Berkeley artist Raymond L. Haywood and the black canvas – 71Bait

How do you find the emotional body in a piece of wood? Raymond L. Haywood isn’t just an artist – he’s a handyman builder, and he has some insight on the matter to share.

Haywood was born at Herrick Hospital in Berkeley and graduated from Berkeley High in 1981. After graduating from UC San Diego, he returned to the Bay Area young and enthusiastic about the arts. His plan to apprentice to a stone sculptor took a turn when Haywood was deeply inspired by a “day job” in woodworking. After swimming competitively in high school and becoming a member of a master’s swim team at UC Berkeley, Haywood accepted a stint at Berkeley Parks and Rec as a lifeguard. But while he enjoyed certain aspects of the job, he envisioned doing more. Thus began the quest for positive influence through teachings and inspirational art.

When Haywood’s UC swimming buddy Eric Seward heard he was looking for a job, Seward got him a job as a carpenter’s hand with the now-defunct Paragon Builders.

“Complex Conversations” (2021)

“The carpenters at Paragon were an eclectic group of artisan builders with a hippie streak and a propensity for problem solving and drinking too much, a lifestyle reminiscent of a Wild West cowboy,” Haywood told 48hills.

Haywood’s first project was work on a stockbroker’s mansion on a hill overlooking downtown Lafayette. As an assistant to journeyman carpenters, Haywood learned valuable skills that shape his artwork today.

Esteemed master builders Paul Cerami of Cerami Builders and Steve Mills of Mills General Construction taught him the ropes as he rose from laborer to supervisor.

This experiential relationship with wood becomes duly clear in his work. But there is much beneath the surface. The desire to communicate emotional responses inspires Haywood’s painting practice, and his subjects are based on elements and conversations that emerge from his own life.

“Working with wood and color allows for an improvisational approach that encourages an appreciation for beauty, form and function,” he said.

Haywood strives to succeed on his own terms. He sees this as both a blessing and a challenge to capture the next concept that pops into his head. At its core, Haywood professes a love of and satisfaction with work, which gives him the opportunity to master unique forms and outcomes.

“Witness” (2021)

A day at the studio making such ideas a reality begins early with a double cappuccino and a quick dip at the El Cerrito Swim Center to relieve the tensions of modern life. (Motorcycling is another activity that Haywood says is close to a meditative practice.)

Haywood gets it in a former paint factory on Carleton Street near the Berkeley Bowl. Music at work is his muse and emotional balm, although it is the practical work that creates the most sensual connection to memory and history.

His studio is approximately 14 square meters with some two-story ceilings and a west-facing wall filled with glass blocks that let in lots of natural light. With a preference for flat work, he builds paintings of all sizes on sawhorses or roller tables.

With a certain reluctance to purchase new materials, Haywood prefers to draw resources from his travels and donations from other artists, and to transform older works into new ideas.

“Watermelon Man” (2022)

He prepares a series of wood panels, sands and marks them, coats them with a base color and then sands again to create an ideal mixed media substrate. To distress the surface, Haywood uses masking tape and sticky paper, which is pulled when dry to reveal imperfections.

In fact, he likes to make signs; with pencils, pens, spray paint, screen printing – anything that allows him to get the gist of a piece and express his voice as a storyteller.

“These mediums allow for a variety of techniques and content to express my ideas and goals,” Haywood said.

Abstract Expressionism is his metier and for the artist it is all about emotions when actively interacting with a piece. His subject is an ongoing series of questions and visual theorems, which he works on until he finds solutions. He begins with a feeling, an urgent need to communicate that inner voice that he best expresses through making art.

Resonating with beautiful things that possess balance, he constantly strives to uncover the inherent beauty of his compositions. Haywood once found a new muse in the form of a cowrie shell. It became a reflective form that he drew and painted on small, postcard-sized watercolor paper as a symbol for himself.

In late 2021, Haywood explored the effects of over 500 years of aggression on the African American body. This led to a desire to paint on a black background instead of the traditional white, a change that transformed the way he painted and think of painting.

“I no longer look to the ‘white art world’ as the arbiter of talent or taste, nor is their gaze that important to my creations,” Haywood explained. “I paint for myself and for people like me who have shared history with me as victims and oppressors in this United States of America.”

Also in 2021, Haywood became a member of Mercury 20, an artist-run collective based in Oakland, at a time when it had only one other African-American artist as a member. This was an important turning point. He sought exposure and inclusion in the Oakland arts community “to represent as an artist.”

“Absence of Light” (2021)

In a new series of gestural paintings overlaid with graphic geometric shapes in black, Haywood addresses the ongoing demonization, murder, and genocide of African Americans in the United States and his emotional response to ongoing trauma.

The initial inspiration for the series, entitled “[Stages of…], grew out of televised lynchings of black people but expanded into an interpretation of the state of the world. The work looks at Russia, China and the United States, the latter polarized in its denial of the legacy of colonialism, patriarchy and racism.

“I strive to create beautiful renditions of my emotional worlds; my joys, dislikes, and confusions,” Haywood said. “I want to illustrate alternate realities and responses to stress, horror, and death. Ultimately, I hope viewers go home wanting to act on something within themselves.”

Gratitude is also a level in Haywood’s work. He appreciates that viewers still appreciate the investment in art and is humbled that he is able to pour so much energy into a practice he says saved his life.

Haywood encourages us to take 10 minutes each day to create something that touches the viewer’s heart. Asking as many questions as possible and surrounding ourselves with people who share our passion.

“Thought and progress flow where intent goes,” he added.

Haywood received an MFA from San Francisco State in 2003, teaches at Freedom High School in Oakley, and lives near the UC Berkeley campus with his wife, Monica. In September he will be showing new work at the Mercury 20 Gallery.

Visit him for more information Instagram and Facebook.

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