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Internationally recognized artist Luther E. Vann says he had the best of both worlds as a young man.

Vann spent his early years in Savannah, where an innate devotion to art was nurtured and encouraged. Later, he journeyed to New York City, which enabled him to pursue a top-notch art education.

Today, Savannah is once again his home. And while his quest has taken Vann in many directions and to many places, Savannah once again is his inspiration.

Vann integrates the physical with the spiritual in his work, which can be found in collections around the world. He was born Dec. 2,, 1937, in Savannah, and spent his earliest years here. Today, he lives in a small yellow house that was built by his uncle, Rufus Gordon.

“Sometime in the ‘40s, I moved over here,” Vann says. “My uncle and his brothers built this house during the war and they were only able to add one room at a time. There were very few people living out here at that time. The story goes that this was railroad property. My uncle worked for the railroad, which was selling land to its employees to build on. This was the house I was raised in.”

While his early years were spent with his Uncle Rufus and Aunt Maggie, when Vann was about 6, he was sent to New York City to stay with his mother, Anna Wright Vann Weaver, and his stepfather, Saul Weaver. “But I came back every summer,” Vann says. “This was home.”

It was in Savannah that Vann first expressed himself artistically. The front room doubled as the family library, and the budding artist drew in the backs of the books.

“My uncle thought it was funny, but my aunt didn’t,” Vann says with a smile. “Brown paper became my drawing material. Early on, I knew what I wanted to do, although I didn’t understand what it meant. I was one of those people you hear about who come knowing what they want to do in life.”

And he came instinctively knowing how to do it. As a child, Vann built his own easel. “Now where did I learn that?” he marvels.

His aunt bought him art supplies to use over the summer. “That was all I wanted to do, all I cared about,” he says. “The older I get, the more I realize -- it all comes back to that.”

Living in New York during the school year gave Vann access to a wealth of opportunities. He attended the High School of Music and Art, and then received formal training at the Art Student’s League, the New School for Social Research and the Center for Art and Culture.

City life also gave Vann the opportunity to view paintings by other artists. “The first who really kicked me was El Greco,” he says. “I was studying in high school and had to do a report. I had to go to the Met. I didn’t know anything about who El Greco was.”

Once he got to the Met, Vann was enthralled with El Greco’s work. Other inspirations include Van Gogh, Michelangelo and Romare Bearden, whom Vann always refers to as “Mr. Bearden.”

“Some of the surrealists turned me on,” he says. “At some point after I got out of high school, I burned everything I had done to that point because I realized the road I had been taking wasn’t my road.”

Vann lived on New York’s Lower East Side when artist Willem DeKooning was still alive. “I got to see his work,” Vann says. “I was very impressed with him.”

The unique combination of urban and not-so-urban lifestyles had a profound effect on Vann. “I had the best of both worlds,” he says.

“One summer, I stayed in New York, and I hated it. I would rather be here, where I could be running in the grass with my friends,” he says.

“A lot of people had gardens. They were farmers before they came to the city. They had plots where they grew tomatoes and okra,” he says.

“Off Louisville Road where the SCAD dormitories are now, used to be farmland,” Vann says. “We raised chickens. We raised tomatoes and okra and sold some to help pay the mortgage on the house.”

But when autumn came, Vann enjoyed the educational and cultural opportunities he found in New York.

“I was meeting people with so many different backgrounds and my experience was just as valid as everyone else’s. I wasn’t looked down upon,” he says.

“When I got back to New York, I was refreshed and had new ideas,” Vann says. “But I knew when it was time to leave New York and come here.”

Over time, Vann’s work has evolved and changed. His early images are metaphysical, peopled with creatures and images that evoke the mystical and haunt the soul.

After Vann returned to Savannah, his work began to represent the people he saw around him. He believes everyone on earth is imbued with spirituality and the mystical, and presents them as such.

Change is not uncommon for an artist. “My work changed when I got here. It changed during a period when I lived in Brooklyn, when I was missing the Lower East Side. I felt isolated, like Napoleon being punished by being sent to Elba, wherever that joint was,” he says.

“I think each move resulted in a change in my art,” Vann says. “This one has been very good. There are no distractions (in Savannah). I can totally focus. I don’t have to go downtown.”

Vann can go for three or four days without leaving home. “I have to force myself to get out,” he says. “Today was the first time I went for a walk in two months.”

The result has been a fountain of creativity. “I’m in a wonderful space,” Vann says. “The work just keeps coming. It feels good. It feels darn good.”

It wasn’t always so. Vann returned to Savannah permanently to care for his aunt until her death. Culture shock set in “When I first came home, it took me three years to start to work again,” he says.

A family reunion in South Carolina brought renewed inspiration. “Before I left New York, I had gotten a grant from the National Endowment,” he says. “I took the opportunity to buy a camera.”

