Just Out Here Livin’ His Best Life: Goin’ Back and Forth With Cedric Michael Cox
Cedric Michael Cox is a fun and intriguing mix of oxymorons: suburban yet urban, complex yet simple, the hip hop vibes of Public Enemy yet the symphonic sounds of the progressive rock band “Yes,” guest lecturer at Cincinnati Taft Museum of Art as well as prek-8th grade arts educator at St. Francis Parish. This collection of oxymorons offers just a tiny glimpse into the rich life of Cedric Michael Cox. However, getting to the core of the man behind the art is not a linear, straight forward process. Instead, his story is told through a series of experiences and pivotal moments. Much like his art, the viewer, listener, or reader is given the freedom to draw his or her own conclusions. If I had to identify a theme for Cox’s life, it would definitely be freedom. The word itself or stories that bring the word to life are woven throughout his conversations and reflections on his life as an artist and as an African-American artist. Admittedly limited in my knowledge of artistic terms, I quickly found myself drawn into Cox’s smooth way of weaving lessons on art and art history into our casual conversation. Though surprised at his revelation of his current work as both a working artist and a prek – 8th grade arts educator, it was not difficult to see how he is able to easily navigate between the world of young learners all the way to the world of more seasoned connoisseurs of art he encounters during his travels, lectures and residencies. As we chatted, I too, became a student.
Although I had done some preliminary research on Cox and his work, I found that as I read more, I wanted to know more. I took notes and jotted down questions. I quickly realized that in order to catch what Cox was putting down, I would need to abandon my somewhat structured, linear plan and follow his more scenic route – one that felt like a casual Sunday evening ride with no destination in mind but would prove to be a carefully chartered journey with a clear end goal. As I continued to gently push for more insight on the man behind the art, Cox slowly released pieces to the puzzle. Much like his Cubist inspired work – the puzzle pieces were provided in fragments but all worked together to tell a story of inspiration, self-awareness, evolution, and freedom. I was curious about what had truly shaped Cox into the artist and man he is today. In spite of my earlier revelation, I still, for some reason, expected a quick trip down memory lane that would talk about childhood and key people in his early art journey. He did reveal a couple of pretty straight forward details – his family was supportive and he was typically the only black kid around growing up. Good to know but I would soon find that’s not really the info that tells the story.
Again, instead of the very linear journey I was expecting, Cox shared four pivotal moments that shaped his career. During college, he received a fellowship to study in Scotland and realized the opportunity had pushed him to begin to take his calling as an artist more seriously. Fast forward to 2012, and he realized that his work had transitioned. He was using bolder, brighter colors; the work was more fun and reminiscent of someone who felt “free.” It was also around this time that he decided he didn’t want to be in a box that limited him to just being known for city scapes. This particular evolution really began around 2010. That year he completed three solo exhibitions in one year and began to realize that people didn’t tend to gravitate toward his cityscapes and geometric work quite as much anymore. By 2012, he looked up and had evolved without really realizing it initially. Yet a third pivotal moment was during a solo exhibition at the Taft Museum of Art. He was asked to give a lecture on artist George Innis. In the process of researching and preparing, a lightbulb came on. He realized that Innis’ subject matter never really changed, but the way he articulated it did. This “aha moment” has remained with him over the years. Lastly, a move to Cincinnati Arts District, Over-the-Rhine, proved to be particularly pivotal. It was after this move, he tells me, that his work really became more complex and more thought, variety, and contrast could be seen in his work. The move had truly shaped his aesthetic. As a child, he grew up in the suburbs of Cincinnati where everything pretty much looked the same. The move to Cincinnati’s urban historic district is what really shaped his aesthetic as an artist and triggered a deeper interest in urban structure, the environment around him and its details.
