by Carole Verona
In celebration of Black History Month, the Gravers Lane Gallery, 8405 Germantown Ave., presents “American Heroes and Innovators,” paintings and drawings by father and son artists Chris Hopkins, 60, and Justin Hopkins, 27. The exhibited portraits range from those of Tuskegee Airmen and women to legendary and contemporary musical artists.
On Friday, Feb. 7, the gallery will host a reception for the artists from 5 to 8:30 p.m. During the reception, a Sip & Shop will also be held next door at J. McLaughlin, with 15 percent of sales benefitting the Stained Glass Project. On Saturday Feb. 8, 1 to 2 p.m., the two artists will be joined by Guy Franklin, author of “The Tuskegee Airmen: The Rest of The Story,” for a gallery talk. Both events are free and open to the public. The exhibit will be up until March 15.
Chris Hopkins began work on the Tuskegee Airmen series through his involvement in the Air Force Art Program. According to background on the Air Force’s website, the art program, which began in the 1950s, carries on a tradition dating back to Revolutionary times of documenting the military way of life — on and off the battlefield — through the medium of art. Civilian artists were given the honorary rank of colonel and sent on officially sponsored trips to Air Force installations all over the world. The artists then donated their work to the U.S. Air Force. The Air Force hosted a formal presentation every year to unveil and exhibit the work. Eventually, the program was scrapped due to budgetary cuts.
“I joined the program in 2004 and did the first Tuskegee painting for the 2006 presentation,” said Chris. “At about that time, my son became part of the Air Force Art Program. I think he was the youngest person ever to be part of it and probably the youngest honorary colonel, too.
“They said I could paint anything that was applicable to the U.S. Air Force Army Air Corps, past, present or future. I had always been intrigued with the Tuskegee Airmen, so I did a painting of them entitled ‘Butterflies.’ The painting was so well received that the Pentagon called me a few years later and asked if I would be willing to do a series of paintings on the Tuskegee Airmen in conjunction with a CBS documentary. CBS dropped out of the project, but I kept going because I was in so deep.”
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first black servicemen to serve as military aviators in the U.S. armed forces, flying with distinction during World War II. “The more I learned about the subject, the more inspired I became,” said Chris. “There were a lot of different aspects that had never been covered by other artists. Usually the art consisted of the pilots or of the aircraft shown in various forms of combat or escorting a bomber. The rest of the story was pretty much ignored. For example, I couldn’t find anything about the women who served or about the ground crew and the legacy they left.”
Chris is a member of the Sam Bruce Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. in Seattle. He made friends with Capt. George Hickman, one of the airmen. “Before he died,” said Chris, “he would come out here and look at my art to see if it was up to snuff.” There is only one living airman, Colonel Edward Drummond, left in the chapter. But over the years, Chris did meet other airmen. “They were just wonderful gentlemen, who would sit down and tell me stories.” Chris was especially fascinated by stories of what he refers to as the double victory, “the victory overseas against the global threat of Fascism and Nazism and the victory at home for the recognition of human dignity and equal rights.”
At 27, Justin is a professional illustrator, artist, composer, musician, recording engineer and designer of complex sound systems that are installed in large spaces, such as museums and resort hotel destinations.
Justin created 12 pieces specifically for this exhibit. His work focuses on historical and contemporary music artists, ranging from past greats like John Coltrane, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday to contemporary artists Erykah Badu, Ishmael Butler and ?uestlove (Ahmir Khalib Thompson). “Ten are watercolor portraits that I painted on water-resistant surfaces. With this technique, there’s only so much you can actually control, so you end up with interesting and unique textures.” He also did two larger-scale oil paintings for the exhibit.
Chris explained that the exhibit in Chestnut Hill came about through his wife, Jan Hopkins, “an incredible artist” who has worked in the past with Bruce Hoffman, director of the Gravers Lane Gallery. Justin said, “My dad started teaching me when I was 10 years old. He influenced me greatly. He set up a drafting table for me next to his, and I’d just draw and paint while he was working. He and my mom are huge influences on my work. More than anything, their work ethic is unbelievable.”