Akili Ron Anderson took the sudden rediscovery of his art in stride. The 73-year old has the life experience in art to understand that public love comes and goes. While he tries to make the most of the interest, he knows there is little in his control about this burst of fame. But he welcomes it nonetheless, with an eye toward how being in the spotlight can lift up an artist.
“I have a tendency to be careful about getting too high or too low about things that are in a state of flux,” Anderson said. “Sometimes you can get negative press as well. I don’t get affected one way or another. People can read into what they want. That’s their right to do it. But any press is good press and it’s going to affect my subsequent projects because people like name recognition for their projects. It’s part of the business of being an artist.”
Anderson has been in the business of art his entire life, working in stained glass, sculpture, painting, drawing, and set design in the Washington, D.C. area. Interest in his work soared in October of 2019 when a demolition crew discovered one of his sculptures in a former church in Columbia Heights.
In 1982, Anderson created an enormous altarpiece for New Home Baptist Church depicting the Last Supper with African-American faces. The work had been plastered over by the building’s next owner, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and rediscovered when the new owner, Joy Zinoman, began construction to turn the former church into a new home for the Studio Acting Conservatory.
The discovery led to some articles and a few local TV spots while providing an opportunity to take a fresh look at Anderson’s innovative career.
He grew up in the D.C. area, the son of a carpenter, helping his father and learning how to use the tools that would later inform his own sculpture work.
He came to stained glass through his friend, architect Robert Nash, who asked Anderson to create a specialized casting project and sculpture project for a church he was working on. A tragic fire meant a lot of restoration work including replacing some stained glass windows. That portion of the restoration would be two years away, and Anderson got to work.
“I studied stained glass for the whole two year,” Anderson said.” I was anticipating this would be a great opportunity for me. I went up to places like S.A. Bendheim to learn about the cost of wholesale and retail and that allowed me to put a bid together.” Anderson got the job, launching his stained glass career.
“It might be a surprise to most people, but what I love about working in glass is the fragility of it,” Anderson said. “It does break easily. You have to be more conscious of taking care of it, of treating it as precious. But at the same time, it’s one of the strongest materials. If you treat it well, it holds up and doesn’t deteriorate the way other materials would.
“Painting and sculpture were the traditional things I grew up hearing about,” Anderson said. “And then people have this incorrect perception of what is craft and what is art, what is high art, or whatever the case may be. I was surprised when I went into my stained glass career that it wasn’t upheld in the same way as the so-called fine arts. It didn’t affect me personally, but it’s a great thing to see now that the so-called crafts are making some quite serious statements in the art field.”
Anderson has always made a statement in his artwork, with his development as an artist parallel to his discovery of his cultural heritage and work that has been defined as Afrocentric.
“Of course I want to be a free spirited artist. That’s in my soul,” Anderson said. “But I walk out of my house and I’m attacked for whatever reason because of my color. It’s a stab in the heart. It’s very unfortunate circumstances, but it’s a part of the history of the world. People make history. People change history. In my field as an artist, I’m just lending my hand and my spirit toward making a better world for my people. I can’t change the world by myself, but I can make a contribution that gives me life and extends my life. I’m clear on that.”
He’s also clear of the importance of exposing the next generation of artists to stained glass. Anderson, who teaches drawing and painting at Howard University, is developing a proposal for a stained-glass course. The key to developing new voices in stained glass is to make sure younger people see not only the glass, but a part of themselves represented in the work.
“In terms of what the next generation wants to do, it’s a matter of what you’re exposed to,” Anderson said. “There’s this whole aspect of curiosity, and if you’re not exposed to something or have it presented as being valid, you never even consider it. I remember growing up and looking at stained glass and I thought it was made by God. I also wondered why there weren’t any black people in them.”
Anderson hopes to build on his own experience, with an interest in exploring stained-glass sculpture while continuing to draw and paint. He does a little of everything he loves, and doesn’t really give much thought to how it’s received.
“One thing I’ve been accused of, and critiqued for, is how can somebody think they can do everything and be proficient at it?” Anderson said. “What I tell people, is the aesthetic travels throughout any medium in terms of what makes it look good or the way you want it to look. My art is across many mediums and I try to utilize as much as I can. That’s my experience of what they are. I consider it valid. I don’t care to debate them. I'm just living my life and the critic, he can live his.”
All photos by Akili Ron Anderson.