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On January 20, Michael B. Platt, true to form, surprised everyone by doing the one thing that no one expected as he was installing his latest exhibition: he died. The heart attack didn’t last very long; one second he was there, and the next, was gone.
“We used to joke. The joke was, we wanted to check the quick column… but then all of a sudden, it happens, and that’s it. But you kind of hope for the joke-y part, and that’s what you remember,” says poet Carol Beane, Platt’s wife of 27 years and collaborator.
She added: “When somebody dies, whatever piece of the person that you knew, and all of these other people that had different pieces and different angles, different perspectives [exist]. And that’s how everybody gets around to telling the stories… and how [Michael] touched so many lives.”
Born at Freedman’s Hospital in D.C. and educated in D.C. Public Schools, Platt knew that he wanted to be an artist since he was seven years old. Over the years, Platt earned degrees for fine art at the Columbus School of Art in Ohio and Howard University, where, through hard work and talent, he mastered drawing, painting, photography, and printmaking. His list of collectors included patrons such as Mary Swift and the late Peggy Cooper Cafritz, institutions that include the Smithsonian and the Corcoran; and fellowships from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. His most recent honor, shared with Beane, was presenting their six collaborative artist books at the Library of Congress Rare Books and Special Collections in October 2018.
Platt loved to travel, and it inspired him to create work for solo shows and tours throughout the U.K. and in Paris, in partnership with art historian Eddie Chambers and Honfleur Gallery. Platt’s final body of work, the one he had just finished installing at the Katzen Arts Center before he died, is inspired by his Australian experiences; the culmination of a long-standing fascination with the continent, which he visited twice for art exhibitions.
But Platt wasn’t just a maker, he took pride in showing others how to make art. He taught at the Alexandria Campus of Northern Virginia Community College for more than 30 years and at Howard University for more than 10 years, where he introduced digital photography and non-toxic printmaking into the school’s Fine Art curriculum.
In his house, in the days following his death, things that mark the shape of his absence are all around: his fully loaded photography studio, with all of the equipment that students from Howard came to use for school assignments and art shows; the signs that read “When you are done, put the shit back where you found it;” the white walls; the old backdrops.
And there are more personal things, too: his hats, resting on rolls of fine art paper—each one a different height; the seat at the head of the kitchen table, still shaped and molded by him; and the ghost of his eyes and smile in the face of his son, Michael, now a photographer in his own right.
In the first few days of mourning, Platt’s family and friends made endless batches of chili and reminisced about the inspirational things he’d say; he’d tell every student of his to “Keep on doing,” or “Trust yourself.” One of the last things that he ever said to me was, “You gotta be strong to be old.” I took it to mean that, with age, you need the willpower to push through the different challenges of health.
But now? I think it means that in order to make it in this world and to live a life as full as he did, you need the mental strength to see past your own problems—in order to give back to those who need help and guidance. He was, without a doubt a strong man, and everyone knew it.
Some of the best moments of my time in D.C. were spent at Platt and Beane’s kitchen table, because there was always something surprising to learn and see. Once, during a dinner at their house, his historian brother-in-law, Glenn, gave me a lecture on the Scottish Battle of Culloden that was more detailed than a Wikipedia page. There would regularly be other students from Howard, or from life itself, who would come in and say “Hi” to Platt, sit down with everybody else and ask for advice or help with work.
Carol Rhodes Dyson, curator and writer, admitted, “I was in awe of his talent and reputation and was reticent about getting to know [Platt and Beane.] But I stepped up and [they] opened the door. Michael was authentic, generous and a creative genius-spirit,” she said. “And, he was candid in his opinions. I didn’t mind the truth from him.”
Lloyd Foster, a photographer based in D.C., told me how he relied on Platt’s advice when he was staging his first solo show at IA&A Hillyer. “I practically lived at his house, working late in his studio just about every day leading up to it,” Foster says. “I’m not sure how I would have got it done without him and I’m thankful for his genuine love and support, always.”
Another former student, mixed-media artist Amber Robles-Gordon, shared her memories of Platt from when served on her senior thesis committee at Howard. He encouraged her to keep “doing.”
