, on the other. Each work is historically based, expressed with strong color, and provides layers of information through the use of symbols and universal icons.
How did I get introduced to my craft?
I was surrounded by creativity from birth. The inventor of the traffic light lived on one end of my street, and there was a sculptural garden of famous white men on the other end. In my family, there were storytellers, musicians and singers, quilt makers, basket weavers, creative cooks, spiritualists, and mystics. As early as first grade, but certainly by the third grade, teachers had begun to notice my doodling and encouraged me to make drawings. I was given pictures of medieval English knights in armor and Victorian women dressed in Elizabethan royal gowns with ruffled collars to copy. Then I was advanced to drawing classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art summer art programs where I drew landscapes and cartoons. In my Glenville neighborhood, I painted signs on businesses and murals of trains, baseball games, and picnics in the basements of houses owned by Jewish residents and the newly arrived black middle class. Although I was encouraged to continue with art after high school graduation, I did not pursue it for another thirty-five years. Around 2000, I began to do art again.
Do you have any long-standing influences?
Some of my earliest influences came from picture books, and later from famous paintings, specifically, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica and Jacques-Louis David’s The Intervention of the Sabine Women. At that time, I was not yet familiar with the African/Egyptian art. In the 1990s, I began to study and collect African American art after which it became a major influence, first through successful African American jazz, blues, gospel, and hip-hop musicians, and then through visual artists like hip-hop artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, vernacular artist Thornton Dial, and the Gee’s Bend Alabama quilt makers. European primitives such as Jean Dubuffet also can be called influencers in that I found their deliberate efforts to rid themselves of the sterility of European academic art, heroic. Add to that Norman Rockwell for his paintings of the struggles of African Americans to get a decent education.
Can you describe your idea of artistic success?
My work is successful when it brings ideas to life on the canvas or in sculpture and when each work speaks of itself, and for itself.
What is your process for generating new ideas? Where do my ideas come from?
I don’t believe I have a set process for creating new ideas. I am an avid reader of books, newspapers, and magazines and pick up ideas from travel, and from the three places I live - Ohio, Florida, and Ontario, Canada. Some of my ideas come from studying the work of other artists that I admire, while others are generated from my personal experimentation or improvement of earlier works.When I integrate these ideas into my art, I hope to become a participant and commentator on my African American culture and history on behalf of the ideas I believe in and care deeply about.
How do you feel your work affects your audience? (and or ) How do you want your art to affect your audience?
Audience implies a collection of people with expectations of being pleased by the work. It also implies some type of wish fulfillment to please on the part of the artist. For the most part, I have created my work in solitude, not aware of having an audience, or feeling the need to please an art critic. I do believe the minute artists begin to make art with the expectation of an audience in mind, the work is compromised. My work is grounded in the African American struggle that I am a part of, and which I believe all people can identify with as a universal experience. I would hope it proves capable of evoking responses such as curiosity, and confusion, or insights into our past and future. However the work is perceived, I hope it represents another example of individual self-expression.
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