CHARLOTTE A once desolate block in uptown’s Third Ward is now a verdant 5.4 acres where flowers and plants, waterfalls and child-like whimsy create the long-awaited tribute to Charlotte-born artist Romare Bearden.
The $11 million public Romare Bearden Park – which opens Friday with three days of events – slopes along the curvy “Evocative Spine” walkway that stretches from Church and Third streets, between two grassy ovals, to Martin Luther King Boulevard.
And there, it empties onto a Mint Street plaza across from a rising 10,000-seat baseball stadium —one of many serendipitous surprises that visitors are sure to find as the park and ballpark grow up together.
Before the artist became an internationally acclaimed collagist, he was a talented baseball pitcher – even offered a shot at a major league team.
Making the park-ballpark connection, near where Bearden was born and lived until he was 4, wasn’t a part of any master plan.
Timing put them together. Pressure to bring the Knights back from South Carolina after 24 years met a county-city vision plan that called for a park in each of uptown’s four wards. Bearden Park is being paid for with public bond money.
Now, as a permanent tribute to Bearden’s life and work at long last comes into full focus, the connection charms even the artist’s relatives – and surprises the park’s main designer.
“That’s awesome,” said project manager Alicia Rocco of Charlotte’s LandDesign when told of Bearden’s prowess on the mound. “It all fits.”
Bearden’s niece, Diedra Harris-Kelley, was pleased with the connection. “I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know the politics of it,” said Harris-Kelley, co-director of the New York-based Romare Bearden Foundation. “But I’m charmed that Charlotte made the connection.”
The accidental pairing wasn’t lost on Jim Garges, director of Mecklenburg Park and Recreation, and Lee Jones, the department’s head of capital planning.
Late last week, they stood just off the Evocative Spine, as carpenters, electricians and landscapers made final touches.
“Romare Bearden’s love for baseball is something probably the vast majority of people don’t know about,” Garges said. “But if he was here today, how thrilled would he be that his park is so close to the ballpark?”
“He’d be all over it,” Jones answered.
Lifelong Mets fan
Fred Romare Howard Bearden was born in 1911 in his great-grandparents’ house at 2nd (now Martin Luther King Boulevard) and Graham streets, a block from the park.
He left Charlotte with his parents when he was 4, and grew up in Harlem in New York and in Pittsburgh.
But he came back often to visit relatives and his memories of Charlotte and Mecklenburg found their way into collages and paintings.
In 1930, Bearden, a freshman at historically black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, took off for Boston to take art history classes at Boston University. Soon he began pitching for its baseball team.
He was so good, the Boston Colored Tigers, one of the city’s many all-black semi-pro teams, recruited him to pitch.
As word of his talent spread, the owner of the Philadelphia Athletics (now the major league Oakland As) approached the light-skinned Bearden one day and offered him a spot – on one condition, according to a story last year in The Atlantic magazine.
“They wanted him to pass for white,” niece Harris-Kelley said. “He loved baseball. He was a big (New York) Mets fan.
“But, as the story goes, he wasn’t going to go against his parents and family. And that was it for Uncle Romie and baseball.”
Piece of overlooked history
No one knows why it’s taken so long for Charlotte to pay permanent tribute to Bearden. He was honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1966) and National Institute of Arts and Letters (1972) and received the National Medal of Arts from President Ronald Reagan in 1987, the year before he died.
He was often called the foremost black American artist of the late 20th century.
“The performing arts get a lot more attention,” said former Observer visual art writer Richard Maschal, who wrote extensively about Bearden.
Charlotte’s Mint Museum did assemble two major retrospective exhibitions, the first in 1980 and the second two years ago on the artist’s 100th birthday. The Mint has a gallery dedicated to his work.
But there’s been no permanent public tribute, except for Romare Bearden Drive off West Boulevard where a library branch was built.
