On a quiet street in West Philadelphia, nestled between a couple of boarded-up businesses, an unusual sight greets the rare inquisitive passer-by. Behind a non-descript storefront window, a cornucopia of colors and shapes surprises the eye. A pensive Malcolm X glowers in repose, and Mohammed Ali is landing a devastating right cross on a hapless opponent. A scene of kids at play in the street graces the width of the window, behind the carved tree trunk that sprouts faces and figures. Studies of ramshackle buildings and the ubiquitous neighborhood row homes seem to lean forward and complete the tableau.
That lucky passer-by has just stumbled upon the studio and home of the African-American artist, David Ramsey. Soft-spoken and self-taught, Ramsey has seen a lot. Maybe more than he might have wished. At six-foot-nine and having been the point man for a night-time reconnaissance patrol for five months during the Vietnam War, he is fortunate to even be alive and have such a regret to harbor. But nothing that he has ever been through did anything to dampen the urge to create something beautiful, which has been with him since childhood.
When Ramsey returned from the war, he took a basic course in art instruction so as to gain employment doing illustrations for advertisements. After a year and a half, he left the field. His Muse was not so easily satisfied. From then on, he pursued his artistic impulses in a variety of media while working and raising a family. He painted portraits of people he admired, and of friends. Jazz musicians are a favorite subject. A now long-departed friend, who was also sort of the Vito Corleone of his neighborhood, is memorialized in a painting which unveils the humanity behind the honcho.
Ramsey turned his talents toward carving the day he was given a simple set of tools purchased for a dollar. He immediately started exploring this new medium with whatever pieces of scrap lumber he came across. A favorite design also incorporated functionality, as he added a working clock face onto long horizontal boards teeming with the painted and carved bas-reliefs of people wandering the streets or gathering in bars and restaurants. In his shop window, the figures of children at play emerge from the planes of a night stand with a drawer. He has also carved and painted large wooden masks, which seem to borrow nothing from the Polynesian, African, or any other tradition. As with all of his art, the inspiration springs from deep within the Ramsey tradition.
The drive to express his creativity in one form or another has always been present in Ramsey’s life, even during difficult times. He and his wife have cared for his bed-ridden mother for a number of years, and although many of his neighbors are the proud owners of a Ramsey carving or painting, it is safe to say recognition and reward have been as elusive for him as they have been for many other struggling artists. Not that that slows him down any.
He has just been gifted with a new set of brushes, and is eager to put them to work. The next project he is planning is to go to a nearby abandoned farmland which has been sold to a developer, and to photograph and then paint the worn, dilapidated structures still perched on the fields before the bulldozers come and do them in.
Coming across Ramsey’s work in the window of his home can be surprising, as it invites the viewer to look past the iron security grate in front of it. It seems strange to see art for sale in an area where getting one’s needs met seemed a struggle, much less one’s wants.
But It’s not surprising knowing Ramsey. He is one of many talented and creative people, who refuse to be defeated by their surroundings, and instead use them to fuel their art. It may indeed offer the most fertile ground for work that is original, authentic, and moving.
It certainly has for David Ramsey.
Ramsey’s artwork can be viewed online at www.diartspora.com