Saturday, October 01, 2011

Artivist In Action: Ronald Herd (R2C2H2) Teaches The Community Through Art.

Artivist In Action: Ronald Herd (R2C2H2) Teaches The Community Through Art.
LIMELIGHT November 2005

"ARTIVIST" PURSUES DREAM : Painter, Author,Musician, Volunteer, Memphis native and Washington University graduate Ronald Herd, 25, has quit Substitute Teaching to focus fully on his art. He frequently travels around the country to display his drawings and promote his self-published book, "James Reese Europe: Jazz Lieutenant". Photo by Carl Hess II.

Herd is an 'artivist' combining his art and afrocentric and humanist sensibilities. "I try to synthesize everyone I meet, everything I read and see with my own DNA and experiences. I'm terrifically influenced by others art, including the masters and by music and my own spiritual connection to God and His Universe. I truly feel connected to the present and the past , tremendously eager about the future and my journey. Let me amend that to the earth and it's inhabitants journey in the cosmos. R2C2H2 is pictured here with his high school art teacher the great Dr. Emily 'Boo' Ruch at the opening reception of his one person exhibition, R2C2H2: In The Black, in the Ross Gallery at Christian Brothers University of Memphis,Tn (April 8, 2005). R2C2H2 is only the third African American to have had an exhibition at the venue. Photo by Carl Hess II.

FIRST OF MANY: "James Reese Europe: Jazz Lieutenant" is Ronald Herd's book on the Composer/Music Publisher/Theatrical Producer/World War I Hero. The book is split between text that tells Lt. Europe's story and drawings by Herd that pull the reader into the narrative. Herd's approach to history has already won recognition; the book was recently named to the Smithsonian Institute's "Jazz Books for Kids and Young Adults" list. He hopes that his books will demolish the thought that it takes one person to manufacture social change. "It takes a group of people to get things going," says Herd.

Herd's art and writing have already brought the young artist to the attention of the art community nationally. It has also allowed him to travel and meet "so many diverse people". It has been a great side benefit for me. Here is at a gallery showing of his works (R2C2H2: Evolution of a Style,2002) at St. Louis' own Vaughn Cultural Art Center with Elaine Brown, the first and only female President of The Black Panthers. Herd refers to himself as an 'Artivist'. An artivist is an activist who combines the two disciplines.


Conversations with Ronald Herd, a self-proclaimed “Artivist” (artist meets activist), are captivating journeys through the pop cultural, political, and historical landscape. He voices his thoughts in a Southern baritone intermittently accented with a booming cackle of a laugh; he peppers those thoughts with references to everyone from Barry Bonds and Usher to Robert Johnson and John Bolton. The listener struggles between effortlessly going along for the ride and repeatedly asking, “Can you repeat that?”

It is Herd’s charismatic personality and wide-ranging intelligence that has allowed him to make a name for himself as an artist both in St. Louis and in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. Herd, 25, has dedicated himself to educating people about the contributions of blacks through his art, and he sees no limit in how that art manifests itself.

His artistic journey began early in life. He developed a speech impediment at the age of 2. “My words would run together when I talked”, remembers Herd, “so I channeled my frustrations into my drawings.” He had more strife during his early school years. As a student in the Memphis Public School system, he was shuffled from school to school and misunderstood by many of his teachers. He would find solace in the schools’ libraries. “It was a way for me to feed my mind,” says Herd, who, thanks to his knowledge of American Presidents, earned a reputation for being one of the smartest kids in his class, even before he started making the Honor Roll.

His thirst for knowledge was noticed by his mother, Callie, a Computer Programmer who is heavily involved in community activism. Ms. Herd bought a World Book Encyclopedia set for her son; the youngster immediately started researching historical figures. Ms. Herd further nurtured her son’s interest by enrolling him in the Memphis Schools’ CAPA program (Creating And Performing Arts), a program that lasted from his 7th-12th grade years. “It allowed me to focus on my craft and take it seriously,” says Herd of the program. Finally, a twist of fate occurred when Herd was one of 15 blacks out of 250 students accepted into Tennessee’s Governor’s School program the summer before his senior year at Overton High School. Herd says that his experience in the program taught him how to interact with different groups of people. “There were people there who did not like the work that I did, but they eventually grew to respect me.”

