Category Archives: Artist Heroes

Jean Michel Basquiat: The Brilliant, Courageous Artist-as-Hero

homepage-imageBy Nelly Spigner

Art has saved lives. Whether it has been through writing, movies, or painting, many people have named art as a huge influence in their lives. So I always find it interesting that people don’t think of artists as heroes.

I might even go as far as saying that the art world is that of many unsung heroes. One such hero goes by the name of Jean Michel Basquiat. A well known name within the black community but not in the majority. So whats so great about a homeless graffiti artist from New York, who made it big time in the art world during the 80’s? Well, just about everything.

Basquiat was born to a Haitian-American father and a Puerto Rican mother in Brooklyn, New York. A self-taught artist, Basquiat first attracted attention for his graffiti in New York City in the late 70s, under the name “SAMO,” standing for ‘same old shit.” He was homeless for sometime but to make ends meet, he sold sweatshirts and postcards featuring his artwork on the streets of his native New York. Soon though, his work and style received critical acclaim for fusing of words, symbols, stick figures, among other things. People began paying as much as $50,000 for a Basquiat original.

His story sounds like the classic “rags to riches” script but there is so much more complexity to his tale. Basquiat was born during the aftershock of the civil rights movement, during the time black at was still considered “street art” and street art was considered to be the equivalent to nothing. Of course Basquiat knew this, but more importantly Basquiat felt this and still pursued his dreams because he was part of something bigger. This time period during the late 70’s and early 80’s was also referred to as the “Black Arts Era” a movement in which called for a crown.jpg!Large-2complete liberation from the chains of the past, all the while producing a culture they could be proud of.

So not only did Basquiat’s paintings make it from the streets to institutions, they also carried with them meaning for the black youths during that age and for many years to follow.

Basquiat once said, “The black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings. I realized that I didn’t see many paintings with black people in them.“ His work challenged the majority’s mindset but creating images that honored black men as kings and saints. With his signature recurring motif, the crown, he recognized the majesty of his black heroes including groundbreaking athletes, musicians and writers, all the while reminding other people of them and instilling pride in the black community.

Like many heroes, Basquiat had a fatal flaw, his drug abuse. Unfortunately, his life ended in his prime at the age of 27, in 1988. But even in his short lived life he made a giant impact, and that is heroic. He has a legacy shaped by his charisma, magnetism, and rebelliousness. He stood as an underdog who challenged assumptions, authorities, and agencies of the culture he was born into. He essentially said, I’m black hear me roar without having to say a word, and that message continues to resonate with people today. That’s why I deem Basquiat a hero. A  culturally queer hero for kings and queens who didn’t know they were royalty.

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Nelly Spigner is an undergraduate enrolled in Scott Allison’s Heroes and Villains First-Year Seminar at the University of Richmond. She composed this essay as part of her course requirement. Nelly and her classmates are contributing authors to the forthcoming book, Heroes of Richmond, Virginia: Four Centuries of Courage, Dignity, and Virtue.

Grace Kelly: A Friend Indeed

By Rick Hutchins

Movie stars and royalty are often considered heroes by those who find inspiration in their talent, perseverance, generosity and leadership. In those terms, Grace Patricia Kelly, who won an Academy Award at age twenty-four and became Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco at age twenty-six is twice a hero. However, the true heroism of this remarkable woman is both more personal and more profound.

In 1951, the Stork Club in New York City was a popular haunt of celebrities from both Hollywood and Washington. Grace Kelly, at that time, was a young actress of stage and television about to begin a career in film. As she dined with some friends and colleagues one night, she was witness to what was an all-too-common event in those days — a woman being refused service because of the color of her skin. That woman turned out to be Josephine Baker, an internationally famous singer and exotic dancer (herself a hero of WWII and the Civil Rights Movement), who, at that time, was a far bigger celebrity than Grace Kelly.

With no thought to the possible consequences to her own career, Kelly left her dinner, took Baker by the arm and departed for more welcoming pastures (to their credit, her companions followed suit). She vowed never to return to the Stork Club and she kept that promise. From that night onward, Grace Kelly and Josephine Baker were lifelong friends.

The next several years brought amazing changes for Kelly. She quickly became one of America’s most beloved actresses. In 1955, she headed the U.S. delegation to the Cannes Film Festival and there met Prince Rainier of Monaco. The prince knew a princess when he saw one and a few months later he made a reciprocal trip to the United States where he proposed marriage.

