To Maya from McKissic: Chattanooga artwork was part of Maya Angelou's collection

photo Maya Angelou
photo "Jimmy's Blues," by James McKissic
photo Work by James McKissic on display at Northshore Gallery of Contemporary Art includes "Feast Day of Yemaya."

James McKissic was not looking to sell his favorite painting, a 24-by-18-inch mixed-media piece he created almost 24 years ago called "Jimmy's Blues."

McKissic, director of multicultural affairs for Chattanooga, has been an artist his whole life and simply was showing the piece along with some of his other works at an art festival in Nashville 10 years ago. "Jimmy's Blues" is a portrait of James Baldwin, author of such works as "Notes of a Native Son" and "Go Tell It on the Mountain."

Author Clarence Nero saw the piece and offered to give it to his friend, Maya Angelou, on McKissic's behalf. The late poet and author of such classics as "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" had written some positive comments for "Temptations of Desire," one of Nero's books, and he wanted to give the painting to her as a gift.

McKissic signed the piece and gave it to Nero, never knowing until recently if it ever made it to Angelou. He got word from Angelou's estate following her death on May 28 that the piece had hung in her house all this time.

"It was exciting to learn that," McKissic says. "I had wondered if it got to her. It made me very emotional."

McKissic was, in fact, inspired by Baldwin and chose to paint a younger version of the author, who died of esophageal cancer in 1987. The painting, which shares a title with a 1987 book of poetry written by Baldwin, "meant a lot to me," McKissic says.

"I kept it hanging on a wall [at home]," he says.

The piece was done as a commentary on racism and poverty, McKissic says, both topics familiar in Baldwin's books, plays, poems and essays. McKissic usually paints abstracts full of bright colors, so the portrait of Baldwin was a "total departure for me."

"It's called 'Jimmy's Blues'; his eyes are blue. He had a lot of weight on his soul," he says. "I wondered what inspired him to write. He was trying to explain race and poverty in this country."

McKissic has several of his original pieces on display at Northshore Gallery of Contemporary Art, where he has exhibited them since shortly after the gallery opened in early 2013.

"I think he is a great guy and very talented and will one day be famous for his work if he can find the time to devote to his art," says gallery owner/curator David Jones.

The large-format pieces (some are 4-by-4 feet) are abstracts influenced by Caribbean culture, according to Jones.

"They are non-figurative, but the names that he gives them might reveal the influence. One is called 'Feast Day of Yemaya,' and once you see the name, you can see a big piece of fruit." In the Santeria religion, Yemaya is the mother of all things and also is in charge of motherhood and the waters of Earth.

"As you know, a lot of my work is driven by cultural topics or by current events, and my feelings about the subject drive the work," McKissic writes in his online biography. "For instance, the painting I'm working on right now is derived from the culture of the African Diaspora, which resulted from Africans being taken from their native cultures and having to adapt their institutions and beliefs.

"When Africans were brought to the new world they often combined their deeply held traditional beliefs with the outward forms of Christianity. It would appear they were worshipping the approved god when really they were worshipping the gods of the old country."

Contact Barry Courter at or 423-757-7354.

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