The following is my review of a new book, Being and Homelessness: Notes from an Underground Artist, by Chicago artist, John H. Sibley. It is a work that covers a lot of ground, touches on many social issues—issues that concern both artists and the homeless. These two concerns have formed a type of personal collage in John’s world.
Although my roots (in this particular physical manifestation) are small town Upper Midwest America and John’s are inner city, Chicago, interestingly enough, I can relate. I have little in common with John’s upbringing, but my artistic longings and aspirations drew me to the city also—in my case it was Seattle, where I spent a period of my life as a street musician, immersed in the “culture” of the Pike Place Market and other local haunts, in the company of other musicians, artists, poets, crafts persons, vendors, entrepreneurs of questionable pursuits, alcoholics, drug addicts, homeless persons, and derelicts of great variety. I can relate, and I can confirm: the subjects of artists and homelessness are easily intertwined. John has, in fact, done this successfully and has become a type of spokesman for the underground artist, in doing so.
As always, I hope you’ll enjoy my review and that you’ll leave a comment if so inclined. Thanks for coming by, Jesse S. Hanson
A Multi-faceted Look at the Life of an Underground Artist
John H. Sibley’s new literary work, Being and Homelessness: Notes from an Underground Artist, is an important and welcome contribution, arriving as it does, at a time when the scene of the art world is mostly cordoned off to all but the privileged elect. From my nosebleed seat in the bloody colosseum of the arts—being an underground artist myself—I often found myself cheering along as John attacked the giants, demons and all fierce bastions of that world with eloquence and candor.
“I was relegated to selling my art on the street level not because I lacked talent but because I was shunned, ostracized and treated like a pariah by both Chicago’s white and black art establishments.”
Taken out of context, as I have done here, I realize it sounds like sour grapes, like the complaint of an artist who has likely not put in the required effort, not stayed the course, or does, in fact, lack the talent to succeed. Not so: Not only has John been practicing and honing his unique artistic crafts since he was a young boy, but he is a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. His knowledge of the academics and history of art is formidable and that is only enhanced by the practical knowledge of a man of the streets.
However, there is much more to Being and Homelessness than a diatribe against the art establishment. I particularly enjoyed Chapter 8, The Lost Culture of Maxwell Street. This chapter deals with the multicultural open-air market atmosphere, highlighted by the legendary Chicago Blues culture that manifested for a period of some forty plus years. I had previously read this chapter, when it was posted on goodreads.com, and found it fascinating. The following is taken from the comment that I wrote, regarding the post, at that time: “This is very gritty and intense. It seems to be written just like someone is talking; telling about, reveling in their experience of life—stream of consciousness. There’s just so much in there, almost more than the senses can deal with. Life experienced as a perpetual street fair—exhausting and thrilling at once.”
Another aspect of John’s book that I appreciated was his exploration of Black history in America. Here again, Sibley pulls no punches in presenting his facts and opinions:
–example of facts:
“The first slaves arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 to establish 244 years of slavery.
Contemporary African Americans have only been free 139 years, using 1863 as a benchmark, which means that blacks were slaves 105 years longer than we have been free.”
–example of opinion:
“The salient fact is that black Americans are still reeling from the dehumanizing effects of the former slave trading nations of England, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal and the US.”
I certainly am not a fan of John H. Sibley’s every opinion. I don’t personally agree with his outspoken political criticism of Barack Obama, and especially with his endorsement of Herman Cain —I at first thought it was a huge literary blunder for him to include such opinions in his book. But after ruminating on it for a while, I think I can see a reason for the inclusion. His main point seems to be that Obama, although a black man, is not an “African American”. “Obama’s world is not the one of American slaves like my ancestors.” Sibley is exploring the experience of the American descendants of the slaves. Fact is—and I can’t deny it—Obama is not one of them—Cain is. It’s a pure issue of identification.
For those of you who may have read Sibley’s novel, Bodyslick, this work is, in my opinion, much more palatable. It is, in fact, as has been mentioned in another review, a fast and easy read. For the most part it takes me back to my earlier reading of Chapter 8, The Lost Culture of Maxwell Street. The editing is questionable—I hope you won’t let that bother you. If you have an interest, even a curiosity about the life of art, outside of the mainstream, spoon-fed versions, this book will be of interest to you. If you have an interest in the causes and experience of the homeless, this book will interest you also, though it is not its main theme, despite the title. Recommended: by a fellow underground artist.