‘Legacy of a Seer’

A&M architecture professors' art honors
playwright, professor, racial unity advocate

Among the assortment of artwork and memorabilia honoring the late Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and Texas A&M professor Charles Gordone, on exhibit at A&M’s J. Wayne Stark Gallery last October, were 12 portraits by A&M architecture professor Robert Schiffhauer. The paintings and drawings, in media ranging from brilliant acrylic to muted charcoal, explored the life of a man Schiffhauer had known only from photographs, newspaper clippings and through a recent friendship with his widow, Susan Kouyomijian Gordone.

“I immersed myself in these photo images and information to see if I might be guided toward an honest representation of Charles that might reflect the struggles in his life and in his work,” said Schiffhauer, an avid illustrator and specialist in design communication. “The etched surface lines were kind of a roadmap in the landscape of his face, to be read and interpreted.”

An actor, director, and activist, Gordone won the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for his play, “No Place to Be Somebody: A Black Black Comedy.” He was the first black playwright to win the award, and his play, which offers an intimate glimpse into racial tensions of the civil rights era, was the first off-Broadway drama to do likewise.

Gordone was brought to Texas A&M in 1987, by then university president Frank Vandiver, in a move to advance racial diversity in the arts at the predominantly white campus. During his eight years as a professor of theater arts, Gordone taught, directed, and even volunteered to act in his students’ plays. Also, during that time, he became part of a huge Western art revival, befriending poets, dancers, artists and singers, and inviting them into A&M classrooms as part of a program he created called “American Voices.”

Because of this fascination with the West, all 12 of Schiffhauer’s portraits depicted Gordone in cowboy attire.

“A portrait artist should seek knowledge of his subject that reflects the inner soul of that subject — this is at least partially revealed through the eyes,” explained Schiffhauer about his artwork. “Since I had never actually met or known Charles Gordone when he was alive, I had to summon empathy from within to help me realize an image of Charles in life.”

The Stark Gallery exhibit, “Legacy of a Seer,” corresponded with what would have been Gordone’s 79th birthday — October 12, 2004. The event reception was attended by Gordone’s family, friends and fans.

“It has been a challenge to me, as an artist, to honor a poet and a playwright who might have been a friend had we been acquainted,” Schiffhauer said. “As these portraits progressed I experienced regret that I had not known the person Charles Gordone in life, for I had come to respect him and his achievements.”

With heritage from five nationalities and three races, Gordone was reportedly fond of referring to himself as a “North American mestizo.”

In an interview with the Dallas Morning News, Gordone’s widow, said, “He believed America is not a collection of separate ethnic and religious and racial cultures. He believed that there is only one American culture, and all of us are part of the one culture.”

As playwright and professor, he dedicated his life to the arts and brought his message of racial unity to the classroom and theater at Texas A&M. He fought to break down racial barriers and to demonstrate that America is made up of only one culture.

“Under adverse conditions, which might have defeated a less determined man, he set about to make his life and the struggle of all peoples to mean something,” Schiffhauer said, “In a real sense Charles Gordone paid tribute to the human race and for his humanity we repay that tribute to this day.”

Also on display at the exhibit honoring Gordone, was a sculpture by architecture professor emeritus John Walker, a longtime friend of the playwright.

“I always said that Charles Gordone did more for the Pulitzer than the Pulitzer ever did for Charles Gordone,” Walker was quoted in an Oct. 12, 2004 feature in Texas A&M student newspaper, The Battalion. “Putting that ‘first African American’ label on his prize only reflected how limited the American theater had been up until that point, not how limited African American’s had been.”

— The End —

January 10, 2005

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