Maschal began pushing the idea of a tribute as early as 2001, when the county bought land in Third Ward for a park. After county officials hired LandDesign to design a major urban park in 2005, he wrote a column urging Mecklenburg to name it for Bearden.
“His memories of Charlotte show up in his work over and over again,” Maschal said. “They are altered memories. He wasn’t interested in being literal. He wanted to depict the feelings he got when he thought about Charlotte and the stories he was told. Charlotte stayed important to him his entire life.”
With the designs final, the park was delayed by lawsuits over the ballpark and the recession. And then weather delayed it several more months.
Garges said the tribute was delayed perhaps because Bearden left Charlotte at an early age.
“A community grows, or forgets. Or if the individual left at an early age, people don’t get that association,” he said. “This was a piece of our history that in some ways really had gotten overlooked.”
Overlooked or not, Harris-Kelley and her foundation are thrilled the county is paying homage so prominently.
“It is right in the downtown, not in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “I think it’s amazing that the city of Charlotte is celebrating someone for his art. We don’t celebrate visual artists in this country.”
The state, too, is honoring Bearden on Friday with the unveiling of a highway marker at Mint Street and MLK Boulevard.
Elements of life and art
That is why Bearden Park doesn’t merely bear his name, but incorporates elements of his life and work.
During the design, the Arts & Science Council hired Seattle artist Norie Sato “to dive into Bearden’s life” and work with LandDesign to develop several themes from Bearden’s work, project manager Rocco said.
Several emerged, including his memories of Charlotte.
Though he left as a boy, he’d return summers until he was about 14 to visit his great-grandparents, Henry and Rosa Kennedy. They’d found prosperity during the early 20th century before Jim Crow laws disenfranchised blacks.
On his visits to the house at 2nd and Graham, young Romare was awed by the gardens.
He was fascinated with the tiger lilies Rosa Kennedy grew in her front yard. One Sunday, he awoke and the last lily was gone. She had picked it to wear to church. His great-grandfather told him the flower would be back when he returned for a visit the following year.
Romare stopped coming when he was 14 after Rosa Kennedy died in 1925 (she and her husband are buried in Third Ward’s Pinewood Cemetery).
But the memories were etched.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, Bearden drew on those memories to chronicle Southern black life and scenes of his birthplace in dozens of collages, including a series called “Mecklenburg County.”
The people in his collages wear bright clothes. His work is full of flowers, vegetable gardens, roosters, dogs and trains – like the ones that rolled past his great-grandparents’ house.
They symbolized the massive migration of blacks from the South to the North and Midwest to find opportunity unavailable for Southern blacks – including Bearden and his college-educated parents, Richard and Bessye.
His collages also celebrated people he’d once known from Charlotte, such as the Kennedys’ neighbors, Maudell Sleet and Madeline Jones and their gardens.
He also pulled from his relationships with jazz musicians. His early studio was upstairs in Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater building. And in 1950, he spent several months studying philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris on the GI Bill after his statewide Army stint during World War II.
He didn’t paint, but soaked up Parisian life.
‘Hopefully it will inspire’
Those are the elements Rocco and her design team used to teach park users about Bearden.
The park is built around two large grassy ovals, a “Formal Oval” for smaller events and “Big Moon Green” for larger gatherings such as concerts.
They also paid attention to what the park will look like to viewers in nearby office towers and apartment and condo buildings, Rocco said.
“We knew there would be plenty of eyes on it from high up,” she said. “So we wanted to give that view the layers and textures of a Bearden collage.”
On the ground it is largely compartmentalized into homages to Bearden. A centerpiece sculpture by Chicago sculptor Richard Hunt is scheduled to be installed in a year. Third Street from Tryon to Church streets will be turned into a “linear park” designed to draw people into the park.
“Romare Bearden Park is a testament to Charlotte and what the city finds important,” Harris-Kelley said. “Hopefully it will inspire people to go to the library or the Mint to read more about Uncle Romare and look at his work.”