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Aesthetic Visions: Toledo’s Black Arts Heritage

By Rev. Donald L. Perryman, Ph.D.
The Truth Contributor

 An artist represents an oppressed people and makes revolution irresistible.

 -  Toni Cade Bambara

Toledo’s Black Arts Movement (1965-1976) was a crown jewel of the African American community during Dorr Street’s heyday. Yet, most historical reflections emphasize Dorr Street’s role as a business and entertainment center. Often overlooked, however, is the fact that the Black Arts Movement paralleled the progress in civil rights and Black advancement made in the 1950s, 60’s and 70’s.

In truth, the Black Arts Movement was a political tool that allowed the Black community to narrate its own existence and push back on Black imagery’s portrayal as an inferior version of the Western aesthetic.

By focusing on the beauty of Blackness, Black artists brought Black Consciousness to the community. The Black artists’ emphasis of liberation from oppression helped to deliver many political gains.

Therefore, as witnesses of this impactful history, we have the responsibility to include our cultural arts and political heritage in Toledo’s Black History discussions.

Rev. Donald L. Perryman, D.Min.


Internationally-acclaimed artist Johäna was co-founder and president of the Confederation of Black Artists (COBA) in Toledo between 1968 and 1975. During that period, he was also a member of the Toledo Museum Black Arts Committee. Johäna is an artist and instructor whose work has been exhibited in Toledo; throughout the United States; and Africa.

The following is part of our discussion on Johäna’s work and Toledo’s Black Arts heritage.

Perryman: Please tell me a little about the Confederation of Black Artists (COBA).

Johäna:  COBA was formed around ’67 or ’68, but then our Creative Arts Workshop opened, I think, in 1970. So, we were involved there until possibly 1978. It was then that they moved from Dorr Street next to the Mott Library to a location at Indiana and Hawley.

Perryman: I think that it is crucial to keep these memories alive. Please describe the activities at the Creative Arts Workshop and some of the people involved.

Johäna:  The Creative Arts Workshop was a dream of Russ Charles.  He was always into arts, and he was able to get the funding to bring it to fruition. The building we had was owned by a guy who owned some kind of sign or screen-printing company. He was moving out, and we were able to get it. The Workshop was Russ Charles’ dream, and he also was the director of it.

Perryman: How did the Creative Arts Workshop communicate the Black experience?

Johäna: The Workshop was a center that celebrated the arts from multiple perspectives.  They had a jazz group there. There was an all-music club, a photography department, and they had a fine arts group that did paintings and sculptures. There was also a dance department and a writer’s workshop at that time. 

Each art division had its own department, had its own section in the building.  You could come in any time of day or night if you wanted to go and perform or practice.    So, it was an arts center that we kept regular hours. Still, it wasn’t restricted just to prescribed hours; you could come in as you desired to practice or work on something; as an individual or as a group. 

Perryman: Who were some of the artists at that time.

Johäna: Vernon Martin ran the music department.  He was a bass player for Rahsaan Roland Kirk.  He then, later, came back to Toledo, where he was from, and performed with a group called Creative Spirits. Ronnie King played the alto sax, and Eugene Boggs played tenor sax. 

Perryman: Who were some of the visual artists?

Johäna:  There was me, Marvin Vines, James Claybrooks, Benny Griffith.  We also had a guy named Jim Bowen, who came down one summer from California.  Barbara Selvey, Willie Tucker who was a teacher and lived on Woodruff.  Ernie Jones was part of the group and he also was also a teacher at Scott High School.  Also, J.D. Jackson and Richard Rodgers.

Perryman: Performative dance is an essential element of  Black Culture. Who were some of the dancers?

Johäna:  Donna Thomas was one of two people who headed the dance department. Donna’s older sister had run it first. The group had a whole ensemble of dancers, and they took the group to, I think, Philadelphia or New York one summer.

Perryman: How did the Creative Arts Workshop fit into the Civil Rights Movement back then?

Johäna:  The Creative Arts was supportive and parallel to the Civil Rights movement.  We were like the cultural arm of the Movement, really.  We were concerned that imagery and the things being reflected were the correct philosophical notions of the culture.  But, we also were involved in other things. For a number of years, we had a Black Arts Exhibit at the Toledo Museum of Art, and we were responsible for that. 

Perryman: Please describe how the Black Arts Exhibit came about.

Johäna: Some African brothers came through to visit the museum, and they “weren’t well-received.” So, these brothers came up to the Creative Arts Workshop and made that fact known. The Workshop then began to organize and made contact with the director of the museum. We had several meetings regarding what we felt the Museum’s response should’ve been versus what it was. As a result, they began having an Annual Black Arts Exhibit inside a major gallery at the museum, like they do when they have any other shows. So, that activism provided us with a broader opportunity for the arts. Additionally, the Black artists’ inclusion heightened the whole Black Consciousness Movement and that of us as individual Black artists. 

Perryman: The fact is that a true, rich, healthy, and diverse Black aesthetic was being left out of standard perspectives of what constitutes high quality. So, you stressed that conventionally-accepted institutions’ collections should also include Black Artists and their works?

Johäna:  Yes! And, I think the museum actually became a way of moving the whole Black Arts Movement to another level, broadening its scope, because then everybody was able to see it in a museum context.  I think it heightened people’s awareness as to what the Black arts were doing.

(to be continued)

Johäna received a BFA degree in painting from Miami University (Ohio) and additional training at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Columbus College of Art and Design, and the Art Academy of Cincinnati. He taught African American art history at the University of Cincinnati, and was Artist-in-Residence for the Arts Consortium of Cincinnati.

In 1980 Johäna was nominated for the Corbett Award for work done by an individual artist. In 1981 he was honored by the NAACP for artistic contributions and with a feature in the Black Art International Magazine. In 1987 he was a finalist for a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1988 he was nominated for an Award in the Visual Arts (AVA).

Johäna’s work is represented in numerous public collections including the City of Toledo, Fisk University, University of Massachusetts, Price Waterhouse, The Franciscan Hospital (Cincinnati), The Toledo Museum of Art, Imani Temple (Washington, D.C.), Ascension Lutheran Church (Toledo), and Jerusalem Baptist Church (Toledo).

Contact Rev. Donald Perryman, D.Min, at drdlperryman@centerofhopebaptist.org


Copyright © 2019 by [The Sojourner's Truth]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 02/25/21 12:44:58 -0500.



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