Art to Empower

Cedric Cox’s work celebrates the positive

Artists as Activists

By: Saad Ghosn

“The more personal you make your work the more universal it becomes, and the more it will resonate in others,” is what Terrence Corbin, then professor at the University of Cincinnati (UC), told once Cedric Michael Cox studying under him. Cox never forgot this advice and all of his artwork since has been a genuine reflection of his life, of who he is, of what he believes in, of what he would like to achieve in this world.

Born in Dayton, OH, Cox, an African American visual artist, lived most of his life in Cincinnati. He attended Indian Hill Schools from first grade on and later UC, graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts, majoring in painting and drawing. Art from the beginning was his refuge, his mode of expression and of self-assertion. Growing up as a minority individual in a predominantly white community made him often feel estranged and somewhat out of place. He responded to the challenge by using his creative energy to communicate, meet others and go beyond divisive prejudices.

Cedric Cox in his studio. Photo by Bill Howes.

During art school he produced work related to the African American experience and culture; he felt an obligation to do so. He was, however, at the same time constantly questioning how he could use his art to speak of himself, of his history, to become empowered, and empower others. He discovered his own voice studying internal anatomy, looking from the inside out, his anatomical drawings helping him answer who he was and where he fits. But his real artistic direction took shape only after he graduated and moved to Over The Rhine (OTR), downtown Cincinnati, to live.

“Coming from the suburbs I was mesmerized by the graffiti on the sidewalks, on the buildings, by the coexistence of boarded up vacant houses side by side with palatial architecture,” he says. “Some buildings were being rehabbed, others not, still wearing their history. There was a rhythm to the neighborhood, a dynamic pattern of shapes and forms, all like in a jazz symphony.”

Cox, a musician himself, playing bass in a hard rock band, Morticite, since the age of 17, had been using music and songs all along to reflect on himself and his views.

“In the band we write songs about injustice and prejudice, what affects us,” he says, “also about human struggles, love, doing the right thing to other fellows, making this world a better place…”

He decided to put his visual art at the same service, to produce works that speak of his new neighborhood, its architecture, its beauty, its rich potential, emphasizing its positive, the goodness of its people, not only the bad that media usually portrays. By deconstructing and reinventing architectonic configurations he created densely fragmented abstract drawings and paintings that forced the viewer to step in, connect with their spirit and reexamine material culture.

His series Underground juxtaposes horizontally the 2 worlds of uptown and downtown OTR, uptown represented by the distant and somewhat cold cityscape, downtown by the boiling underground visceral reality of the neighborhood with its rich history and vibrant soul.

“I wanted my paintings to pay tribute to the area, to show what it is really about, its guts, its beauty, away from the stereotyped images of violence and decay usually associated with it,” he says. “It was my attempt to empower it, also its inhabitants.”

In Horizon, he connected directly with the urban architectural landscape of the place and its inner spiritual dimension. In his Mud Cloth drawings, related to the creation story and to Obatala, a deity central to the creation myth of the ancient Yoruba cultures of West Africa, he emphasized the role every individual plays in the creation act, in the betterment of this world, in his case, constructive contributions to OTR.

His painting White Oak on Elm shows in its center a tree overlapping and espousing various architectural details from OTR, columns, church windows, rooftops…  He meant it as a symbol of rebirth and hope, a source of continual inspiration and faith. By its organic form contrasting with the linear geometric elements of architecture, the tree brought a human quality to the painting, connecting to Cox’s feelings, experience and emotions about the neighborhood.

White Oak on Elm, acrylic painting on canvas. Painting and Photo by Cedric Cox.

In addition to his art, Cox has also contributed to OTR as an organizer and an educator. With Robin Harrison, a filmmaker who had directed a documentary on the civil unrest of 2001, they produced The Blast Urban Arts and Cultural Festivals, bringing to the area events that showcased themed art exhibitions, popular art collections, films and music; they all intended to depict the local culture in a reputable, respectable way, making people aware of the richness of their heritage and diversity. At the same time he created Art Shapes Us, an art teaching program for high school and middle school students from various institutions and backgrounds; he also taught after-school art classes at the YMCA, served as a studio coordinator for Visionaries and Voices, volunteered as guest speaker at various elementary schools, participated in educational art projects at the Public Library, Art Museum, Contemporary Arts Center…

“I try to provide outlets and services to others, to lead them to positive change,” Cox says. “Working with kids, I encourage them to follow their dream, reminding them that it can be achieved. I share with them my own struggles, my fears, my bad experiences, but also that with commitment, hard work and honesty, I am being rewarded, that good prevails, that inner beauty grows even in the midst of ugliness.”

Cox perceives art as a tool of empowerment for himself and others. It helps him become a better person, persevere through difficulty, assert himself. His art comes from his heart, at the service of his life.

“My art is about beauty from within,” he says. “It allows me to be the best I can be, to project my fullest human potential and share it with others in positive ways. I hope it can move others to realize their own dream. When I hear a song I like I always envision myself performing it on stage and sharing it with people I love so they too may be touched by it. I would like my art to resonate the same with the viewer.”