The first time my friend Aaron Bell almost lost his voice, it was because of a tangerine-sized tumor in his brain. The other day, I was thinking that salvaging his ability to speak after the ravages of surgery might have strengthened my former art director/partner to take on city hall -in the form of the New York City Parks Department- when it tried to silence his ability to speak out as an artist.
I doubt that the person in charge of public art was thinking about what it took for Aaron to reinvent himself as a sculptor after that tumor and a long recovery effectively ended his award-winning career as an art director. Or what it meant that Aaron Bell didn’t merely come back; as a budding fine artist in his sixties, he was plucked from thousands in this artistic Mecca to create a work of New York City public art. The design he submitted, “Stand Tall, Stand Loud,” is a powerful statement against violence and discrimination. Apparently, though, the sight of a powerful human figure, with –instead of a head, a noose crossed by the universal “forbidden” symbol- gave someone in the Parks Department the vapors. Heaven forbid that a jogger or biker mindlessly cruising along the Hudson should be confronted with art that actually does its job: to provoke thought and reflection. Or that a parent might ‘have to explain to a child the sculpture’s message: that it is forbidden to recklessly take another person’s life. The city demanded that Aaron submit an altered design without the noose.
Maybe city hall should have asked me about how hard it is to change Aaron's creative mind once it is made up. By the end of our ten years as a team, we were so attuned that we sometimes showed up at work in the same colors or both wearing black leather pants, sneakers and similar sweaters. In the years it took to get there, I learned that Aaron Bell’s commitment to his vision is as stubborn as a grass stain. I could have told them that just because –after the city refused to hear his defense of the original design- Aaron submitted, fabricated and even installed an altered version of his sculpture, they shouldn’t think he was giving up. A small community paper, The Westside Rag, heard Aaron’s story and ran it. The mighty New York Times followed up with its own coverage. Seeing the Times piece on Facebook, I recruited my Facebook friends and Black advertising professionals to join me in writing letters of protest to the city. When giant civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel joined the cause, it was game, set and noose. After a ten-minute meeting, the city agreed to accept and install Aaron’s original concept.
As a Black artist with something to say, Aaron Bell was asked to choose between making that statement and losing the opportunity of a lifetime. As Bobby Womack sang, “You don’t know what you’ll do until you’re put under pressure…across 110th Street is a helluva tester.” What Aaron Bell did is what we Black people have been doing for 400 years in America: He appeared to capitulate while not giving an inch. Made the pressure work for himself by shining a light on an arrogant system. And gathered friends and allies because the people, united, will, indeed, never be defeated. On a hot, sunny morning last week, I stood next to Aaron Bell, Norman Siegel and a small group of Aaron’s friends and family as that provocative noose replaced its innocuous, voiceless understudy. Against the bright backdrop of the Hudson River, “Stand Tall, Stand Loud” did just that, a bold exclamation in Aaron Bell’s strong voice.