Honoring My History

pablo

“In 1930, I was told by my father that the family needed money, and that I was now old enough, at fourteen, to get a job with him and my brother in a coalmine in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. It took an hour for us workers to descend 1800 feet to the inky, damp underground work areas. I went to work picking coal in the spaces too small for the adult men. In 1931, we had an explosion. I was ok, but others weren’t. I drew pictures to deal with my feelings about it. Not long after, we workers went on strike to get paid for the two hours a day we spent in the elevator. It was then that I met a “Wobbly”, who helped us figure out ways to respond to both the owners’ refusal to negotiate, and the scabs that entered the mine every day under police protection. The Wobbly told us kids to throw marbles under the horses on a signal. We did. Horses fell to the ground, police started shooting and murdered 14 workers that morning. My skull was fractured by a baton. A police officer visited me in the hospital to tell me I was under arrest for striking. I was sentenced to 6 months in jail and 2 years of probation. Not long after, I met Mother Bloor, a leader in the Communist party of the United states, Bill Foster, the leader of the steelworkers’ union, and John L. Lewis, who had come to our mine to help us form a union. I was a union man from that day, forward. And we got our union.”

“Soon after, I was 16 at the time, I heard that my hero, Diego Rivera, a Mexican Communist artist, was working on a mural in Detroit. Without hesitating, I hopped a train from Philadelphia to Detroit and managed to meet him. He and Frida liked my drawings. We saw eye-to-eye on politics and art, and they let me assist in that monumental radical workers’ mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts. I learned from a master. Art was his revolution, and it is mine.”

“I’ve worked as a union organizer and community activist throughout my life. I helped Dave Davis win the first “closed shop” union in Philadelphia, and worked with Mexican farm laborers to help strengthen their farm labor union in Colorado. I refused to give names and addresses of my communist comrades during the Red Scare in Denver , and I’ve assisted with the struggle for many civil rights issues; including the efforts to free Ben Chavis, the Wilmington 10, and Angela Davis. I’ve also worked within the Detroit community to build a state-of-the art elder living center for low-income seniors. At 95, I still have a fire in my heart that burns brightly for all causes related to human dignity.”

– From the Steve “Pablo” Davis interview found at the Labor Heritage Foundation

I’ve just been told that one of my mentors, Steve “Pablo” Davis, has passed away.

It’s ironic, really. Part of me had assumed he’d passed years ago. Hell, Steve was old when I met him at the age of 13. But, the rest of me knew that the ornery old coot would still be kicking and fighting the Man, fighting for the little guy, fighting for human decency and the right to exist. He was three years away from hitting the century mark when the Universe called him back to the Unified Soul; that’s no small feat.

Mrs. Moore by Steve "Pablo" Davis
Mrs. Moore by Steve “Pablo” Davis

“Upon arriving in Detroit, he asked train yard workers where the museum was, but none knew. When he found it, guards would not permit his entry but a woman came out as he sat on the front steps and said, “You look like you just lost your best friend.” He explained his deep desire to meet the great artist, and as this woman was Frida Kahlo, she took him into the museum with her and introduced the two. Diego Rivera examined some of Pablo’s artistry and allowed him to assist in the layering of Rivera’s fresco mural still on view in the museum. Pablo lived with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo for some months while in Detroit. When the Spanish Civil War broke, partially out of loyalty to his Spanish mother, he went to fight – not knowing this would later be considered a crime by his own country because America had not yet “officially” named fascism a crime. He served in the American volunteer Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War.”

– From Steve “Pablo” Davis’ Wikipedia page

Detroit Industry, South Wall
Detroit Industry, South Wall

In the summer of 1987, I was a young, rotund burgeoning artist fresh out of middle school. In the summer, I was going to enter high school, the next and (at the time) most crucial evolution to adulthood in a young man’s life. Yet, this new chapter was a summer away… Three months! What to do with the time…

As she was inclined to do, my mother enrolled my brother and I into a summer arts program at Northern High School. We were supposed to be taking a drawing class with an artist that my godmother knew and was friendly with. However, he backed out of the assignment and the school had to find a replacement. When we walked into the class, my brother and I were greeted by a gentlemen that looked like Gandalf as a hobbit, filled with more piss and vinegar than a man a quarter of his age… Certainly more than my innocent 13-year old ass.

He told us that we were going to learn how to paint fresco, the all-but-forgotten technique used by Michelangelo in the creation of the Sistene Chapel. Now, I haven’t mastered watercolors and this man was going to teach us how to paint on plaster… Crazy! But, whatever… I’m down for anything and learning everything. I was going to be a sponge soaking up whatever I could.

Mine Disaster sketches by Steve "Pablo" Davis
Mine Disaster sketches by Steve “Pablo” Davis

And, learn I did. I learned so much that summer. He was a firebrand, that one. Even at the then age of 70, Steve had a youthful, mischievous twinkle in his eye. He told amazing stories about his life from fighting in the Spanish Civil War to painting with Diego Rivera and Frieda Khalo, culminating with his contribution to the Detroit Industry mural in the Detroit Institute of Art. He told of his past as a Marxist and how his affiliation with the American Communist Party forced him to change his name. He taught me about satire, painting comical images of himself dressed in a superhero costume knocking out the principal of Northern (whom he did not get along with).

Steve didn’t sugar-coat it. He was “Black-tellin'” fools before I coined the term. He had that benefit of age where, at a certain point, one doesn’t care about the politics of words and the need for acceptance in polite circles. He lived in the moment and existed in the world. We heard things and learned about the kinds of things that only men tell other men. He was a revolutionary, images were his weapons and words were his ammunition.

Most of all, Steve taught me to be proud of my culture, to draw from that wellspring when I create. He instilled in me THAT sense of pride and confidence of who I am and who I would become. He taught me how to “hide in plain sight,” to infuse my world view into a work that could be accepted by all. He helped me develop my voice as a tool for protest, discourse and change. He taught me how to be fearless.

pablo davis

Following that summer, my brother and I would still see Steve from time to time. He would always ask me what I was doing with my art and he would always smile when I told him how I practiced my kung-fu. As the years went on, the sightings would become less frequent to the point where it had been about 10 years since I saw him last. But, I would always feel his presence. Example, in 2003, the family and I were on a plane to Italy. The in-flight movie was Frida starring the uber-hot Selma Hayek. While watching the movie, I nudged my brother and said:

“Do you realize that we are 2 degrees away from history?”

That’s what Steve gave to us.

The artist at work
The artist at work

I wish that I spoke with you one last time, Steve “Pablo” Davis. I wish that you saw the work I was creating now. I wish that you could see the person, the artist, that I’ve become. I want to thank you and shake your hand just once more, Steve. You were the first, and greatest, of my mentors. You connected me to this world in ways that I could never have imagined. You have taught me much, Sensei… Peaceful Journey, my friend.

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