Josephine Baker’s fortunes, unfortunately, did not fare as well. Branded a communist by the HUAC, likely as a consequence of her charges of racism against the Stork Club, whose owner was a friend of J. Edgar Hoover, she was banned from the U.S.  Her luck went downhill from there, but her friend did not forget her. When her difficulties ultimately resulted in bankruptcy, Princess Grace gave her a villa for herself and the twelve multiethnic orphans she had adopted in better times, and offered financial support as well. In fact, Baker’s final show, a glowingly reviewed retrospective performance in Paris, given only days before her death, was financed (and attended by) the princess and her prince.

In 1982, Princess Grace suffered a stroke behind the wheel of her car; she died as a result of injuries suffered in the crash. Throughout her short life, she proved herself a true philanthropist, always using her fame and wealth and status to promote the betterment of mankind, work that still continues today through the Princess Grace Foundation. However, nothing exemplifies her heroic character more than that one selfless act of friendship to a stranger, in the days when that was all she had to offer.

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Rick Hutchins was born in Boston, MA, and has been an avid admirer of heroism since the groovy 60s. In his quest to live up to the heroic ideal of helping people, he has worked in the health care field for the past twenty-five years, in various capacities. He is also the author of Large In Time, a collection of poetry, The RH Factor, a collection of short stories, and is the creator of Trunkards. Links to galleries of his art, photography and animation can be found on http://www.RJDiogenes.com.

This is Hutchins’ sixth guest blog post here.  His first two, on astronaut and scientist Mae Jemison and the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards, will appear in our new book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals.

Christopher Lee: Heroic Prince of Darkness

christopher_lee1By Rick Hutchins

On the silver screen, he was best known for portraying an evil that brought terror to the hearts of the innocent and the brave. For his artistry, he was knighted by Prince Charles of England.

In reality, in the darkest decade in living memory, he fought the greatest evil mankind has ever known.

Perhaps he was knighted for the wrong reason.

Sir Christopher Lee was born in 1922, his father a colonel of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, whose service dated back to the Boer War, and his mother a descendent of Charlemagne, whose beauty was preserved in art and sculpture. His first acting role was at the age of six in a school play. He was never very good at academics or sports, but he excelled in the arts. All of this is common knowledge.

But some people have unknown depths. Some lives rival the adventures of Pulp fiction.

At the onset of the second World War, Lee volunteered for the Finnish forces, but did not see combat. Two years later, he volunteered for the Royal Air Force, but a medical condition prevented him from flying. Determined to serve, he then volunteered for RAF Intelligence and it was there that he truly flourished. After coming to the attention of his superior officers for his skill at decodinglee-dracula German ciphers (he was fluent in several languages), he was transferred to North Africa, where he served with the Long Range Desert Group. Here, he penetrated behind enemy lines, infiltrating Axis bases from Egypt to Benghazi to sabotage enemy aircraft and installations.

In addition to several near-death experiences while serving near the front lines, Lee was felled by malaria six times during the North African campaign, and returned to duty each time.

Following the Axis surrender in North Africa and the Allied invasion of Italy, Lee began Intelligence work for the Army. During this time, he served with the Gurkhas, suffering yet another brush with death, and took part in planning a potential assault on the Nazi’s Alpine Fortress. Lee was then returned to the Air Force, where he was promoted and posted to Air Force Headquarters to work with the Special Operations Executive, conducting espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance missions in Occupied Europe.

When the war ended, Lee worked with the Central Registry of War Criminals, tracking down Nazi fugitives and turning them over to the authorities for interrogation and indictment. He duties brought him several times to Nazi concentration camps, where he witnessed the aftermath of the Holocaust firsthand.

Flight Lieutenant Christopher Lee retired from active duty in 1946. This is the bare bones of what we know of his activities in the second World War. His full service record remains classified to this day.

Lee was decorated for his heroism in wartime by Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Poland, and Great Britain. He was appointed a Commander of the Venerable Order of St. John. He was knighted for his services to charity. These, of course, are in addition to the many well-deserved honors he received for his inimitable work in film.

On screen, he portrayed the darkest of villains; on the stage of life, he was truly the noblest of heroes.

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Rick Hutchins was born in Boston, MA, and has been an avid admirer of heroism since the groovy 60s. In his quest to live up to the heroic ideal of helping people, he has worked in the health care field for the past twenty-five years, in various capacities. He is also the author of Large In Time, a collection of poetry, The RH Factor, a collection of short stories, and is the creator of Trunkards. Links to galleries of his art, photography and animation can be found on http://www.RJDiogenes.com.

