Jazz By the Water Gwendolyn Black

Brushstrokes and Grace Notes

Gwendolyn Black, Illustration ’84, has made a life blending art and music

by Carmelo Larose

One bright September day on Governors Island, the 18th Annual Visual Arts and Jazzfest NYC celebrated the complementary rhythms of jazz and visual art. Founded and produced by Gwendolyn Black, the festival is a convergence of the artist’s main passions: making connections between music and painting, building community, and healing others through art. 

During the various performances, the audience listened to a range of contemporary jazz styles. Black’s paintings were displayed around the site, portraying musicians such as the legendary Charlie Parker. In her work, the play of shadow, shape, and material mirror the improvisation of jazz. Black thinks of painting and making music in the same terms, as explorations of composition and movement. Over the years, she has moved away from representational art and evolved into using tissue paper to create work based more on color than line.

Billie's Blues painted by Gwendolyn Black
Billie’s Blues painted by Gwendolyn Black.

Black attended the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and then studied Illustration at FIT, where she began to experiment with collage, incorporating images of instruments into her artwork. Shortly afterward, Black left fashion illustration to become more involved in fine art. She saw herself in the struggles and triumphs of other women attempting to make a name for themselves in the art world, and of visual artists collaborating with musicians. She also identified with the attempts at racial and class uplift she witnessed in her hometown of Pittsburgh—and realized she had a deep desire to participate in community development. She forged a multifaceted career that brings together all her interests. 

Jazz By the Water
The 18th Annual Visual Arts and Jazzfest NYC at Governors Island.

She began using music therapy to help those suffering from loss and lack of motivation. She views art as a powerful tool for healing and encourages her students to produce their own art while processing their past experiences and thinking hopefully about the future. “Seeing others find inspiration through that work has been life changing” for Black, who has run workshops for senior citizens, individuals with disabilities, and others through the AHRC, Healing Arts Initiative, Yaffa Cultural Arts, and Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement.

In her many endeavors, Black finds meaning in the “interconnectedness of all art forms and in the empowering of others to use their own voices as instruments for positive change.”