Round about 5 pm, Romare Bearden did what he did most workdays: He gathered the day’s sketches, drawn on the yellow paper supplied to him and other caseworkers at the New York City Department of Welfare, and threw them into the garbage. Around the same time, his co-worker Steve Lynch did what he did most workdays: He shuffled over to the trash and fished them out.
Bearden “never stopped drawing,” says Lynch, now an advertising photographer in Mexico City. “Even when he was writing reports, he was drawing at the same time.” Sometimes, the artist would come to work with a seemingly endless stream of “magazines and magazines and magazines”—Ebony and Harper’s Bazaar, taken from his wife Nanette’s collection—that he would cut up and reassemble for the collages that would become his métier.
Eventually, Lynch says, he amassed hundreds of Beardens—a collection that would be worth a small fortune today. One day, the artist asked for them all back for an upcoming exhibit; Lynch never saw them again. Later, when Bearden had one of his first major shows at the Cordier and Ekstrom Gallery, he asked Lynch to shoot it for promotional materials—his first photographic assignment. It was his ticket to a new career, and soon thereafter, Lynch resigned from the Welfare Department. Yet it would be five more years before the preeminent collagist, then in his 50s and soon to be recognized as one of the 20th century’s most brilliant artists, would formally retire.
From 1935 to 1969, when Bearden was finally able to pursue art full-time, he led something of a double life, working by day as a “social investigator” on the “Gypsy caseload” (a term now considered an ethnic slur), assigned exclusively to the city’s Romany population, and on nights and weekends (and, apparently, during the days) as an indefatigable artist. Before his retirement as a government worker, Bearden had achieved a modest level of fame among the Harlem intelligentsia, but this did not translate into financial success, a harsh reality for many artists of his generation. Some of his co-workers had no idea he was an established artist.
“When people say success, they only look at the successes. Many times I didn’t have them,” Bearden said in 1971, just shy of his 60th birthday, when he’d only recently become a full-time artist. “Napoleon was once talking to Talleyrand, a minister who lasted through many changes of government, and asked him how he did it. Talleyrand said, ‘I survived.’ ”
It’s a time-honored tradition for artists to have a day job to make ends meet: Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive; Philip Glass a plumber; Richard Serra, perhaps predictably, worked in a steel mill. But it’s generally understood that the day job is a necessary evil, providing the rent money that makes the art possible. For Bearden and many other artists, writers, musicians, and intellectuals, though, a day job in the Department of Welfare (renamed the Department of Social Services in 1967) was a formative part of their art and commitment to social justice. Especially during the ’60s, a circuit of artists-cum-social-workers in New York City formed across the disciplines: Writers Alice Walker and Audre Lorde, painter Danny Simmons, and playwright Loften Mitchell are just a handful. Yet none stayed as long as Bearden.