There goes a beautiful black man.
by Denise M. Watson
One of Clayton Singleton’s latest, and most powerful, projects was born almost 40 years ago in the hallways of Norfolk Public Schools. The budding artist was 13 and had a girlfriend, as much as one can have at that age.
Unfortunately, like the rest of the girls at Northside Junior High School, she was
crushing on another boy. His skin was caramel where Singleton’s was chocolate. His hair was straighter than Singleton’s curls.
The situation was confusing. Singleton had been raised to know that his black skin was beautiful. His home was plastered with artwork depicting kings and queens of Africa. His mother picked her Afro high enough to block out the sun.
“So, at 13, I’m like, ‘Yo,’ I thought being Black was supposed to be the thing, you know,” he says.
That racial and cultural bias he felt at 13, and how he’s chosen to respond to it, have become a theme in his work as an artist.
“There’s this constant reminder to Black people that we’re less than,” he says. “… We are not supposed to love ourselves as we are.”
Singleton, 50, is chair of the Fine Arts Department at Lake Taylor High School. The four-time Teacher of the Year has taught with Norfolk Public Schools since 1994. He has come a long way from the days of being a heartbroken young man who could draw Michael Jackson pretty well. Now, along with being a respected teacher, he is a sought-after artist, who for decades has explored the themes of race, love and joy.
His work has been shown in local museums and galleries. He has designed sets for the Virginia Opera and created or helped create murals for Virginia Beach’s Vibe District and Norfolk’s Neon District. Singleton curated the Light From All Sides show, which opened last month at the Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center in Newport News. He is one of 12 local artists commissioned by the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art to complete works for Nourish, an exhibition that opened this month. And in June he’ll have a solo show titled Norfolk Republic at the Offsite Gallery at MacArthur Center.
But it is in a recent series of paintings that Singleton returns in spirit to the young man who once wrestled with our culture’s flawed definitions of beauty. In it, he depicts various Black men in ordinary situations. One piece features a man, arms folded in a camouflage jacket. Another shows one with cinnamon-tinted dreads, his hands clasped in front of him, paused as if in the middle of a conversation.
“Each one has the same title,” he says. “There’s a Beautiful Black Man. Because I want every time people see a Black man to think, ‘There goes a beautiful Black man.’ It is just that simple.”
Singleton’s art comes from everything he absorbed growing up. For an inquisitive and sensitive soul, that was a lot.
He could look at a person’s skin and not see brown or cream but instead pick out the blend of purples and blues, whites and yellows. He marveled at the way the sun shone through his mother’s hair and made it glow like a halo and he stared in wonder at the brilliant stained glass windows of Queen Street Baptist Church in Norfolk. He was inspired by music and poetry, all of which he learned from his parents and his grandmother, the late Alma Williams, a well-known civic activist in Park Place who helped start a school literacy program in the 1980s that is still being used today.
By the time Singleton was in junior high, kids would pay him a dollar for a drawing. At Norview High School he wrote poetry and was the lead illustrator for the school’s award-winning literary magazine. When he decided to study art at Virginia Wesleyan University, his family worried he wouldn’t be able to support himself. But Singleton had already realized that art shared with others is always worth something.
“It has an intrinsic worth when it’s created,” he says. “On the other hand, it doesn’t gain value until others experience it. … I understood back then that if I kept my art to myself like a comic book collection, it had limited service and currency.”
In college, his work became more intentional, from color choice to imagery. That is when he started to paint most of his work vertically. “We tell people to stand tall, be present,” he says, “stand erect, stand proud.”
When he started teaching art in schools, he taught with the same concept. At Bowling Park Elementary School in the 1990s, some grades were separated by gender. Singleton quickly noticed that the girls demanded a different experience from the boys. They, for example, wanted him to double Dutch with them at recess. They had a different energy and Singleton taught them about art through song and dance.
A few years ago he and his wife, Kim, bumped into one of those students, now an adult, at the mall. After briefly catching up, the student smiled and said, “Want to do it?” Former teacher and student then started clapping and singing, “Color – clap – detail – clap – alternating patterns.”
Even after all that time, the student remembered the words.
“I think that speaks volumes to the point that if we allow people to be where they are and to address them where they are, they get what they need,” Singleton says.
Kenneth Fentress, who graduated from Lake Taylor in 2019, became a student of Singleton’s as a freshman. Fentress was like Singleton in that drawing had always come easy to him and teachers would let him breeze through classes. Singleton demanded more. “He quickly got me out of that cocky persona that I had,” Fentress says.
For four years Singleton drilled the basics into Fentress, forcing him to slow his pace. The young man would go on to ace his AP art exams and is now studying art at Virginia Commonwealth University. “He showed me proper technique, fundamentals, line shape, balance, everything I needed to know,” Fentress says.
With his own art, Singleton sprinkles realistic expressionism with layers of symbolism and meaning. His portraits framed with roses are a nod to his mother, who loved the flower. She died in 2007.
African violets, a repetitive theme in his work, symbolize loyalty, devotion and faithfulness. His backgrounds are often tattooed with African Adinkra symbols, like the sankofa, which can resemble a heart and means “learn from the past” or the adinkrahene, which looks like a halo of concentric circles and represents royalty. The halos also remind him of his mother.
Singleton is known for his large-scale portraits, dripping with intense, undiluted color because, as he says, that’s how people want to be seen. Rich, deep, nothing but who they are, even if they don’t know what that is.
One of the most dominating portraits in the Gallerie Ukwensi on 21st Street in Norfolk is Singleton’s piece, The Best I Have to Give. It was part of a 2015 show at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center.
The background is a screaming red with adinkrahenes and African violets swirling about the portrait with the halos poised significantly around the head of a mother and child. The daughter sits on mom’s lap with mom’s arms loosely around her waist. The girl’s arms drape around her mother’s neck.
It isn’t a coincidence that the African American mother and daughter are reminiscent of the reverential Madonna and child portraits that were popular during the Renaissance. The mom is sitting but there is no chair, calling to mind one of Singleton’s favorite paintings, Picasso’s Boy Leading a Horse. In it, the boy guides a horse with what appears to be an invisible rope.
Ukwensi Chappell and his husband moved to the area in 2015 and he quickly heard about Singleton and his work. After opening his business in 2018, it took Chappell six months to get up the nerve to ask Singleton if he was represented by anyone. “He was such a big name I just assumed he didn’t need my help,” Chappell says.
Chappell started showing Singleton’s work about a year ago. “His work tells a story so well and he tells it in a way that’s poetic, precise and imaginative,” Chappell says. “And he’s so genuine and passionate about what he does. That man will cry at the drop of a hat.”
Another Singleton piece that generates conversation is called The Dinner Party. It is a dream collection of icons whom Singleton would love to invite to a dinner, including author James Baldwin, artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and Martin Luther King Jr. Almost everyone is staring at or turning away from musician Kanye West in the right corner, who, as Singleton describes, “has just said something crazy.” The artist himself sits in the middle of the painting, staring at the musician, his arms opened wide as if asking, “Come on, ‘Ye, why?”
Viewers often ask him questions about the painting. He then knows he’s done what he wanted to do.
“Seeing people respond to my work reaffirms to me that these stories I tell are necessary; somebody, somewhere needs to hear these narratives,” he said. “I accept these stories are not mine alone. Telling a story is the process of giving. These stories have always been for other people. I’m just reading to them from a place of authenticity.”