This is Hutchins’ eleventh guest blog post here.  His first two, on astronaut and scientist Mae Jemison and the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards, can be found in our book Heroic Leadership.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: Heroic Dancing Virtuosos

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

One popular genre of hero stories focuses on the tale of the buddy heroes.  These are heroes who pair up, enjoy great chemistry, display friendly friction, and perform heroic acts together that they could not perform individually.  Buddy hero stories have long graced the silver screen, television, and novels.  Examples include Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Thelma and Louise, Starsky and Hutch, Cagney and Lacey, The Hardy Boys, Tango and Cash, and The Blues Brothers.  Buddy hero stories differ from hero-sidekick stories in that buddy heroes are equals with complementary skill sets.  With buddy heroes, there is no dominant star; each is a force, and working together they can produce magic.

In the performing arts, perhaps no pair of heroes was more dominant and more revered than the dance team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  As with many buddy heroes, Astaire and Rogers were an unlikely pair.  Astaire was balding, less than handsome, and somewhat awkward as an actor.  His dancing, however, was poetry in motion, astonishing in its rhythm and technical virtuosity.

Ginger Rogers was beautiful, seductive, and comedic.  Her dancing was a notch below that of Astaire, but her playful coquettish style and natural charisma complemented him well.  Katherine Hepburn once observed, “He gives her class and she gives him sex.”  Together, Astaire and Rogers were greater than the sum of their parts.  No other dance team could compare.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers appeared in ten musical films together and revolutionized the musical film genre.  They dazzled audiences with their inventive flair.  Astaire was especially singled out for his skill and creativity on the dance floor.  Famed theater producer Jerome Robbins noted that “Astaire’s dancing looks so simple, so disarming, so easy, yet the understructure, the way he sets the steps on, over or against the music, is so surprising and inventive.” His perfectionism was legendary, yet he remained humble.  “I’ve never yet got anything 100% right,” he said. “Still it’s never as bad as I think it is.”

Alastair Macaulay from the New York Times once wrote, “Dancing together, Astaire and Rogers expressed many of love’s moods: courtship and seduction, repartee and responsiveness, teasing and challenge, the surprise of newfound harmony, the happy recapture of bygone romance, the giddy exhilaration of high spirits and intense mutual accord, the sense of a perfect balance of power, the tragedy of parting and, not least, the sense of love as role playing.”

Fred Astaire himself acknowledged that Ginger Rogers was by far his best dance partner.  “After a while everyone else who danced with me looked wrong,” he said.  “Ginger was brilliantly effective. She made everything work for her. Actually she made things very fine for both of us and she deserves most of the credit for our success.”  Although Astaire was singled out more often for his dancing prowess, many people appreciated Rogers’ great talent and believed she was underrated.  Said one fan, “Remember, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, backwards and on high heels.”

Below is a collage of dance routines performed by the great Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Emma Watson: Wizard and Hero

By Carolyn Flannery, Nora Tocheny, & Briana Robinson

British actress and model Emma Watson was born on April 15, 1990. She became a household name when, at the age of nine, she was cast as the strong, charismatic Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter movie series. Watson auditioned for the part as Hermione because her friends did and because it would “be a laugh”. Although she didn’t take the audition seriously, her drama teacher and casting agents saw great potential in her.

She starred in eight Harry Potter movies, and has gone on to attract prominent roles in other movies and television shows. Her acting career has earned her many awards, such as the Young Artist Award, two Otto Awards, Child Performance of the Year Award, and many more.

Even though Emma Watson had many cinematic successes, becoming a world famous actress did not steer Emma Watson away from continuing her education. In 2009, Watson attended the prestigious Brown University while continuing her role as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter franchise. She took a year off from her education to act in several movies, but eventually received her bachelor’s degree in English Literature.

Not only is Emma Watson known as an accomplished actress, she was also named a Goodwill Ambassador for UN Women and has traveled to Bangladesh, Zambia, and Uruguay to advocate for human rights. In her September 20 speech for the United Nations, she launched the new HeforShe campaign that aims to bring men into the fight for gender equality. This speech earned her a standing ovation and began a national conversation about gender and feminism.

The HeforShe campaign advocates for gender equality as a human rights issue involving both sexes, a message Watson clearly expressed in her speech. Watson proclaims that feminism has become synonymous with “man-hating”, a negative stigma that has thwarted the advancement of gender equality. As a self-declared feminist, Watson explains how both women and men are targets of gender bias, and she urges both men and women to work together to modify today’s social norms. Emma Watson focuses her message to men and women of all ages.  She spoke out for human equality, motivating everyone to take a stand for what they believe in by saying, “If not you, who? If not now, when?”

