A Prolific Artist, Chandler Created Hundreds of Works

(Chandler in his studio at 11 Leon St., Boston, circa 1976. (c) Dana C. Chandler, Jr. Not for use or distribution without artist’s permission.)

Dana Chandler was a highly prolific artist in his production years. Between 1963 and 2008, he created hundreds of works of different media and covering a variety of themes. Both the historic fervor of the civil rights and Black Nationalist era and his desire to be a recognized activist black artist drove Chandler. He focused equally on producing art that was high quality and works containing powerful messages about the black resistance movement of that time.

Found Materials, Found Workspaces

Early in his career, he was like many young artists with little money. “I did a lot of painting on found materials,” he says. His earliest images were on ceiling tiles, homasote, plywood, cardboard–almost any surface sturdy enough to hold the weight, absorb the liquid in acrylic paint and thin enough to be framed.

He also worked wherever he could, whether it was in classrooms at MassArt where he was a student early in his professional career or at home. “I would spread my materials out across the floor in our living room and have to keep my toddler daughters from stepping on them and tracking paint across the floors,” he remembers about producing works in the tiny Jamaica Plain projects apartment he shared with his then wife and children.

The Old Piano Factory

In 1968, Chandler moved to his first studio at 791 Tremont Street in Boston. By then, he was working and could afford more paints but still worked primarily with found materials. The studio space gave him both the quiet to reflect and the space to produce.

Chandler in 791 Tremont Street Studio in 1971 with early works. (c) Dana C. Chandler, Jr. Not for use or distribution without artist’s permission.

Chandler had been an exhibiting artist since high school, winning multiple awards for his art even then. And, his work appeared in exhibitions as an adult in 1963 as part of the Boston Negro Artists Association.

By now in his late 20s, he knew he needed to expand his exhibition credits and get more exposure for his art. “I exhibited anywhere there was space,” he says. But having his studio gave him more opportunities to open the space up to the public and show his works.

He also could develop deeper roots in the artist and activist communities by sharing his space with their members.

There were as many organizing meetings as artists parties at the studio. That commitment to sharing space with the community become the driving force for Chandler. He wanted to create wider opportunities for black performing, and visual artists to develop their craft and share their talents with the public.

Because they didn’t exist in mainstream communities, Chandler decided he had to create that space. That would lead to a once world-renowned artist-in-residence program. Chandler made no secret of wanting to advance black art, black communities and black lives.

His works depicted African Americans that desire by showing them in positive ways but calling them to better themselves, too. His pieces also showed the inherent evil of white supremacy and that enraged whites who wanted to remain violent against African Americans while forcing blacks to stay silent.

From the time he started making these statements in his art, it was stolen, defaced and destroyed at exhibitions. But those behind these acts weren’t able to keep up with Chandler’s productive energy. They weren’t satisfied with “sending him a message” to tone the works down and stop his activism through art and every other means by attacking only a few pieces.

His prolific production of confrontational art and his public statements and speeches against white supremacy and racial oppression made him and his studios targets.

The Professionally Looted Studio

In 1973, those trying to silence Chandler executed what photo evidence from that time show was a professional destruction job on his studio at 115 Brookline Avenue in Boston’s South End.

The basement where Chandler found thousands of his print reproductions and multiple other works submerged, face down in most cases, in water.

Chandler returned from a trip out of the country one early spring day to find his studio completely trashed. He discovered many paintings broken or defaced with the letters “KKK” (though actual Klan activity was uncommon in Boston).

Before the break in, Chandler had 20,000 copies of his “Black On Black for Black” reproduction series made. Criminals destroyed about half of them, many they submerged into a lake of water they created in the building’s basement to obliterate Chandler’s art.

“Water was visible all over the floor, and water damage to my work was evident,” remembers Chandler. As if to prove this was a calculated act, “The faces of prints, drawings, and paintings were deliberately subjected to the water,” Chandler explains.

The miscreants then took multiple pieces of Chandler’s remaining works and scattered them around the neighborhood like trash.

Dana Chandler stands with “Golden Prison” in his studio at 115 Brookline Avenue in Boston n 1973. Wilberforce University owns the image today. (c) Dana C. Chandler. All rights reserved. No use or distribution of any kind without the artist’s permission.)

This war-like assault against Chandler was the white nationalist response to the artist and his message. Particularly enraging to white people at all levels were his pieces calling for African Americans to practice self-love and unity by exercising their Constitutional right to defend themselves against racist tyranny.

Chandler’s works encouraged black men to be the protectors they’re meant to be; to get off drugs, get educated and take up arms to fight the long-time occupiers in our communities.

Those thousands of reproductions that got desecrated depicted the natural beauty and power of African Americans. The criminals decimated other works that portrayed the truth of America’s racist history, too.

But it was the way the perpetrators executed the operation that sent the larger “we know who you are and we’re watching” message that enraged those who witnessed the aftermath.

It was clear to even the most casual observers of the crime that the break-in was a professional hit job meant to look like that of some rogue but a random group of white racists in the city. The false flag attack was an attempt to worsen tensions in a city that already was a racial tinderbox by making it appear garden-variety white criminals conducted this looting.

“Almost anything of use was stolen,” remembers Chandler, “and everything else got destroyed.”

