A standout young artist in the Detroit area, Senghor Reid began gaining national recognition around 2004 with a major commission from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, and an exhibition of his work at the National Black Arts Show in New York City. Reid grew up in a very creative home, and some of his paintings showed a keen awareness of the heritage of African-American visual arts. Taking a job as a public school art teacher, an often thankless job in a cash-strapped big-city school system, Reid had students lining up to take his classes. "I really consider myself a part of the new generation of teachers that are fighting inside the school system to make change," Reid told Jonathan Cunningham of Detroit's Metro Times. "I was a part of DPS [the Detroit Public Schools], now I'm giving back. I take that very seriously and I want to finish what I start."
Born in 1976 in Detroit, Reid grew up in a household where art was a way of life for both parents. His mother, Shirley Woodson Reid, was a nationally known artist who worked as an art teacher in Highland Park, Michigan, an enclave within Detroit. She was also a part-time gallery owner and an art historian often sought out by local reporters, and she later became an art education professor at Detroit's Wayne State University. Reid's father, Edsel B. Reid, was a Detroit Public Schools employee who was a passionate art collector, a promoter of African-American art, and a jazz radio host. The two parents met while they were students at the prestigious MacDowell Art Colony in rural New Hampshire.
"Growing up in that type of household really allowed me to develop as an artist," Reid told Cunningham. "When we went on vacation as a family, we never did any of that vacation sightseeing type of stuff. I can remember a trip to New York as a child; I think we were at the Statue of Liberty for about ten minutes. After that, my dad was like, 'Enough of this, we goin' to Harlem to see some real s-t."
So it wasn't surprising when Reid himself began to show artistic talent at a young age. He started drawing at age three. As a high school student, he took an interest in politics and history as well as popular music—an unusual combination for a teenager. "Ever since middle school, my theme has always been politics and hip-hop," he told Oralandar Brand-Williams of the Detroit News. "In seventh grade, I did a little biography on Richard Nixon…. I've gone from Richard to Benito Mussolini and Ronald Reagan. I wanted to make sure that I would relate to world issues in my work because some of my peers don't think about it." The influence of the hip-hop movement was equally strong. "It's where I started and where I drew most of my inspiration from," he told Cunningham. "Listening to Rakim, Public Enemy, and Nas I was like, 'This is where it's at.' Hip-hop actually felt like home." Reid attended various Detroit schools and graduated from Cass Technical High School in 1994.
At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Reid majored in art and became interested in writing and film as well. He took time off in 1998 to take classes at the New York School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture. The lure of New York's flashy art scene wasn't enough to convince Reid to abandon his roots in Detroit, and he took a job teaching art at a Detroit elementary school, the Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse, after he graduated from the University of Michigan in 1999.
His works were already being exhibited that year at the JRainey Gallery near downtown Detroit and the Studio 305 gallery in the redeveloping Corktown neighborhood, and by the following February they were commanding prices of $200 to $1,000 apiece. He estimated that he had created at least 1,000 works of art since he had begun to develop his gift in the seventh grade. The Detroit News pronounced him "one of Detroit's new faces of leadership" in a headline, and the paper's art critic, Joy Hakanson Colby, raved that Reid "opens his work to the viewer, making us sharply aware of the exuberant brushwork and sizzling sense of color. His work is so fresh it's almost as if he's painting before our eyes, bringing us into the center of the action." Reid explored abstract styles in addition to his realistic hip-hop and historical themes.
One major sign of growing recognition for Reid's talents was a Governor's Award in the Arts bestowed upon him in 2001. Again, another artist might have gathered his growing financial resources and taken off for a major art center, but Reid instead redoubled his commitment to Detroit, moving from the semi-independent Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse to Southeastern High School, a large public institution with many of the problems that troubled urban schools around the country. Faced with indifferent students and an administrative mindset that deemphasized art classes for high schoolers, Reid had problems at first. "I deal with students who used to come into my classroom every day and look at me like I wasn't even a real teacher," he told Cunningham.
But it didn't take him long to make an impact. He gave his students goal-oriented and practical yet creative assignments such as redesigning their own athletic shoes. Reid had all of his students create and submit entries for a citywide art project called CarTunes that scattered small sculptural cars around central Detroit and nearby Windsor, Ontario. It wasn't long before Southeastern student who weren't officially registered in Reid's classes were asking whether they could sit in.
Detroit-area art observers disagreed as to whether Reid's focus on teaching might cut into his purely artistic energies. "If someone could just give him a big bundle of money to let him paint for a year, it would be amazing to see what he could do," local curator Dick Goody told Cunningham. But the pace of Reid's own production hardly slowed down. In 2003 he completed his first major commission outside Michigan: a set of five acrylic paintings entitled Rock My Soul: The Black Legacy of Rock and Roll, which he executed for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, to complement the hall's hip-hop exhibit. The paintings were later included in a circulating exhibition that made a stop at the Museum of African American History in Detroit.
In a large new series of paintings that Reid began exhibiting in 2004, he broke new creative ground. These paintings, which Reid called The Talkies, depicted important African-American artists such as the controversial Kara Walker in unique images that featured text assembled from magazine clippings that might comment on the artist or place two artists in an imaginary dialogue. He also branched out into theatrical set design, creating sets for a play called "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train" mounted by the African Renaissance Theater. Reid's artistic interpretations of Motown star Stevie Wonder's music were featured in an exhibit at the Museum of African American History in 2005. Reid by that time was clearly one of the most important young artists not just in Michigan but in the entire Midwest.
At a Glance …
Born in 1976 in Detroit, MI; son of Edsel Reid, an art collector, art promoter, and public schools employee, and Shirley Woodson-Reid, an artist and art historian; engaged to Tannisha Whitehead. Education: University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, BFA, 1999; studied at New York School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture.
Career: Began exhibiting works in art galleries, 1999; Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse, Detroit, art teacher, 1999–2003; Southeastern High School, Detroit, art teacher, 2003–.
Selected awards: Governor's Award in the Arts, 2001; Emerging Artist Award, ArtServe Michigan, 2001.
Addresses: Office—Southeastern High School, 3030 Fairview St, Detroit, MI 48214.
Detroit Free Press, December 30, 2001.
Detroit News, May 14, 1999, p. D9; February 25, 2000, p. E8; November 1, 2000, p. C2; May 21, 2004, p. E1.
Metro Times (Detroit), December 15, 2004.
Michigan Chronicle, October 31, 2001, p. B2; January 19, 2005, p. A4.
Michigan Citizen, March 29, 2003, p. B1.
"Biography," http://www.wcccd.edu/about/reid_bio.asp (October 18, 2005).
"Shirley Woodson-Reid," The History Makers, http://www.thehistorymakers.com (October 18, 2005).
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