The abstract-art pioneer Sam Gilliam died Saturday at his home in DC. Beauty Pill frontman Chad Clark remembers his former neighbor and inspiration.
By wild fortuitous luck, for a couple years, Sam Gilliam’s art studio was adjacent to my music studio at 14th and U streets, Northwest. I would be lying to claim that we became close friends or that I can recall any sage advice he gave me. I mostly held his art in awe, and I tried to not disturb him. I usually only played music loud at night when I knew he had gone home for the day.
I imagined a mystical connection between us. I was half his age, but he was everything I wanted to be. A Black lifer DC artist and innovator with wildly colorful and influential works. I know I’m not a painter, but if you listen to the sound vistas of “Afrikaner Barista” and “Ann the Word,” I believe you can feel the influence of Sam Gilliam. Vivid color! Wide! Huge! Detailed!
Though Sam became a global art legend, he never moved to London or New York or Paris or Berlin. He was a DC motherfucker. This was inspiring to me. I don’t know if he conceived of himself as “bringing honor to the city,” but that is precisely what he did.
I kinda wanted to LOOK like him, honestly. He radiated intensity and confidence and focus. His clothes weren’t flamboyant, but everything about him was stylish. All the time. Effortlessly. I tried to absorb his greatness osmotically. This is the most arrogant thing I have ever done. I’m no fucking Sam Gilliam.
There was only one.