COSTA MESA — Two years ago, on his way to deliver a lecture at the University of Missouri, artist Willie Robert Middlebrook was stopped by police.
"They were really nice," he recalled last week, but "they said, 'Sir, you are suspected of transporting narcotics from L.A. to Kansas City.' " Middlebrook said they went through his bags--"one had my computer, the other had, like, a change of underwear and two trays of slides"--found no drugs, and let him go.
Describing himself as "a big black guy with dreads" (as in dreadlocks), Middlebrook said--with frustration but no bitterness in his voice--that things like that happen to him all the time. When he walks into stores, he says, people assume he is there to steal. "If I went into three stores in a day, it would happen three times."
It happens even without the dreads, he says. And "when it happens to you every day, day after day after day after day, it starts really playing with your mind."
It also shapes the art he makes, art meant to show "that black folks are people. No more, no less. That's it. Just like everybody else."
Two dozen of his photographs, dating from 1988 and 1989 and collectively titled "Portraits of My People," are at the Orange Coast College Photo Gallery through Dec. 13. The small black-and-white works, which he calls photographic paintings, indeed have a painterly, evocative quality which he achieves by brushing or spraying on developing fluid.
Like all his work, they depict friends, his wife, his two sons and his daughter. He will use these pieces during a lecture at OCC on Dec. 6 to illustrate the progression of his work.
"I have moved from dealing with the portrait and the body into more theme-oriented works," he said, "certain statements I want to make about my family, about the African American community, that I feel need to be said and are not being said."
These statements are contrary to all the negative images he has seen of blacks and "all these negative things I hear about the African American community." Laughing wryly, he listed all the crimes, large and small, of which he hears black men accused.
"I grew up and still live in the city of Compton. But I've never been to jail, I don't do drugs, I don't drink alcohol, I'm married, I don't abuse my wife or children, I take care of my family, I go to work every day and I pay my bills. All the friends I hang out with, some are artists, some are not, have never been to jail."
He said that even though his portraits at OCC predate these theme-oriented works, they refute negative stereotypes. "They are beautiful images of black folks, and sometimes that's all you need to do, is see a beautiful image. What did the Mona Lisa do, what was her job? Was she a secretary? A caterer? We don't know. It's just a beautiful image of that woman by Leonardo da Vinci. Sometimes the statement is just that."
Middlebrook, 38, began his career in 1973 at Compton's Communicative Arts Academy, then trained at the Watts Towers Art Center at the base of the famous folk art spires. He later became the center's director and now directs the Children's Gallery of the Junior Arts Center at Barnsdall Park in Hollywood.
His work was included in "Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary Art," a major group exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in February, and was seen locally in last year's "In the Black" at the Irvine Fine Arts Center. Early next year, his photographs will be displayed at Cal State Los Angeles.
His latest works "deal with my attitudes about mortality and attitudes about religion and about life, death, love, hate. And it's going into a totally different direction. It's like assemblage pieces, computer-generated imagery glued to large pieces of wood."
He also is completing a photomural for a Metro Green Line station on Avalon Boulevard in L.A. The mural will depict men and women who have contributed to the community's artistic life, such as John Outterbridge, who ran the Watts Towers center for 16 years, and artists Charles Dickson and Ruth Wade.
Like all the work he has been doing lately, the mural is large--14 by 24 feet. "Being a big guy, I like being able to stand in front of a big piece. It's really strange to stand beside a little itty-bitty photograph and say, 'I did this.' "
* "Portraits of My People," photographs by Willie Middlebrook, continues through Dec. 13 at the Orange Coast College Photo Gallery, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. Mondays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: free.
Middlebrook will discuss his work at 7 p.m. on Dec. 6 in room 110 of the campus Art Center. Admission: free. (714) 432-5703.