Artist William Pajaud's Jazzy New Orleans, Part 2

Reporter Adolfo Guzman Lopez continues his profile of the art and life of African-American artist William Pajaud. His vibrant watercolors celebrates the people and jazz scene of his native New Orleans.

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ED GORDON, host:

Yesterday we introduced you to artist William Pajaud. Today we introduce you to collector William Pajaud. In 1965 and for the next 22 years, he collected the work of African-American artists for the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company in Los Angeles. Now the collection of more than 250 paintings, drawings and sculptures is recognized by some scholars as one of the most important of its kind. But there's concern about the future of this valuable art, as we hear in part two of our report by Adolfo Guzman Lopez.

ADOLFO GUZMAN LOPEZ reporting:

For 55 years, the building on the northeast corner of Western and Adams in LA has loomed large in the local history of African-Americans.

Mr. WILLIAM PAJAUD: You're in the library of Golden State Mutual Life.

LOPEZ: That's William Pajaud, the company's former art director, on a recent visit. Starting in 1925, Golden State sold life insurance to blacks when most others refused. Their surrounding community was proud of the black-owned business. And in 1965, Golden State set out to build a collection of African-American art that would embody the community's progress. Pajaud became the curator and was given a $5,000 yearly budget. Some of the artwork is still in the lobby.

Mr. PAJAUD: These pictures are all mine, all collected by me. The only thing I had nothing to do with is the mural up there and the one right behind us.

LOPEZ: The 1949 mural, "The Negro in California History," tells the 400-year story of how blacks helped build the West. There are other influential pieces.

Mr. PAJAUD: You're looking at a drawing called "General Moses" done by Charles White.

LOPEZ: It's a 6-foot-by-4-foot ink portrait of Harriet Tubman. The liberator of black slaves is portrayed in her late 20s, young, but weary, sitting on a bench carved into a boulder.

Mr. PAJAUD: This is the piece that everybody would love to have. I would love to have it myself, but I have no real wall space for it.

LOPEZ: Now you said you bring all black artists that you know here. Why is that? To see this painting?

Mr. PAJAUD: To see this painting. They all want to see it.

LOPEZ: Why?

Mr. PAJAUD: It's the greatest drawing in the history of black art, as far as we're concerned.

LOPEZ: And it's valuable, too. Pajaud says it's worth at least a quarter of a million dollars.

(Soundbite of elevator bell)

Mr. PAJAUD: OK.

LOPEZ: On the second floor, he stops at one of his own pieces.

Mr. PAJAUD: I didn't start painting black until 1965.

LOPEZ: What do you mean?

Mr. PAJAUD: I mean, I did these kind of things for years.

LOPEZ: This is a watercolor with a deer and some trees and...

Mr. PAJAUD: Yeah. That's the kind of thing I did, but after the--'65, and after John Riddle, I felt that I had to draw my people.

LOPEZ: Artist John Riddle invited Pajaud on a tour of Watts after the 1965 riots. Pajaud abandoned landscapes and painted black street scenes and the human body. Pajaud stops in the cafeteria to admire a John Scott print called "Jonah and the Whale."

Mr. PAJAUD: I think black artists feel almost like Jonah and the whale. They are caught up in something that they can't get out of. This is what black art is all about. That's it.

LOPEZ: Are you worried about this collection?

Mr. PAJAUD: I'm worried about it may be lost to black community.

LOPEZ: What do you mean?

Mr. PAJAUD: See, nobody's here to take care of it. This is not tops on anybody's priority.

LOPEZ: Back in the lobby, company spokeswoman Becky Ganther says Golden State is committed to the art collection.

Ms. BECKY GANTHER (Spokeswoman, Golden State): We are preserving it and keeping it up, and actually we're working, and we're done a lot to bring a lot of some of the most important pieces here in the lobby that you can see, because, as you can see, it's all--throughout all four--five floors.

LOPEZ: Ganther says Golden State won't sell the art because it's become part of the company's identity, but she also says the company has ordered an appraisal for its fair market value. Several art curators say that could lead to the sale of the collection.

Professor PAUL VON BLOM (UCLA): I think that would be a cultural tragedy of unmitigated proportions, and I'm using my language very carefully here.

LOPEZ: Paul Von Blom is a professor of African-American studies at UCLA.

Prof. BLOM: That collection is magnificent. It must stay intact.

LOPEZ: Von Blom says the California African American Museum in Los Angeles would be the best place for the art. The museum's curators have worked closely with the company to catalog the artwork. They say most of the pieces are in good condition. Charmaine Jefferson, the executive director, won't say whether the institution has approached the company to acquire the collection. She says the 250 works of art are an important historical document for everyone, not just blacks.

Ms. CHARMAINE JEFFERSON (Executive Director): Two hundred years from now, what will the people know about who we are but through our art? If the only art we have is that which is put out commercially, we're in trouble because everybody will think that the only thing we liked was half-dressed women dancing on a video.

LOPEZ: Golden State Mutual's Becky Ganther says the company wants to get the word out about the African-American art collection. For the time being, that means getting more people into the building's lobby at the corner of Western and Adams. For NPR News, I'm Adolfo Guzman Lopez in Los Angeles.

GORDON: Thanks for joining us. That's our program today.

To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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