Patrick Henry’s newest work may, at first glance, seem like a bit of a departure for those familiar with his work. The shift is a carefully honed focus, from broader Eastern Shore landscapes, which he has painted for over 40 years, to the generational experiences and perspectives of local Black families and communities.
For many years, Henry “had to hustle art” to make a living. Now, as he nears 70, which, he said, “feels like a big deal,” Henry wants to see where his art takes him, without the associated pressures of commercial success and deadlines.
“Moving forward, each new painting will have its own strong narrative and aesthetic,” said Henry. He’s allowing himself to be “caught up” in his gift again, like he was when he was a younger man.
Henry purchased his first oil painting kit at age 14. He sold his first painting when he was 16 years old. Upon graduating from Stephen Decatur High School, where he was part of one of the first big groups of African American students to integrate that school, he received a “most talented” commendation. The same recognition was bestowed as he neared graduation from University of Maryland Eastern Shore in 1975. Humbly, he says he didn’t trust that he was the “most talented,” but what he did know was that he was incredibly passionate about his art. While other students seemed, at times, weighed down by the drudgery of assignments and projects, Henry says he “attacked the most challenging projects I could.” His approach to art was what set him apart.
Over the years, Henry gained a reputation as one of the Shore’s most influential artists. For decades, his snapshots of life on Delmarva — seascapes, landscapes, local attractions from the boardwalk and small-town living — have been highly sought after by both local fans and collectors from all over the world.
As for many of us, the last couple years inspired a shift in focus for Henry.
“Covid changed everything. I was sequestered at home and in my studio. Then we had George Floyd, and Ahmad Arbery, and Breonna Taylor,” he laments. Henry says he absorbed the energy being expended all around him — the energy of injustice, protests, anger, fear and more.
“There was anger, fear … I was concerned about my nephews, my daughter… it was, well, unsettling,” he admits.
Sequestered in his studio, Henry began to look through a repository of old photos, some collected by his wife, others given to him by friends.
Henry felt honored to be entrusted with these treasures. And then, “the eyes of the people in the photographs started speaking to me,” recalls Henry, “the looks of resolve and resiliency in their eyes — with that kind of resolve and resilience, you can conquer quite a bit,” he said. “Art should help communicate that, too.” So, he began to paint the photographs.
When posing for early photographs, Henry explains, cameras required extended exposures, so people had to sit for photos for a much longer period. It’s difficult to maintain an authentic smile for long, so oftentimes subjects appeared much more stoic. There is, in early photographs, a sense of complete stillness.
When sifting through old photographs, one may notice a penetrating gaze rather than a cheesy grin. It can be disconcerting.
The intense stare is evident in both the reference photos Henry used and the resulting art created as part of his most recent series, titled “Another View.” Henry noticed “those stares bother some people.” The eyes are said to reveal the soul. That makes some people uncomfortable. Henry, however, was drawn in by the eyes. He got lost in them, wondering, as he looked at each individual, “What was on your mind? How did you endure?”
“I’m a seeker. Always have been,” said Henry. Those focused moments — with the people in the photographs — and the calm resolve he felt emanating from them, helped settle Henry and made him more determined to use his artistic gift to help others shift their perspectives and feel a deeper connection to humanity.
Henry set out to capture the calm and the strength he sensed in those photos and, in the process, acquired some of that strength, along with a renewed sense of hope. It was a way to help him work through the roller coaster of emotions he was feeling.
When Henry began the series he was, admittedly, “full of anger and fear,” but that shifted to “a feeling of love for humanity. That’s the beauty of art. It’s transformative.”
The people depicted, “in spite of very adverse conditions, they maintained their integrity — they maintained their spirit,” said Henry. “My biggest desire from this series is that people who experience it stay strong — and that we pass that strength forward to those in need. We need community,” he said.
The Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art, Salisbury University, debuted a bold new exhibit featuring Henry’s recent works on Friday, Jan. 28.
“Another View: Untold Stories” features dozens of Henry’s original paintings. Next to each painting in the exhibit is a copy of the historic black and white source photo for reference, along with further historical context on the photo.
In spite of Covid concerns and a forecasted blizzard, the opening was very well-attended. Henry said it was gratifying to see such a turnout. He was touched to witness the impact his art had on attendees. Some, he said, were nearly moved to tears.
“We are thrilled to work with Patrick Henry to debut ‘Another View,’ an exhibit that powerfully interprets so many untold stories of our region,” said Kristin Sullivan, Ward Museum Executive Director. “Patrick is a gift to the Eastern Shore. This exhibit has the potential to inspire much-needed conversation about our diverse but intertwined heritages and our shared future.”
Fortunately, Henry is fully committed to continuing to use his gift, “utilizing art,” he said, “as a format to speak and to be an asset to our society.”
As far as Black History Month goes, Henry “can’t wait till we see that we don’t need it. I want to help turn that narrative around. Black history,” he said, “is part of our history, in May, July, October … always.”