Vann took photos at the reunion. “Two years later, I found them,” he says. “I could see them as paintings. That started it for me. There was a whole series called Family Reunion.”

The artist lives quietly in Savannah, where many residents do not realize his stature in the art world. In 1996, he was the first-prize winner of the Georgia Arts Festival.

Vann’s work has been presented in solo and group exhibitions throughout the United States, including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Brooklyn Museum of Arts and the Cinque Gallery in New York City.

Locally, Vann's work has been presented at the Telfair Museum of Art and the Beach Institute.

His work can be found in public collections, including the Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, New Jersey; Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York; and the King-Tisdell Cottage in Savannah. His works also are displayed in private collections, including those of historian Carroll Greene of Savannah; documentary filmmaker and jazz historian Salah Abdul-Wahid of Los Angeles, California; poet Ann T. Green of New York; choreographer Bill T. Jones of New York; critic Gerhard Kraus of Frankfurt, Germany; and Dr. Peter Hughes of London, England.

Upon his return to Savannah, Vann noticed that many changes had taken place while he was away. The city had become a haven for the arts, and institutions such as the Savannah Arts Academy and the Savannah College of Art and Design welcomed talented youth.

“When I was young, I knew guys who couldn’t leave,” he says. “They got used up and burned out in high school.”

Instead of burning out, Vann was able to soar. Savannahians got to view his work when he had one show at the Beach Institute, then another.

On May 30, 1991, a local poet and author named Aberjhani encountered Vann’s work at the Beach Institute. “When I first saw Luther’s work, I was amazed,” he says. “It was like walking into a room and meeting the twin brother I never knew I had.”

Vann’s work seemed to reflect a number of spiritual and philosophical studies Aberjhani had undertaken. “I saw a physical representation of my spirituality and philosophy,” Aberjhani says.

“This man steps inside my dreams and puts my art onto a canvas,” he says. “I am amazed that someone could express what I was feeling. It was uncanny, a little frightening for me.”

Aberjhani was so inspired by what he had seen, he stayed up half of the night to write in his journal. He described the paintings he had seen, the feelings they had evoked, and even discussed Vann’s titles, which Aberjhani describes as “musical.”

“When you look at the titles (of Aberjhani’s poems that were influenced by Vann’s work) they are all titles from his work,” he says. “It was almost like he was a poet who was using images as his language.”

Not long after viewing the paintings, Aberjhani met Vann when he accompanied his former wife, Sandra L. West, to the book store Aberjhani was managing. She was applying for a job at the store and was interviewed by Aberjhani.

“She and I got into a conversation,” he says. “I mentioned artists I had encountered who painted metaphysical things. The only metaphysical art work I had seen of late was Luther E. Vann’s work at the Beach Institute. She told me that was her husband. I could have fallen out of my shoes.”

Then West asked if Aberjhani would like to meet Vann, as he was browsing in the store at the time. “She went out and got him,” Aberjhani says.

“I was terrified at the thought of meeting the man,” he says. “It felt like I was disturbing a genius at work.”

But Vann broke the ice by commenting on Aberjhani’s shirt, and a friendship began. “We started talking about everything,” Aberjhani says. “At some point, I was invited to a cookout up at his house.”

Aberjhani told Vann he had been writing poems that were inspired by his paintings. “He told me what was on his mind,” Vann says.

“When he described to me what he was getting out of my paintings, he was really right on key,” Vann says. “To have a patron see it is wonderful. To have an actual artist see it and be inspired was the ultimate compliment.

“We got to know each other from that point on,” he says. “The book actually started 12 years ago.”

The idea for the book was suggested by West. Coincidentally, ten years later West and Aberjhani co-wrote Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, which recently was presented a prestigious Choice Award.

When Aberjhani was introduced to Cristina Piva, a local publisher, they began discussing Vann and his work. “He came by my house to see some of Luther’s paintings,” Piva says.

“This man’s work can be found in collections in small museums in New York, at the Telfair, and in private collections in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Florida, England, Germany and Japan,” she says. “Luther does have a following, and yet has has a large body of work in his own collection, which to me is a sin. These need to find new homes.”

Piva’s publishing company, Bonaventure Books, is devoted to Savannah art and artists. The idea for a book of Vann’s paintings and Aberjhani’s poems was a perfect fit, and Piva decided to make it a reality.

The result is ELEMENTAL, a volume with more than 50 reproductions of Vann’s art dating from the 1970s to the present, and about 40 poems composed by Aberjhani specifically for the book.

The release date of the book is tentative, but it far enough along to say it is definitely going to happen. It will be the first published collection of Vann’s art.

“Bonaventure Books is all about Savannah and its artists and the creativity here,” Piva says. “There is a lot of intelligence, art and creative energy working off each other in this region.”

