Al Bright

Episode 17,   Feb 25, 08:17 AM

Al Bright was an acclaimed artist and renowned educator.  In 1965, he became the first full-time Black facility member at his alma mater - Youngstown State University, where he taught art and established the Africana Studies program. His art work has been exhibited at, or is in the permanent collection of, several venerable museums in addition to many private and corporate collections. Al died in 2019. It was an incident from his childhood that would go on to be told in a NY Times bestseller and then critically acclaimed feature film landing Al in the national conversation and shining  a “bright” light on his life and work.

Al created hundreds of drawings and paintings often “abstracted” from live  jazz music. He fed off the energy of his audience and the musicians who served as his muse . One notable art performance was in 1980 at the Youngstown Playhouse with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, featuring a 21-year-old trumpeter named Wynton Marsalis.

His most impactful canvas however, may very well have been “a day in the life of” - when Al was about 10. His little league team had just won the championship. Al was eager to celebrate at the swim party the coach had arranged at a pool on Youngstown’s Southside. As the team filed-in Al, being the only Black boy on the team, was stopped at the entrance by the pool’s manager and told he couldn’t come in. For a good part of that hot summer afternoon Al watched his teammates dive, splash and swim from the opposite side of a chain-link fence. Finally the coach pleaded with the pool’s manager who acquiesced, as long as Al agreed to stay on a floating dingy and “not touch the water,” less the pool have to be drained and cleaned.

This raw and painful experience was originally recounted in his best friend, former NY Times editor Mel Watkins‘ book, “Dancing With Strangers”.  Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabelle Wilkerson picked up the story and included it in Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Caste, with Al’s story, was then adapted into the recently released feature film "Origin," directed by Golden Globe and Academy Award nominated Ava DuVernay. As Wilkerson’s character says in the movie, “a part of Al Bright died that day”. And in a gut-wrenching scene, she tells a hurt young Al, “you’re going to be alright."

All right  - and how! Thanks to his fortitude, eternal sense of optimism and divine inspiration, his work is justly presented in Greatness Revealed: The Art of African Americans from the Butler Collection at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown (through March 17th, 2024)

On behalf of those whom he taught mentored and inspired, it is with immense honor and privilege I let you know Al Bright was From Ohio!