Treasures from the Vault: Steve Prince

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

A native of New Orleans, Steve Prince comes from a creative family with siblings who are also in the visual and performing arts. He attended Xavier University in Louisiana on a basketball scholarship where Professor of Fine Arts John T. Scott introduced him to printmaking and art’s possibilities, and from which Prince graduated with a BFA. Subsequently, he attended his mentor’s alma mater and received an MFA in printmaking and sculpture from Michigan State University. 

Prince was raised in a Catholic and Baptist household and attended Catholic school from kindergarten through high school. His religious faith has guided his art, and the artist refers to himself as an “Art Evangelist”. He cites the influences of Ernie Barnes, John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, John Scott, and Charles White as well as Old Masters Michelangelo and Rembrandt’s etchings. 

Prince explores the human experience in large-scale works on paper in charcoal and graphite, as well as prints primarily in linocut and lithography. People in the Fort Wayne community may have ventured up to Grand Rapids, MI and seen Prince’s mural-sized work in the 2012 Art Prize, an annual art competition with works exhibited throughout downtown Grand Rapids. On display in the Westminster Presbyterian Church, Bird in Hand: Second Line for Michigan is a 9 x 20’ drawing that elicits hope for Michigan’s rebirth. 

The artist working from his sketch on his mural.
Steve Prince at work on “Bird in Hand: Second Line for Michigan”. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Prince evoked the troubled automotive industry in the upper right corner. This he coupled with a lively procession. The central figure stands out—a man who wears a hat stating re-birth and plays the bass drum emblazoned with Treme, the oldest African American neighborhood in the U.S. Prince often speaks of the dirge and second line, and relates it to the essence of his work. In the New Orleans jazz funeral tradition, the mourning family is joined by musicians who perform the dirge, a slow lament or traditional hymn. For the second line the music tempo changes; the procession evolves into a celebratory, communal event. Prince embraces this pairing in his art, including the hurt and pain with healing, regeneration, and community; something that he believes is much needed in the world.    

A black and white lithograph of various men and women dancing and playing instruments.
Steve Prince, “Bird in Hand: Second Line for Michigan”. Image courtesy of the artist.

In 2017, Segura Art Studio (now closed) at the University of Notre Dame invited Prince to do a ten-day artist-in-residency in which he led community programs and created the linocut Rosa Sparks and the Fort Wayne Museum of Art’s lithograph, Salt of the Earth.   

Five black men sit at the Woolworth's counter as part of the staged protests for Civil Rights. In front are the salt and pepper shakers on the counter. In the back, we can see a woman standing under the Woolworth's sign, but the only part of the sign we can read is "Worth".
Steve Prince, American, b. 1968. Salt of the Earth. Lithograph, 2017. Museum purchase, 2018.84. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

In both works, Prince enjoyed mixing historical and contemporary references. Rosa Parks stands out with a stylized halo behind her head as she turns to the scornful bus driver. In the back of the bus a man steadies himself, but by doing so, he holds his arms up in a sign of submission. In the back of the bus he mixed historical and contemporary moments with allusions to Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, along with Emmett Till, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Silhouetted figures march on the street with an “I Am” sign reminiscent of the “I Am a Man” placards used throughout the civil rights movement. 

The museum’s Salt of the Earth focuses on the Greensboro Four. On February 1, 1960 four freshman students at North Carolina A&T College staged an iconic sit-in at the F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, NC. While African Americans were permitted to shop at Woolworth’s, the lunch counter was not integrated. When denied food service, the students had their purchases proving that they were paying customers. Ordered to leave, the young men peacefully refused to give up their seats and remained there until close, returning the following day with other students. 

The lithography stone for "Salt of the Earth".
Lithography stone for “Salt of the Earth”. Photo courtesy of Natalie Treadwell.

This protest ignited student involvement across the country, and by March there were 55 sit-ins at lunch counters in 13 states. On July 25, 1960 African American kitchen workers became the first African Americans to be served at the same Greensboro lunch counter. Today, the Woolworth’s store is home to the International Civil Rights Center and Museum and a portion of the lunch counter can be seen at the National Museum of American History.   

