“When I got off the plane in June 1982, I found a dollar on the ground (my first dollar earned in the U.S.) and on that day, I knew I would not be returning to Jamaica.”
While driving through the five boroughs that summer of ‘82, a then young Michael Escoffery, in his 20’s, was amazed by all the billboards and signs and it was then he knew how he would make his living here in the States. With his formal education from Edna Manley College of Visual Arts in Jamaica, he was more than well prepared. Just three months into his stay here in the United States, he was making signs and awnings for businesses throughout the city. Yet even then, he knew he would do more with his art.
“I missed good shoes, a watch, and a car, but never the human connection. The lesson? I wouldn’t make a good monk.”
Sitting here talking to Michael, he easily journeys back to a time when he would receive art supplies, usually paintbrushes and paints as birthday and Christmas gifts. His parents, both artists, could see that he was content being alone and painting and creating things. So they indulged his passion. Listening to these stories of his childhood in Jamaica, you’re left with no doubt that his ascension to a full-time artist is nearly prophetic. After all, what else could the scion of a painter and a sculptor do?
The answer: too many things.
“Artist are seekers by nature. They want to know more. Experience more,” he says when discussing how he came to embrace Buddhism. Constantly searching for peace and simplicity eventual lead him to India where he lived as a monk. for a season. Yet, living the life of a monk is not for everyone and after months there an elder monk pulled him aside and asked him “what did he miss about his formal life.” “I missed good shoes, a watch, and a car, but never the human connection. The lesson? I wouldn’t make a good monk,” he shrugs and says as he closes the altar he keeps near his desk and picks up another cigarette.
Undoubtedly, Escoffery’s artistic gifts now afford him the ability to travel the world sharing his work. He has exhibited at galleries and museums across the globe and his work now sits in the Library of Congress and in Embassies in nearly 40 countries. The homes of Roberta Flack, David Dinkins, Charles Rangel, Maya Angelou and Nelson Mandela have all at one time or another held an Escoffery painting. He has also received the U.S. Navy’s Artist of the Century award for his “Stars & Stripes” series, which consisted of fifty-six different paintings of the U.S. Flag.
Interestingly enough, after a life and career this vast, he says that the one thing that he has learned in his travels is that skin color is a major point of focus in the United States, like no other place on the globe. “In Jamaica, we never focused on skin color, so when I got here, I really didn’t know I was Black. I didn’t know I was Black until I came to the U.S.,” he laughs. This desire to know more about his Blackness led him on a rampant search for Black literature, art, and political and social theory. Eventually, he captured all he had consumed and painted it in a series of 75 paintings entitled “400 years of my people.”
400 years of my people depicts 75 different people and symbols in the struggle of African-Caribbean-American history throughout the past 400 years and is now considered one of his major works. The entire collection was purchased by Bernard Beal, CEO of M.R. Beal & Co, the nation’s oldest minority-owned investment bank, in its first showing and now prominently adorns an entire wall in the lobby of their Manhattan offices.
Although works like Stars & Stripes and 400 years of my people have brought him international acclaim in the high-end art arena, his is most notably known for painting women. With an eye for beauty and the uncanny ability to capture it on canvas, he paints the essence and spirit of women. Simply stated, his appreciation for women is nothing less than pure admiration for the female form and the mystery of women in general. “Men are simple. Food, sex and the remote control. Women are so much more.”
The drive to paint women stems from more than sex appeal to Escoffery. His fascination is rooted in the woman’s ability to create life. It is grounded in the female’s ability to love unconditionally and bond with their children, something that “men are simply not designed to do.” He also has a distinct ability to paint vulnerability. Many of the women seen in his paintings are shown in moments of thought where they are presenting their backs to the viewer or lowered heads and closed eyes. They are essentially paintings that lead you to stare and wonder what’s on the subject’s mind.
The answer: too many things.