James Shields: Bridging Harlem's past + present

{liberatormagazine.com exclusive feature}

James Shields: Bridging Harlem's past + present
by Shamira Muhammad

Harlem is the site of past glories. Romare Bearden and Aaron Douglas, the old masters of les arts noirs, no longer stroll these streets. They no longer paint these people. Vegan restaurants have now taken the place of jazz lounges and soul food spots. But, in a tiny room across from the Abyssinian Baptist Church, a preacher’s son tries to continue the legacy of this old Mecca with each stroke of his brush.

James Shields is black and a self-made artist. Using bright reds, loud yellows and enviable greens, Shields designs skateboards and creates canvases that depict legendary black leaders and imagery from the days gone by. “I like using skateboards,” he said, “because they are shaped just like comic strips.” He sells his art online, with the skateboards sold at a minimum of $60 and his paintings for around $200. He has a website and, most importantly, fans. Hundreds. His Facebook page is rampant with requests.

When I first meet him, Shields is crouched in front of his easel, painting the likenesses Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X side by side. “Honestly,” he sighed, “I feel like I’m forced to do this. 'Cuz I can’t do anything else.”

According to the New York Times, Harlem has been changing steadily over the last ten years, with more affluent, mostly white residents moving in. In 1990, there were 672 counted in Harlem. The latest records, from 2008, counted 13,800.

Shields, 25, originally came to Harlem two years ago. Having freshly graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C. with a degree in marketing, Shields set his sights on the business world. He became an assistant buyer for Macy’s, but hated it from the jump. It didn’t improve. Last April, already fed up with the corporate world and growing more resistant by the day, Shields was laid off. “After ten months of just soul-searching and getting fired,” Shields said, “I was like, oh shit, what’s gonna happen?

But he’d been drawing in his notebook all that time---on the train, in his room, every day. And finally, he began painting. Now, instead of a business suit, Shields dons an apron caked with paint and marches around the apartment that he shares with two roommates. The floor of his rented room is flecked with pastel colors and his nose has a smudge of white across it. For the past year, he has been able to live off a severance package from Macy’s while he decided on his next step. It didn’t take long for him to decide: painting it was. He smiles as he spreads bright blue paint across Malcolm X’s lapel. “This was the closest medium to me,” he said.

Shields wants to speak to the most notable legacy of the neighborhood---the Harlem Renaissance---but from a modern context. He looks to the black cartoonist Aaron McGruder, not Picasso. He wants to study in South Africa, not Paris. He wants comic books to be his showcase, not the Louvre.

Originally from Stockton, Calif., Shields credits his Baptist upbringing with his thirst for black culture and creative energy. His father is a pastor, and his mother a teacher; both parents were strict about what was allowed into their children’s heads. The elders in his church helped to provide Shields with access to his history, as many of them had participated in the Civil Rights movement. One of Shields’ more popular paintings, "Lil Boy June," which features a small boy, painted in various shades of aquamarine, hearkens back to days long past.

He laughed. “It’s funny because it’s black history month, so now all my work is hella relative.”

Shields wonders if he’s been ripped off by not having the Harlem of earlier times. Who will his teachers be? But not all is lost. Hip-hop, another source of his inspiration, was born only two subway stops away. Referencing two of rap’s biggest icons, Shields says, “I want to have the delivery of Ghostface and the soul of Mos Def.”

Kyle Burnett, 23, Shields' roommate and an assistant buyer at Macy’s, admires this philosophy. “I’m a very, I would say, cautious person, career-wise. I’m kind of envious because James, with the economy and retail the way it is, he had the opportunity to do what he really loved. I applaud that.”

Not bad for a preacher’s son.