It is interesting to look at some of Prince’s early sketches. In his lithograph, he simplified the composition by eliminating a figure to focus our attention on the four students. He communicates their strength and power through the bold modeling in the faces and large, strong hands recalling the work of Charles White. Lithography is the perfect medium to create these tonal gradations, resembling a pencil drawing.   

A photo of the artists sketchbook shows sketches for some of the works highlighted in this post.
Preliminary sketches for “Salt of the Earth”. Photo courtesy of Natalie Treadwell.

Prince intends for us to take away different meanings from his works, especially over time. His work is full of signs and symbols combined to bring forth a variety of themes. He recognized the courage and value of these young men as the tail end of the five-and-dime store’s name, “worth”, is prominent in the background. The title, now an idiom, Salt of the Earth, connotes honest, noble individuals. Its origin is from the scripture (Matthew 5:13-16). Salt has held importance throughout history as a currency, food preservative, and used in burial customs. Prince explained, “I use the idea of salt to represent us, because we are supposed to be preservers of truth and what is right and just. . . [Salt] was and is one of the world’s most important and plenteous spices, as are we; valuable, plenteous, and important.”i  

The students remain calm and steadfast in contrast to the vitriolic figure in the foreground. There is a more contemporary feeling that distances the scene from the 1960s. The headbands and jackets take on geometric forms and have the texture of metal more than fabric. One student bears an AOG monogram, standing for Armor of God. Prince stated, “I drew the concept from the Book of Ephesians where Paul writes, ‘we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities and things in high places.’ Paul encouraged his followers to put on the ‘Whole Armor of God.’”ii 

Prince also acknowledged that choices are not always straightforward. In a preliminary sketch, a female worker has a judgmental expression.  In the final print she is isolated and pensive, calling to mind the usherette in Edward Hopper’s New York Movie (1939). Objects on the table resemble headstones, casting a shadow of doubt over love, freedom, and truth. Amidst this tabletop graveyard is a dove, here the hopeful symbol of the Holy Spirit. 

Civil rights leader and U.S. Representative John Lewis reflected, “Greensboro became the message. It was, ‘if they can do it in Greensboro, we too can do it’. . . These young people injected something very meaningful, something really beautiful. So you may not have a lot of money, you may not have a lot of power, but you have what Dr. King and Gandhi and others called ‘Soul Power.’ Just using your body as a non-violent instrument, as a tool, you can change things, you can inspire hundreds and thousands and millions of people to speak up, to speak out.”iii 

In Salt of the Earth, Prince alludes to a specific historical moment, but he made changes so that the work can continue to resonate in other contexts and the future. The artist commented,

“The Greensboro 4’s work was important and significant, they sparked a nation to look deeply in the mirror and frankly they affected the economy very much like the resistance that Rosa Parks was the catalyst for in Montgomery.  Unfortunately [their] acts of bravery did not completely soften the hearts of our nation because we are continually fighting against battles that we thought were won.  There are a lot of stains in the fabric of our nation that need to be dealt with.”iv 

The civil rights movement and its strategies provided the inspiration and tools for subsequent social justice movements. This narrative continues as systemic racism and injustice persists. Today, community activists flood the streets again to protest and demand change for racial discrimination, inequity, and violence waged against Black people. The chanting has just changed from then to now: I Am a Man, #BlackLivesMatter. 

Prince has exhibited his works at the Charles H. Taylor Art Center in Hampton, VA; Grand Rapids Museum of Art; Museum of African American Culture, New Orleans; Museum of Cultural Arts Center, Santa Catarina, Brazil; and the National Gallery of the Bahamas. He has taught middle school, high school, and at the university level at Allegheny College, Hampton University, Montgomery College, and Wayne State University. Currently, Prince is Director of Engagement at Muscarelle Museum of Art and Distinguished Artist-in-Residence. 

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