Creatives, whether it be artists, writers, or musicians, are always asked to talk about who inspires them and why. Cox began by telling me, or teaching me really, about Picasso, founder of Cubism, and the strong Cubist influence seen throughout his own work. We also talked about John Biggers which led us down a very interesting side street, if you will. Our discussion about Biggers first led Cox to reflect for a moment on an experience he had in college. While Cox didn’t necessarily list this as one of his four pivotal moments, I think it really speaks to his aesthetic as an artist, who he is as a person, and what I imagine might be at least part of the foundation of his teaching philosophy. He begins to talk about Biggers again briefly and pauses to re route the discussion again to finish sharing details about what seemed like the moment he came to terms with his place in the world of both art and African-American art. There was time, particularly during his college years, where he found himself trying to fit into the mold of what he thought an African-American artist should be and of what he thought others thought African-American art should look like. It didn’t work. Instead, the words of his art instructor – Professor Terrance Corbin resonated with him. Cox said Corbin told him to, “Go with what you feel. Go with what your experience is.” As he talked about Corbin, I detected an ever so subtle change in Cox’s voice. Nothing overt but just a little something that suggested that it was at this moment that he really and truly became free. Free to be an artist without boundaries and free to be an artist not forced to fit into anyone else’s notions of what an African-American artist should be. We made our way back around to Biggers, and Cox shared that his love for Biggers’ work is what pushed him to try and explore his own “blackness” in his art more. While he thoughtfully points out similarities between he and Biggers – such as shared interest in mythical literature, he also acknowledges that Biggers work resonated because his art is what he lived. He traveled to Africa. He studied the culture, so the African presence in his work happened organically and felt natural. He instead began to take a deeper look at Biggers and instead of solely focusing on how his identity shows up in his art, focus on his ability to infuse his experiences into his work. I’m certain this revelation was not a new one for Cox, but the intensity and passion with which he talked about it was if he was thinking about it for the first time all over again. He goes on to talk about a piece of work he created that was inspired by an African mud cloth hanging in his studio. The piece was successful because he had followed Professor Corbin’s advice and used something that was already in his space that he loved to inspire his work. It was a natural progression. It was effortless, and the story behind the mud cloth resonated with him. It was in this moment that he realized that simply being himself is in fact a black presence. Not only that, but his art has opened doors for him. It’s a bridge. It’s inviting. It’s a way to communicate with people he might not normally communicate with. These, too, are the notions he embeds in the minds of his young students – Art is a bridge, and it can take you wherever you want to go. As one with a particular interest in urban education, this point raised by Cox made me think, for a moment, about access and how all too often people of color miss out on certain opportunities because they don’t have the resources, network, or knowledge needed to gain access. While access is a topic for another time, I do hope that young people will realize, like Cox did, that they can create their own path or build their own bridge instead of waiting for someone to give them permission. Cox asserts, “I’m aggressive and fearless. I spend how I want. I build my market how I want. My work speaks for itself. I’m a black artist creating art.” Simple.
This intense, thought provoking conversation about the black presence led us over to another artist Cox also names as having an influence on his work and one he is often compared to – abstract expressionist Norman Lewis. Born in 1909, Lewis was particularly interested in using his art to focus on the struggles of the black community as well as various facets of black urban life. While he wanted to use his art as a form of social and political commentary of the times, he found himself becoming somewhat disillusioned with the world around him and instead becoming more focused on his aesthetic development. As his work gradually became more abstract, Lewis realized that he didn’t really fit into the African American art world or the mainstream art world. He was still too black for mainstream, and the African American art world felt as though his shift had completely eliminated the “blackness” from his art – so he didn’t quite fit in anywhere. I, of course, wondered if Cox had also found himself in a similar space being “accused” of creating work that somehow “lacked blackness.” I don’t know that he necessarily gave me a clearly defined yes or no answer, but what he was very clear on is that he doesn’t see his blackness as a boundary and embraces the freedom that comes with being ok with not fitting into the traditional notions that sometimes come with being an African American artist. He again mentions, as almost an affirmation of sorts that, “Being myself is a black presence. My work is social activism because I’m doing it my own way – without trying. That’s the beauty of art. So many boundaries already exist about how people of color represent ourselves – particularly in Hollywood. A certain freedom comes with knowing that I don’t have to box myself in because the “presence of blackness” exists in everything I do.” This was powerful and continued to enforce Cox’s theme of freedom and what it looks like.
Before we move on, Cox brings us back to Lewis for a moment to share that he gets the comparison to Lewis quite often and considers it an honor and that many of his patrons even started to purchase works by Lewis. It’s a beautiful irony that we can see such parallels between an artist living and working during the height of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement and one living and working, many years later, during this racially charged time of Black Lives Matter and the importance of “staying woke.” In the midst of it all, Cedric Michael Cox remains consistent and steadfast. His life alone takes that notion of “staying woke” and much like the Cubist and deconstructionist influences he speaks so passionately about, he embraces this idea of “staying woke,” shatters it, and presents it in a new but most certainly more complex and meaningful way.
Keep on keepin’ on Cedric Michael Cox! I pray that I get a chance to chat with you again soon to see where you are on your journey. In the meantime, as I hold space for you, I’ll use the hashtag #FreedomDeconstructed as my reminder to reach out and revisit part two of our talk one day soon.
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