Portsmouth Artist Inspires Hope and Unity

Explore Richard Haynes’ new "Whispering Quilts" exhibit on view at the Currier Museum
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Richard Haynes used oil wax crayon to create his new series, “Whispering Quilts,” which is a narrative of struggle, hope and triumph based on historical accounts of the Underground Railroad. Photo by Jeremy Gasowski/University of New Hampshire

Using vibrant colors, artist Richard Haynes brings the light of hope to stories of darkness and struggle.

A Portsmouth-based visual storyteller, author and educator, Haynes uses art to portray his personal history as a person of color, weaving together stories of love, connection, racial unity and community. Looking through a portfolio that spans three decades, you’ll find illustrations of little girls playing together in a public park with one water fountain, jazz musicians, and people, both Black and white, living and working harmoniously together.

In addition to being an artist, Haynes embraces the role of cultural keeper and maker, which is reflected in each piece of his work. “Artists are the ones seeing the world through a different lens,” says Haynes. “We are the ones who are paying attention as makers and keepers of cultural practices and standards.”

Haynes’ current exhibition, “Whispering Quilts,” is now on view at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester. A tribute to his wife Marita, who passed away in November 2017, the series depicts the story of an enslaved family’s perilous journey along the Underground Railroad, from a Southern plantation to freedom in Canada.

The images now on display evolved from a collaboration he began with Marita, the book “Whispering Quilts: A Slave’s Journey of Hope, Struggle, and Freedom.” Marita began writing the story, which Haynes illustrated, but unfortunately she didn’t live to complete it, and it was ultimately finished by her friend Ruth Tappin.

Wagon Wheel

The message in “Wagon Wheel” was to pack essentials for a long journey as if packing a wagon. Wagons with hidden compartments were also a primary means of transportation. Courtesy photo

“It is a narrative about the love that bound an enslaved family together and how they coped with their bondage to survive,” says Haynes. “It speaks to the goodwill of people who were willing to break the law to help them escape, aided by quilts, to find their freedom.”

Inspired by “Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad” by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard, Haynes began researching how hidden messages were stitched into quilts to help people escape slavery.

“I decided that I wanted to merge the family and the quilt patterns because the family is, in essence, hiding behind the secret codes of the quilts,” says Haynes. “I want people to imagine the slaves on their journey, running through a forest and finding a quilt hung over the fence or windowsill as a sign to say, ‘This is a safe place to stop,’” he adds.

“The creative spiritual process moves me way before the actual drawing is done,” says Haynes. After conceiving the image, he creates small color artist studies. “I pin them on the wall in my studio, and they remain there for weeks where I can see and live with them,” Haynes says. “Eventually, that one study mystically says to me, ‘I’m the one.’”

Color has its own language. Haynes’ art has a variety of layers and meaning that are communicated through his use of bright colors. He works primarily in oil wax crayon, where he rubs the Caran d’Ache crayon on watercolor paper to create his vibrant drawings.

As he begins to build and draw his stories, he chooses warm colors — like red, orange and yellow — for bold, hope-filled moments and uses shades of blue for deep, bleak moments, which also force the warmer hues to pop. “Any one of the drawings takes between 16 to 24 hours to fill and color in,” says Haynes. “Every corner, line and, particularly, color is intentional — color helps tell the story of hope. Bold, bright colors bring unspeakable joy to the bleakest of moments.”

North Star

Bottom: “North Star” portrays the guiding light led slaves north to Canada and freedom. The Big Dipper always points to the North Star. Courtesy photo

Haynes uses art as an educational tool to open people’s minds to the racial injustices around them, and also to identify opportunities for change and growth. We can create the world that we want to live in, but before we do that, we have to address the broken systems we’re living in, says Haynes.

“At 70 years old, I am continuously asking myself why we are still separated,” says Haynes. “Until we have that answer, my paintings will be faceless because you neglect to look into my eyes and truly see me.”

To Haynes, his drawings allow us to inhabit each other’s stories, ask honest questions, extend compassion and create connection that inspires change. “I want you to look at ‘Whispering Quilts’ and walk in my shoes for a moment. I want the audience to see how important the story is and learn from it. I want them to ask themselves why this happened and, more importantly, why we still can’t embrace each other as human beings,” says Haynes. “I want to be able to leave this earth and hear a community of people asking, ‘Why?’ and actively working on figuring out the answer.”

Despite the adversity he has faced, Haynes remains hopeful that these culturally tense and challenging days are bringing us closer more than they are driving us apart. “I want my art to be a blessing, and inspire the audience to look deeper at the world and to make a change in their lives,” says Haynes. “We must become the best us so we can give the world our best, and we do that by understanding that we are more connected than we can ever imagine.” 

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