For 40 years, John T. Crisp Jr. has been known on the East Side for his art and for his work in youth education. In the past, when people west of 11th Street wanted to interact with artists of color, they came to him.
Crisp, who grew up on the East Side (“Back then, if you were black, that was the only side you could grow up on,” he quips), couldn’t afford a full college course load. So, as he was able to, he registered for the courses he needed to learn art: When he visited a sister in Ohio, he took classes at Ohio State University, and he’s studied here, at Lincoln Land Community College, as well. He learned graphic arts and commercial illustration while working for an ad agency in Springfield. “I trained myself to do several types of art because of my interest in teaching,” he says. “I specialize in black history, and I spend a lot of time in libraries.”
Crisp says he focuses on “the art of what’s happening now,” but makes a point to teach students the basics.
The road to “the art of what’s happenin’ now” has been rocky. Crisp remembers the Old Capitol Art Fair back in 1968: “Several black artists were invited, and at the end of the first day we were invited to leave and they gave us our money back. Since that time, not one black artist participated until watercolor specialist Barbara Mason, last year. That experience brought me to a reality: My father always told me not to get mad at an organization that has an event that because you can’t participate. Let them have their event, and, if you want to participate, get your own event — then you can do what you want to do.”
In the late ’90s, Crisp began working with the city’s mainstream arts organizations again. He helped renovate the Fifth Street home of the Prairie Art Alliance. Soon after, the Springfield Housing Authority and Springfield Art Association signed a partnership agreement that brought Crisp to SAA as a summer arts-program teacher. “Things went so well that I’ve been here as an instructor ever since,” he says. “I’m going to be here as long as I’m allowed to be here.”
Crisp, now 60, estimates that over the past 25 years, working at various clubs, churches, and District 186 schools, he has tutored more than 1,500 kids, and he considers himself as much a teacher as an artist. He has produced two books: A Taste of Black History is a coloring book with historical facts intended to educate as well as engage the artistically inclined. His Motor Skill Dot Drawing book teaches young people how to develop hand-eye motor skills early in the lifelong pursuit of artistic learning.
Crisp created the books partly to help fund the establishment of a joint effort with other East Side community activists. The Tubman/Anthony Women’s Self-Help Arts and Education Multipurpose Center, now in the planning stage, is intended to serve in part as a youth center, open seven days a week, offering learning opportunities in all fields, including art. There will be no games — just academics, including music.
“The goal is to get the children into a positive atmosphere, give them an alternative to the rap music and the videos thrown at our children,” Crisp says. “I have other professionals ready to go and work with young people in programs. We’re not going to stop all the killing and the drug dealing on the East Side, but we can stop some of it.”
At SAA, Crisp teaches beginning and advanced drawing and sculpture year-round to kids from all over Springfield. He continues his efforts at area churches. Several times a year, he also teaches adults. “Anyone who can sign their name can be an artist if they apply themselves,” he says. “In my classes there is no such thing as ‘I can’t.’ I don’t expect anything dynamic from my 7- to 11-year-olds, but they do some pretty fantastic things, and they learn something. They teach me as much as I teach them. Some of the color schemes they show me amaze and surprise me.”
Crisp does not consider art a ticket to mainstream community life as some think of professional sports. “Art plays a major role in [leading kids to study] reading, writing, and arithmetic,” he says. “I have students say to me, ‘Mr. Crisp, I’m going to major in art,’ and I tell them ‘No, you’re not. Don’t major in art. Minor in art. If art is going to be your goal, take business law or marketing so you can afford your art.”
John Crisp’s books are available for purchase at Off Top Records, 1503 E. Ash St. For more information about the Tubman/Anthony Center, call Crisp at 217-544-3095.