TAKING RISKS Montford outside Niagara University's Castellani Art Museum.
It was around 1983 when Providence artist James Montford and a friend posed as photographers to check out the Ku Klux Klan rally in Norwalk, Connecticut.
“There were about a dozen Klan members in their Klan regalia behind a police fence in a public park. There was a crowd of 300 to 400 people,” he recalls.
“They came right up to us with their blowhorns and they said, ‘These niggers are the problem.’ We were the only black people there. It was a defining moment because I felt somebody could have just put a knife in my back.
“It took me about year to process it,” says Montford, whose exhibition “Black Indians in Space,” is at Yellow Peril Gallery (60 Valley St, Providence, through July 13). “It changed the direction of my work.”
Growing up in Connecticut and Hawaii, he’d not dreamed of being an artist. His African American father was career Coast Guard; his Massapequa Pequot mom was a homemaker. He was recruited to attend Brandeis University in 1970 under a federal program to increase academic diversity.
“I’m a product of the civil rights movement,” Montford says. “The doors opened a little bit in the late ’60s and ’70s and I was one of the people they let through.”
In college, he found his way into abstract painting and urban planning. He became immersed in the art world when he spent some years in New York. He studied at Columbia University and the Maryland Institute of Art. He made minimalist paintings. But seeing the Klan prompted him to make hangman’s nooses and collect mammy dolls and other commercial memorabilia featuring racist caricatures of black folks that he lynched in videos.
In 1989, Montford taught at the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, which gave him a home and studio; it was an oasis for him and his two sons after he divorced his wife. “But they didn’t celebrate the [Martin Luther] King holiday,” he says. “What does that mean?” He tried to get the school to recognize the assassinated civil rights leader but felt his efforts were going nowhere. “So I went on a hunger fast . . . I’d drink water, but I would not eat until they agreed to celebrate the King holiday.”
Word spread around the campus as he hung signs, “Day 1,” “Day 2” in the window of his office in the library building. “Day seven, I got this note from the principal’s office. It said, ‘James, stop your fast. We’ll do whatever you want to do.’ ” (“Martin Luther King Day To Be Recognized: James Montford, Minority Advisor, Ends Six Day Fast,” the headline in the student newspaper read.) He ended it with an open forum, attended by nearly 300 people, to answer questions. “I decided on my own that I had to leave [the school soon after]. I realized that I was messenger and other people had to come after that. It was so intense to be there.” (When the school held its 20th annual MLK Day in 2011, it invited him back.)
Montford has since worked at Wilbraham & Monson Academy, RISD and, since 2005, as a teacher at Rhode Island College and director of its Bannister Gallery.