Emma Watson embodies the qualities of a hero through her strong dedication to achieving her goals and advocating for worthy causes. She is an incredibly successful actress, and has many more achievements that are central in her everyday life. Her acting has brought her worldwide fame, and she uses her fame in a positive way to actively support humanitarian efforts. For example, she supports UNICEF on her official fan page and asks her fans to donate.

Watson also is involved with smaller charities, such as Blue Peter’s Mission Nutrition, and Wild Trout Trust. She has collaborated with Peopletree, a fair trade ecologically friendly fashion company that establishes production facilities in developing countries to provide community members with economic support through employment opportunities. Emma Watson has had a positive and enduring influence on society and has advanced numerous humanitarian causes, making her a role model and modern day hero.

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Carolyn Flannery, Nora Tocheny, & Briana Robinson are undergraduate students at the University of Richmond. They wrote this essay as part of their course requirement while enrolled in Dr. Scott Allison’s Social Psychology class.

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Sidney Poitier: Quiet Revolutionary

© 2013 Rick Hutchins

The word revolution suggests noise. People will do a lot to draw attention to their cause; yelling and shouting is usually the least of it. But some revolutions happen quietly, peacefully, inevitably. All Sidney Poitier had to do to change the world was to be Sidney Poitier.

His humble beginnings did not in any way suggest greatness. A premature baby born to a poor farming family from the Bahamas, he survived infancy against the odds. His early life in the islands, in Miami and in New York was an anonymous one of farming and odd jobs, primarily washing dishes. He did not learn to read until his late teens. After a stint in the army, he simply went back to washing dishes. While he was able to gain a spot in the American Negro Theater, his early appearances were not applauded.

Then things changed. One successful role on Broadway led to another, which led to a notable role in the film No Way Out, which led to more Hollywood successes. Suddenly this quiet, perseverant man was a star — the first Black actor to be nominated for a competitive Academy Award, then the first Black actor win the Academy Award for Best Actor.

But he was more than that. In the tempestuous 1960s, in the midst of the Civil Rights Era, a time of race riots and student protests and a counter-cultural overturning of tradition, a time of clashes between generations and ideologies and bewildered bystanders, a time in which the pent-up anger of centuries came to a head, Sidney Poitier found himself to be a role model. Without any ambition to do so, he touched the lives of millions.

You could hear a pin drop.

This is not to say there was no controversy; nothing and no one is immune to that. There were accusations of tokenism, of appeasement. With his serene manner, his gentle voice — even after all these years still informed by a gentle island lilt — and his general thoughtfulness, this gentleman was deemed by many to be inadequate to the revolution. As the only major Black actor of his time, he was encouraged to take stronger, grittier, more controversial roles — in the parlance of the age, Blacker roles.

Poitier was conflicted. He did not disagree, since, as does any artist, he thrived on challenge. But, in his thoughtful way, he determined that living up to his own expectations as a role model was more important. He did indeed tackle the great racial issues of his time– a man of his character could do no less– but he did it his own way.

In the classic film Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?, a movie whose theme of the marriage between a Black man and a White woman (miscegenation!) was still unspeakably scandalous to much of the nation, his character quietly said to his father, “You think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.”

And that was it. While others accused and attacked, he led by example. While others incited passion, he incited peace. While others were fighting battles, he won the war by teaching us that the entire conflict was based on a lie.

Of course it’s not over, even after all these decades; the troubled times are not behind us. There is still racism and chauvinism, still confusion and chaos, still antisocial throwbacks and self-serving crusaders. Even so, standing serenely above them all is a giant named Sidney Poitier– actor, director, author, diplomat– a role model for those with sincerity in their hearts, a leader for those who will listen.

Sidney Poitier, you see, is not too quiet — the world is simply too loud.

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Rick Hutchins was born in Boston, MA, and is a regular contributor to this blog.  In his quest to live up to the heroic ideal of helping people, he has worked in the health care field for the past twenty-five years, in various capacities. He is also the author of Large In Time, a collection of poetry, The RH Factor, a collection of short stories, and is the creator of Trunkards. Links to galleries of his art, photography and animation can be found on http://www.RJDiogenes.com.

Two of Hutchins’ previous essays on heroes appear in our new book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals.

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