“At one point, Platt and I were on the Black Artist of DC elders board together, along with Aziza Gibson-Hunter, Harlee Little, Alec Simpson, Daniel Brookings, and Akili Ron Anderson. All I can say is I miss him already,” she says. “Platt helped, challenged, encouraged and touched the lives of many… and I’m grateful I was one of the many.”
Many of Platt’s old students, longtime friends, and family came to the Katzen Arts Center for his and Beane’s exhibition opening. A crowd of several hundred people assembled for the opening, breaking previously held attendance records.
It was the only art show that I’ve ever seen that doubled as a funeral—filled with testimonials of how well he lived. Carol was composed, holding a bunch of unblossomed white lilies in one hand. People came up to her with hugs. His son, Mike, had rubber spikes on his backpack straps that poked when you hugged him back.
But the only bodies that mattered were on the walls. Platt’s photos—landscapes taken during travel to Australia, then superimposed with either black models from his studio in D.C. or images of Aboriginals—told his final and greatest story of common skin, spiritual struggle, and nature reincarnated. Words by Beane, sometimes right next to the images themselves, punctuated the visual language of desert climate and humanity. Aboriginal figures adhered to the walls; their placement and scale meant the works were in direct conversation with each person that walked up to them.
In the center of the exhibition is a room-sized installation of tumbleweeds, a last-minute addition by Platt, rush ordered through Amazon from three Southwestern states. They were installed by friends and family using his last drawing made at 2:30 a.m. the Sunday he died. Platt, ever the perfectionist, changed up the entire configuration of the piece at the last minute. They hung alongside fishing baskets, printed canvas strips of scenery, wooden figures in the middle. On other works, faces, places and times were patterned one against the other—mixing color, skin, and text into the ritual of The Dreaming, an Aboriginal ceremony for a soul passing through one world to engage with the next.
Fishing—one of Platt’s favorite pastimes—and its accoutrements figure heavily in Influences and Connections. Woven baskets frequently appear among the whitened faces of his models, up in the atmosphere of an Australian desert, or hanging in the exhibition itself. Through Platt’s chromatic scheme and poetic flow, I see a love of the land, water, and natural things; there are aqua and marine blues, wheat and gold, black hair and ritualistically whitened skin.
Both Beane and Platt worked hard to convey this final, grand story of their life together and give visitors the conceptual space to make a story of their own. Such multiplicity of perspective is the cornerstone of their practice; a guide to the philosophy of life itself.
Curator Zoma Wallace elaborates in her curatorial statement that “[the] layers in these works become planes that compose the interdimensional ether of visible stories, and the latent content of spiritual dreams. Arteries of meaning and interstitial tissues of color, texture, and pattern connect one dream to another and then another… The edges that frame his compositions are no longer borders of illusory space but are… entrances into cavernous portals.”
The story of Michael B. Platt’s life is longer than the 70 years he was physically on this earth; it contains the history of Jim Crow and of civil rights, to the point where we are at now. The thrust behind every technique the Platt used was the story of struggle, victory, and humanity; of blackness taking different forms in the world over, and the ability to characterize any person within that story with empathy and respect.
Something that Platt frequently said, believed, and lived every day was that life is absurdly short, and art is the only thing that lasts. But what is art made of? There is archeology, there is history, and there is our own suspension of disbelief to listen to Platt and Beane’s storytelling for the very last time. Dream, prayer, and memory all become one in this exhibition and culminate in a fitting tribute to the man who gave his last ounce of life to make it all come together. It can all be summed up in a passage from Platt and Beane’s joint collaboration, “Downtown Mystic,” from 2018:
For the vastnessfor the Dreaming andthe Time before Timeand for all the Other Stories:the archival history of Stolen Childrenand the Lost Ones,those….growing…For the grains ….and the weathered…;for the red rocks…with the sounds…Let the people say: Amen.This be the laying on of red dirt,Aggregate of memories and dreaming.You have told me your stories.Now I shall talk to you of mine…
Thank you, Mike, for everything.Michael B. Platt + Carol A. Beane: Influences and Connections runs until March 17 at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center. 4400 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W. Free. (202) 885-1300. american.edu/cas/museum.