Local Greensboro artist Steven Cozart has been awarded the 24th Lange-Taylor Prize for his illustrations depicting color-ism in the African American community.
The prize was established by Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, and was first awarded in the early 1990s. Entrants consist of single artists, or teams, participating in continuous field work, intertwining images and words. Primarily submissions include stories, historical anecdote, and poetry.
Steven Cozart, a teacher at Greensboro’s Weaver Academy, won for his Pass/ Fail series. The work focuses on stereotypes perpetuated by black individuals on other black community members. This cycle of stereotypes is evident from the paper bag test, through which individuals could pass as a white person if their skin was equally light, or lighter than the bag. Recently I interviewed Cozart about his inspiration, artwork and goals.
Cozart explained narratives his mom presented to him as a child initiated his thoughts on race. Cozart’s mother and father were both in their 20s when Jim Crow laws were repealed. This immediate change from exclusive black bathrooms, water fountains and entrances to inclusive public grounds became a huge upheaval in her young life. Expectation of certain behaviors was the major point of stereotypes for black people before and after segregation, his mom would say. Cozart knew this to be true as he grew up hearing some black community members telling others that they were too black or not black enough. This type of finger pointing confused Cozart, but saw the Pass/Fail series of tests as a way to discuss issue on a larger scale.
Initially, Cozart wanted to interview friends, family and colleagues, but this strict question and answer monotony did not flow with his artistic vision. Subsequently, he began having conversations with people. Cozart knew this would lead to storytelling, which was exactly what he had in mind. Interestingly, Cozart’s preconceived notions did not completely unfold. He believed that lighter-skinned black individuals would tell optimistic stories about being treated well, and darker-skinned black individuals would tell negative stories about being treated terribly. Yet, when the conversations were over he thought everyone had their own unique story. For example, an older gentleman Cozart talked with said after the Jim Crow laws were abolished, being darker-skinned was considered being more beautiful. While a woman said she felt as if she were a trophy because she had a lighter skin tone. Cozart realized surroundings and time period made a difference in the stories.
Cozart then went on to discuss the artwork itself. He varied his work, creating paintings, drawings and mixed media collages. Much of his work is done on brown paper bags because he wanted to utilize the shade of the bag for skin tone. He also placed quotes from the person’s conversation on the flaps of the paper bags. Like Basquiat’s eye-catching crossed out word art, Cozart made certain words larger through the speaker’s inflection. Together, he made three bags for one person, featuring various facial expressions from their conversation. Cozart’s inspiration for this conversational collage came from Henry Pekar, the cartoonist for the comic American “Splendor,” which shows the mundane life of Pekar himself. Some of Pekar’s work involved a head shot of him speaking to the audience. This is exactly what Cozart was going for in his Pass/Fail series.
Cozart’s initial goal for the series was to force people to stop and question why they blame people for being or acting as themselves. However, this goal was slightly compromised when Cozart started to believed he would have an ‘aha- moment’ while doing his work. His notions about how someone would be treated in connection to their skin color discouraged his own enlightenment. Cozart knew that if he was going to learn anything from his work then he would need to dissociate from his initial beliefs. When the conversations came to a close he understood half of his preconceptions were incorrect, and now he understands everyone has struggles unique to themselves. Cozart stated with regard to himself and others dealing with similar issues, “You don’t do better until you know better.”
Cozart’s art strives to engage people in conversation about false preconceptions; with that in mind I asked Cozart about his feelings on the recent tragedies in Tulsa and Charlotte. Cozart was hesitant to expand on his feelings at first, because he needed to collect his thoughts. When he solidified his answer he said, “How do you have the conversation, knowing that some people, not all, perceive you simply by your physical appearance as a threat?” Cozart shared his next project is going to address this topic head on by identifying what it means to be a black man in our society.
Finally, I asked Steven Cozart how it feels to be the recipient of the 24th Lange-Taylor Prize. He came out and said, “It’s just now hitting me,” in the art business, he mentions, that people lose a lot more than they win. After a meager break, Cozart is hungry again to work on his craft; and winning the Lange-Taylor prize has only added to his energy.