Neighbors: the Caldwells talk about their family trade
The Caldwells have brought their creative talents together in a Black History Month art show at UROC.
By Kenzie O'Keefe Editor | Photos by David Pierini Contributor
Since he was six years old, North Minneapolis has been Charles Caldwell’s community and canvas.
His mural on the side of the 4th Street Saloon welcomes travelers to the Northside as they exit 94, cross the river heading West, or journey up Washington Ave. from downtown. His portraits of towering community leaders dress up a vacant building on West Broadway.
He has given the community an unwavering commitment to making art here—and a next generation of artists. His son Kenneth is an art teacher at Sojourner Truth Academy and a well-known painter, who hosts community “Paint and Sip” nights. His daughter Nakesha is a real estate agent and construction manager by day and a newly awakened painter by night.
For the first time ever, the three of them have produced a shared gallery show—Caldwells celebrating black history and beyond—that opened in the middle of Black History Month at the University of Minnesota’s Urban Research and Outreach Engagement Center (UROC) on Plymouth Ave. It runs through April 13 and focuses on what’s most important to all three humble, hardworking, a hugely talented Caldwells: family, friends and community.
What do you want the community to know about your upcoming show?
Kenneth: For me, the show is something I’ve been wanting to do and play around with for a while. My pops and I have never done a show together. This work is from live artists, a family of artists. We’re part of making history.
Charles: I’ve always wanted to do a community show celebrating Black History Month and introducing myself with Kenneth and his works. We decided to do it at UROC. It’s a community space. In the course of that, Nakesha had started painting. She went from one piece to two to five. I was amazed. We decided to have her join us. We’re a family of the community. The show is a free for all. It’s a friendly get together. Life will go on afterwards.
Nakesha: There are a lot of people who are struggling and not getting to do the things they’re passionate about. We’re blessed enough to be able to create and share. These works are our history. We are black history.
Charles: We want to share our passion. Society is in turmoil. We want this to be a period and time of compassion. I’m radiant and energized and overwhelmed by the honor of my children.
Nakesha, it sounds like you found art recently.
Nakesha: I’m 38. I did a book filled with drawings about hair for the first time at 34 years old when I was pregnant with my son. It was a happy period for me, seeing how much of my dad was in me. When I got pregnant with my daughter, I wanted to revisit art. I started painting after I had her.
Charles and Kenneth, when and how did the two of you find art?
Charles: In sixth grade, I walked into art teacher Richard Scott’s classroom at Lincoln Junior High School and was fascinated by the art being created there. Scott was a Caucasian and Native American gentleman who looked like a giant. He was a hippie with a ponytail and a sash and dashiki with bell bottom jeans and cowboy boots. Coming from the South, the interaction he had with students was amazing to me. There was so much freedom. I was too young to be in the class, but he said he’d give me an assignment, and if I could carry it out, he’d let me come into the room anytime. He gave me a block of wood and a carving tool and told me to carve it into a ball in a cage. I went home and carved through the night. I had a ball in a cage by morning. I walked up behind Mr. Scott when I got to school and rattled that ball in that cage. That’s where my art began. That was my life changing moment. He and I kept in touch all the way to his 75th birthday.
Kenneth: I remember sitting in first grade trying to draw. I ended up getting held back because I spent all my time drawing. My dad used my interest in the art as an incentive to do better in the classroom. He rewarded me with things like a sketchbook and pencils. One time I came home and there was a professional table with a nice little light with a nice little bench.
What has art taught you about each other?
Kenneth: I saw someone I could identify with in my dad; someone who looked like me who was doing something that was not normal like playing basketball or football was. I admired the level of respect and recognition that he was given from doing these things. We’d go out to the store, and he’d stop 20 times to talk to people. It felt like he knew everybody. He was a celebrity in the neighborhood and he was my pops. Now my daughter and my son tell me the same thing.
Nakesha: From these two, I have learned what it means to go after your passion. I’ve also learned what it’s like to be stifled by life and its complications and how to persevere and overcome those things to fulfill what comes from within. Right now, I’m going to school full time, working full time, and I have two kids who are one and four years old. I’m raising them as a single mother. I wake up at five in the morning and sometimes I don’t get home till 9 or 10 at night, but I’m like “let me do just a couple strokes before I go to bed.” When I pick up my paintbrush, I have a smile on my face. I’m dancing. It makes me feel so good about who I am and the family I was blessed with. Then it’s 3am.
Kenneth: I can definitely relate to the late nights. You get lost in the paintings you’re creating. I remember when my dad had a studio at George Robert’s place on Plymouth. It didn’t have any windows. One night, I went in to do a few things and was just in a groove. By the time I came out, birds were chirping. I wasn’t tired at all. It was amazing to be so into your work. Being in that zone is indescribable.
Charles: I think the creative process lets people reach down into an inner self and use our imaginations. We’re so driven by our technical society now; you don’t get to use your mind much.
Charles, you’ve created huge pieces of public art in this community. What do you hope to tell people about North Minneapolis through your work? What legacy do you hope to leave here in the community?
Charles: There is such a negative view about the community. For me it’s about constantly keeping it positive. I want to continue loving the community, spreading that faith and belief in people that come from a place that’s not supposed to be positive. I think there are a lot of good families in this community. I think the community needs to have anchors of that. There are a lot of people coming in and out of the community. It’s good to be constant.
Nakesha, why do you think you arrived at art so much later in your life than your dad and brother did?
Nakesha: When I look at my work, I think, man, if I’d discovered this a long time ago, think about how far along I’d be. But, I was trying to do something where I’d be super rich. I thought about being a doctor or a lawyer, and then I got into real estate. I have a degree in real estate studies and am doing one in construction project management right now. I was living in another state. Sitting down and drawing fills that void a little bit and makes my dad proud of me. It was amazing how much joy it gave me to embrace that blessing in my life.
Charles: I’m sure I feel exactly the same way Mr. Scott felt when I walked in with that ball. I’m rattled and I’ve been rattled in the same way since I walked in and saw the painting of your kids. You have creative talent at your core. We’re going to take this experience and have it as a family and make some decisions about where we go from there.
Is the rest of your family artistic?
Nakesha: All of our kids really have a passion.
Kenneth: I don’t tell my kids I want them to be an artist, but I want to show them they can be bosses and not just workers. I have them shadow me often. It’s like being a carpenter, not everyone will build houses, but everyone is going to know how to use a hammer.
Nakesha: I hear Phylicia Rashad saying, “Before kids talk, they sing. Before they write, they draw. Before they walk, they dance.”