ESAC: How did you know James Baldwin?
NALL: I became very good friends with James Baldwin’s brother David while living in France. One day David asked me if I would like to meet Jimmy (as all his friends called him Jimmy), and I said I would love to. He said let’s go over there we’ll have lunch. So we went over and on the introduction I remember sitting by Jimmy’s bed. He was dying of cancer, and he wasn’t walking around. He was handicapped, which I am now. I told him I would like to thank him for all that he had done to help the world, certainly America, to pry the lid off this bell jar of racism, homosexuality, freedom, and intelligence. And for everything that he had written.
ESAC: Have you read a lot of his work?
NALL: All of it. I kind of worshipped him as an intelligent, creative writer that was working for the people. For those people enslaved in old ideas of the fifties of racism and stupidity. And trying to free the homosexuals from the cages built for them by society.
I said to Jimmy, “You know you have freed me of the guilt of being raised a southerner, and I think most of the southerners feel the same way. In fact I think most people in the United States feel that way, black or white.” Jimmy had a hard time, even in Brooklyn, of being a normal accepted genius He had to move to England to be in a society that would honor him as he deserved.
ESAC: How soon after his death did you create the “Homage” artwork?
NALL: I didn’t know Jimmy that well. I knew his brother very well. He had been trying to get me to go over and meet Jimmy, and I did, finally. I don’t know why I waited so long, I guess I was shy. You don’t just go see one of the most brilliant minds the world has ever produced.
I was with him the day before he died. I went over and sat with him and cooked him some food. Collard greens and cornbread. I said, I hope you can eat this, I am not a great cook. And I don’t know that he ate much but he appreciated it.
I said thank you for liberating me from the complexes of being a southerner that I was raised with from from birth. And he said, “No, I want to thank you for telling me that.” For him to tell me that was huge. The day I cooked him dinner, he died that night.
ESAC: “Homage to James Baldwin” is my favorite piece of yours.
NALL: You know I almost didn’t send it here because he is black and this is Fairhope! I am just so happy that it is here.
ESAC: Tell me about some of the symbolism in this artwork. Is this a peace dove?
NALL: Yes. This could be a mirror, or Hindu cross. Ohm is a meditative sound that vibrates and awakens the brain. It’s spirituality and love. The Christian “Amen” is an adaptation of the Ohm, but does not vibrate in the same way. Being raised in the Baptist Church in Troy (Alabama), I learned these things in India and in France from super intellectual friends. I feel honored to be able to do this.
NALL: The heart symbolizes love. There is a bone – the rattling of the bones – and a cross, and there is a fish because Christ was a fisherman. The figure 8 is the symbol of eternity.
ESAC: And of course it is shaped like a casket.
NALL: Oh yeah. It is a coffin cover. In fact, I did two, and I gave one to the Maegt Foundation in St.-Paul-de-Vence, France. It is a huge, huge museum of artists like Raoul Dufy and Picasso and artists of that school, that generation. They have the other coffin cover of James Baldwin because he was more famous in England and France than in the United States because of our racist stupidities. But the United Sates is his country. He was dedicated to it.