Many people who witnessed this deliberate destruction knew corrupt white supremacists in the U.S. government, and local police planned and financed this operation in an attempt to frighten Chandler and permanently silence him. Chandler was supposed to be left broken, unable to create any more art.

But, today neither Chandler nor his daughter, Dahna, who was nine years old at the time, is convinced it only was racist whites perpetrating this crime. They believe black operatives were involved equally.

Just as they helped overseers during enslavement abuse and even kill other blacks, they always have supported white oppressors’ efforts against other black people. They’ve acted as informers and enforcers. “These people have no fealty to other blacks,” says Chandler with derision tinging his voice.

In fact, it may have been African Americans who executed the entire hit job since that part of the South End at that time was poor and black. Neighbors would notice whites carrying out this crime.

But, the artist knew he wasn’t a novel target. Chandler and his contemporaries knew this government-sponsored hit job wasn’t different, in many ways, from the activities perpetrated against activists of any persuasion at that time. Some of the most aggressive targeting was against black activists identifying as Black Nationalists as Chandler did openly.

One of those black activists had been Fred Hampton whose brutal assassination Chandler memorialized with two artworks. One of those was a painting, “Fred Hampton’s Door,” that Chandler painted in 1970, just three years before his studio looting. That painting got stolen from a World’s Fair.

“Fred Hampton’s Door,” 1970. 11 x 17 print reproduction on 80 lb. cardstock; printed in 1985. (c) Dana C Chandler, Jr. All rights reserved.

 

The painting of bright red door depicted the bullet-riddled entry of Hampton’s Chicago apartment. US government and local police conspired to assassinate the 21-year-old Black Panther while he slept next to his pregnant fiance in the wee hours of December 4, 1969. Another Panther leader, 22-year-old Mark Clark, also got slaughtered in the police-led home invasion.

Whites were determined then, like they are today, to maintain “white” control in a predominantly “white” America they saw changing too fast, even violently and with actions that send an unequivocal message about intent and who was behind the action.

That included white people in government police agencies like to FBI, who as part of what The Intercept recently called the “surveillance-industrial complex” expanded its COINTELPRO to include black activists.

A look at the images of the carnage shows how long the campaign had to have taken and how well-planned it was. It’s not a coincidence that the atrocity happened when Chandler was out of the country.

Nonetheless, though thousands of reproductions got destroyed by during the looting of Chandler’s studio, none were of “Fred Hampton’s Door.” A few weeks later, someone burned the building to the ground, which isn’t uncommon when government operatives need to destroy a crime scene involving them.

Focusing on what he still had left, Chandler remained undeterred. He decided he was called to work harder than ever in his art career, so his work was to make a difference. What he did next made it clear to those dark messengers that the black arts movement was here to stay.

The Renowned Artist-In-Residence

Shortly after the South End studio looting, Chandler got offered studio space at Simmons College where he also became a tenured professor. He taught at the women’s college for over three decades. But, the artist had a much bigger vision.

“I went past this building on the corner of Leon Street and Ruggles Street in Boston every day on the way to work at Simmons,” he recalls. “It was a large, old abandoned factory that I knew it would make great studio space for me.”

Northeastern University owned the building. So, Chandler convinced university officials, among them then-president Kenneth G. Ryder, that they would benefit from having a black artist of his renown in the space it was adjacent to the Roxbury and Mission Hill neighborhoods, both predominantly black at the time. Since Ryder had committed to local community engagement, he agreed. Chander moved into his 8,000 square foot space in fall, 1973.

The artist then entered one of the most productive and transformative periods of his art career once he moved into this space. He had the room to be more prolific than ever as well as the support to purchase the art supplies he needed to produce some of his greatest works.

He began creating more large-scale pieces like “SaKKKrificial Dance,” and it was in this space Chandler created a full-size work forever memorializing the last moments of two young Black Panthers’ lives, this time using full-size entry real door. That work was “Fred Hampton’s Door II.” “I absolutely did not want his story or the severity of the events surrounding his death lost,” explains Chandler.

But he also experienced the positive effect using the space had on him as an artist and by allowing the community to use the space for events. Because of that, a vision of an artist and community space began to form in his mind.

In November 1978, with the help of Ken Ryder and city officials, that concept became a reality, opening as the African American Master Artist-in-Residence Program (AAMARP). The new program launched with 13 artists in residence and featured an enormous gallery and community space.

AAMARP would become one of the world’s most renowned programs to support black and other artists of color as well white women artists. By the early 2000s, the program had gotten significantly reduced in space, scope and financial after Ken Ryder retired. Those who followed Ryder had long expressed racial animus toward Chandler and failed to understand the value that a black artists program brought to the predominantly white university.

Having both grander imperial plans that eliminated community programs that supported African Americans in non-paternalistic ways and having been in long-term enmity with Chandler, Northeastern’s new administration attempted to eviscerate AAMARP like Trump as most of Barack Obama’s policies.

Chandler entered another stage of prolific art production in the mid to late 1990s. His visionary artist-in-residence program got placed by the university under a new and less experienced leadership who was more malleable to the Northeastern’s reigning administration. Chandler retired from AAMARP when he retired from Simmons College and moved to New Mexico in 2004.

While the program remains in existence, it seems all but forgotten by the university and the surrounding community. It has all but faded completely into Boston’s art history.

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