This day belongs to John Coltrane's never-ending saxophone narration, the freestyle jazz leaving ideas in its wake.
Tomorrow, Martin Payton may trade Coltrane for Miles Davis. Or Sarah Vaughn. Or Louis Armstrong.
Their improvisation is magic. And Payton's inspiration that he embraced after years of fabricating steel into metal sculptures.
"There was a stiffness to those (early) pieces, still, in my mind," he says. "I wanted to make sculpture that was more expressive than this — that connected better with the idea of improvisation in the music that I so admired. So, I began using pieces of steel that were indented or twisted or beat-up that I would find in scrapyards. I wanted to use it just as I found it. I felt that that was more in spirit with improvisation."
Some of these pieces stand alongside Payton's fabricated sculptures in his Prescott Road studio, but the majority are showing in the LSU Museum of Art's exhibit, "Broken Time: Sculpture by Martin Payton," through Feb. 11.
It's Payton's first solo show in Baton Rouge. Its title comes from the jazz term "broken time," where the beat is syncopated or irregular.
And now he sits in his studio letting Coltrane's broken time guide him to the next project.
"I don't know what it will be," Payton says. "I’ve been so busy trying to pull things together for the show, so hopefully I can get back in here and get started again."
Payton sits in front of a memorabilia-filled wall while thinking about his future. He's 69 and has been a full-time studio artist since 2011, when he retired as chairman of Southern University's Visual Arts Department.
The wall creates a picture of who Payton is through newspaper clippings, music flyers, photographs and his son's drawing of Duke Ellington.
A most telling piece is a photograph of Payton and his mentor, legendary New Orleans artist John Scott. Payton is a New Orleans native and studied under Scott while earning his bachelor's degree at Xavier University.
Payton then pursued a master's degree at the Otis Institute of Art and Design in Los Angeles, hoping to follow in artist Charles White's footsteps. The African-American painter was known for his documentation of black culture. He painted murals for the Works Progress Administration, then moved to New Orleans in 1941, where he taught at Dillard and was briefly married to artist Elizabeth Catlett.
White was teaching at the Otis Art Institute when Payton was there. Both were figurative painters, but Payton soon realized that their work was different.
"I was very interested in documenting black America, and I thought I'd go to the Otis Institute and learn with Charles there, then come back and be the Charles White of Xavier," Payton says, laughing. "Well, when I met the man, I realized that his work came out of his personality and personal experience as a human being. We’re not the same person, so it really enforced in me that what I needed to do was find my own voice."
So, Payton began searching, delving first into the hard-edge painting movement, where shapes have distinct edges and transitions are abrupt. But the genre didn't translate to his teaching position at Xavier upon moving back to New Orleans.
"That sort of slick style was prevalent, but not for where I was then," Payton says. "So I began to make more expressive paintings, then realizing that I didn’t enjoy the flatness of paintings, I began making stretchers that were different from rectangular — triangular and octagons and hexagons — just different shapes. Finally, I just started cutting those paintings up and making wall sculptures."
Those early wall sculptures hang in Payton's studio. John Scott saw them and invited Payton to accompany him to a scrapyard.
Scott was best known for his large woodcut prints and kinetic sculptures inspired by the African-Caribbean culture and his native New Orleans. He also was commissioned to create public sculptures in New Orleans, including "Spirit House" at DeSaix Circle, on which Payton collaborated.
The photo of Payton and Scott on Payton's wall was taken after the duo had finished "Spirit House," which combined African and European architecture. The sculpture stands midway between two schools, whose students contributed drawings of their relatives' occupations, which were cut into metal and welded into the piece.
"That was in 2002," Payton says. "I didn't realize that would be the last time I'd work with Scott. He died in 2007."
Payton looks back again at his first scrapyard visit with Scott. He'd taken a welding course with the idea of quitting teaching to work in a shipyard, which didn't happen.
Yet he's grateful for the skills he learned in the course, because it allowed him to leave the flat surface.
Payton bought some steel I-beams in the scrapyard that day with Scott, then welded them into sculptures, naming many for the black American experience, including names and songs of jazz legends he admired. Some honor his late jazz bassist brother, Walter Payton, and nephew, jazz trumpeter Nicholas Payton.
But the artist in him yearned for something more organic. So, he bypassed the I-beams for battered metal.
That's where the flow of Payton's art changed. And though the exhibit doesn't include his fabricated pieces, the museum's catalog traces his evolution.
An evolution that continues in the solitude of his studio, where he's been since 2005, when Hurricane Katrina flooded his New Orleans studio.
Now he improvises alongside Coltrane, thinking where that sax will take him next....Read more