One person who liked Herd and respected his work was Georgia Binnington, Associate Dean of the Washington University School of Art. Ms. Binnington, who was at the Memphis College of Art as part of National Portfolio Day, was so struck by Herd’s entries in the festival that she suggested that he apply for the University’s John B. Ervin Program, a program that provides a full scholarship. Herd was accepted.

Herd’s passion for art would unexpectedly take focus while Herd was sitting in an 8am class during his freshman year. He was watching a documentary on experimental jazz icon Sun Ra when he heard the legend make the statement that would become Herd’s credo: “Space is the Place.” Sun Ra’s quote has been used by several people, but Herd believes that many people have missed the true meaning of the statement. “You look at his garb, and you would think that he is talking about the cosmos, outer space. What he was really talking about was the space between your two ears, your mind, your brain. Your imagination is a very powerful tool. You can create whatever you want to. Use it as a tool and empower yourself and others with it.”

Inspired by both Sun Ra and the University’s “Introduction to Ragtime” course, Herd started studying jazz and blues musicians on his own. He was even more invigorated by what he read. “The early practitioners of jazz and blues were very powerful musically, even though a lot of them were not very rich socio-economically speaking. Their music was able to change people’s minds about a lot of things, it was able to start a lot of controversy, and it was able to get a lot of things moving.”

Herd started putting more historical information into his work. He also realized early on that if he was going to reach people, he would have to work on his own to make sure that his work was seen. He started searching through the Internet relentlessly in order to find openings in galleries. He also took the bull by the horns and booked one-man shows at the Sheldon and the Urban League. He was the youngest artist at the 2001 Art St. Louis display (where he made his first sale, the Charlie Parker-inspired “Bird In Flight,” for $1500) and, a few months later, he was one of 50 recipients, out of 14,000 applicants, to receive the $1,000 Double Mint Grant Award.

Adhering to his pledge to reach people, Herd also took part in the Chips In Motion Reach to Teach program, where members of disadvantaged communities are taught about health through the arts. Herd loved the equality demonstrated in the program. “There were older people and younger people, and everyone was teaching each other. No one was above anyone else. That is what education should be,” says Herd.

Herd graduated from Washington University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in Printmaking/Drawing in the Spring of 2002 (he actively recruits black students for the school). He continued creating art while simultaneously working as a Substitute Teacher when he read “A Life In Ragtime,” Reid Badger’s biography of Composer/Music Publisher/Theatrical Producer/World War I Hero Lieutenant James Reese Europe. He then saw an opportunity to further educate an audience that would not normally be exposed to historical information. “Most people are not going to read a 300 page book. Some may not even read a 100 page book. I’ve always sprinkled historical facts in my work, so I saw writing a book on James Europe as an extension of that.”

Herd’s self-published book, “James Reese Europe: Jazz Lieutenant” (which can be purchased from Herd’s website,, or from is seventy-five pages almost equally split between text that tells Lt. Europe’s story and drawings by Herd that pull the reader into the narrative. Herd’s approach to history has already won recognition; the book was recently named to the Smithsonian institute’s “Jazz Books for Kids and Young Adults” list. “During his day, [Europe] was one of the most popular black men in North America. He organized the first black musicians union in our country. For him to be written out of Jazz History is a sham.”

Herd has decided to quit teaching and to pursue his art fulltime. He has several books ready for publication, and he hopes to continue to be both a resource and an inspiration for his audience “I want people to see in my work and my persona that it is okay to mess up and be rejected. As long as you get back up and follow your dreams, you can’t go wrong.”

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