It is Piva’s mission to celebrate this art and these artists, whether they are painters, writers or musicians. She says New York publishers pay little attention to books written by or about Savannah and its artists, and she intends to rectify that.

“I think it is very important to support artists who have a message, a meaning and purpose. Some people just put paint on a canvas or words on a paper without saying anything. Luther has such a strong and clear message to convey,” she says.

“He believes everyone shares in a divine purpose. We are all one. There is no separation between you and me, us and them, because we are all spiritual beings. This message couldn’t be more important, especially at this time,” she says.

“I’m not talking religion here,” she says. “I’m talking about the divine that is inside everyone. Luther is not selling you religion. He is selling what’s inside. To me, he is an icon. He doesn’t paint for the sake of painting. He paints a message on canvas.”

Aberjhani says Vann’s work was nearly done when the book was started. “He had a huge body of work he brought with him from New York,” he says. I was the one who had to catch up. At first, I was not sure I could do that,” Aberjhani says.

“It was up to me to decide if I wanted to attempt to create work worthy of Luther’s art,” he says. “He is a master artist. My work had to be done just right. I had to enter into the spirit of the art and translate its spirit into literature.”

Aberjhani embraced the challenge and began to write. Some of the poems he has written about Vann’s work have been printed in publications such as Essence, including The Light That Never Dies, a tribute to the victims of Sept. 11.

It has taken 12 years to finish the book, not because the two were late in finishing their work, but because a publisher could not be found.

“Luther and I could have self-published,” Aberjhani says. “But it would not have been as professional or well-done as if it were published by someone who knows poetry and art. We could have forged something together, but it wouldn’t be right.

“Bonaventure Books was established two to three years ago,” Aberjhani says. “These are creative individuals. They were extremely enthusiastic.”

The book will include an introductory profile essay written by Aberjhani. The essay also appears in an anthology, The Persistence of Dreams.

“Luther’s work inspires me,” says Aberjhani. “I never get tired of looking at his art. Seeing it reproduced in color plates for the book was a big, big thrill.”

Vann continues to paint every day, although he does not keep a set schedule. “If I did that, I would turn into someone else,” he says. “I might as well be a shopkeeper.”

He creates his paintings in a light-filled studio at the front of his house. “When ideas come, I’m there,” Vann says. “As long as it’s flowing, I’m there.”

The studio was created from two rooms after a fire damaged the house. The fire also destroyed some of his earlier work.

At 67, Vann sometimes finds it necessary to slow down.

“My energy level isn’t what it used to be,” he says. “Sometimes I’m not up to it. I am not really adjusting to aging well. It pisses me off.”

Even when Vann isn’t painting, his mind is working. He watches a movie. He works at his computer.

“I read a lot,” he says. “Every now and then I’ll come across a poet who inspires me.”

Vann had intended to read some of William Collins Williams’s writing, but had never gotten around to it. During a trip to the library, he checked out some of Williams’s books.

“Another door opened,” he says.

Vann also takes part in neighborhood activities. “I’m basically a very friendly dude, although I get grouchy sometimes with the noise,” he says.

Ideas for paintings come from everywhere. Sometimes, Vann will see something that “sets off a series of events” in his mind. “That will be the motivation for a painting,” he says.

“Certain faces just do it for me,” Vann says. “Men, women, children, whoever.”

The painting then takes off. Vann says it is somewhat like being a movie director or writer.

“I’ll pick these characters,” he says. “I may have one idea about the script. As I’m working, the actors decide how they are going to play it, which is okay with me. I allow the character to take on a life of its own. For both of us, it is a journey. It can be a magical thing.”

Vann admires the work of several local artists, including Napoleon Wilkerson, Michael Williams, Gary Walker and Marcus Kinney.

“I go to see shows, but I don’t go to openings,” he says. “I’m not into crowds now.”

Murray Silver is Vann’s agent. “Murray fell head-over-heels in love with his paintings,” Piva says. “He kept asking, ‘Who does these paintings?’, not knowing the artist was standing right there beside him.”

Vann created the cover art for the special numbered first editions of Silver’s book, Behind the Moss Curtain and Other Savannah Stories.

“It feels good to be back down here. I love the light. That’s why I had the kitchen painted yellow. I feel very comfortable here,” Vann says.

“People say there are no coincidences,. I’ve had some wonderful things happen to me. All this is part of what makes me who I am,” he says.

“I have no quarrel with the world or the universe. The universe and I are on pretty friendly terms.”

To obtain pricing and pre-ordering information about Elemental, contact Bonaventure Books via e-mail at BonaventureBooks@aol.com. For more information on Persistence of Dreams, send e-mail to the Redbridge Review at editor@redbridgereview.co.uk.

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Linda Sickler

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