Berkeley MFA student Fred DeWitt: George Floyd never wanted to be in my art

Berkeley MFA student Fred DeWitt: George Floyd never wanted to be in my art

Fred M. DeWitt is an African American interdisciplinary artist with a disability who is researching and exploring ways to deconstruct notions of white supremacy as it is promoted in early American art. DeWitts research at Berkeley places materials as a cornerstone of cultural liberation. Coffee, cotton, gold, clay, sugar, ground pigments are just some of the elements he uses as a means of cultural renewal.

By Anne Brice, Berkeley News

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Fred DeWitt is a Master of Fine Arts student and the first artist-in-residence in the Department of Art Practice at UC Berkeley. DeWitt, 61, shares in his own words what the Black Panthers meant to him as a young boy growing up in the Bay Area, how Barack Obamas election as president inspired him to go back to school to study art, and the complicated nature of honoring the lives of people who never wanted to be remembered for their deaths. His MFA show will be at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) in June.

two photos: one of a ceramic shoe with a drawing of george floyd on it and two paintings on a sidewalk with flowers next to them

Left: Brother Floyds Shoe, made with ceramic. Right: An altar on the UC Berkeley campus. (Artwork and photos by Fred DeWitt)

                               portrait of fred dewitt sitting outside

Fred DeWitt is a Master of Fine Arts student and the first artist-in-residence in the Department of Art Practice at UC Berkeley. (Photo courtesy of Fred DeWitt)

Narration: Fred DeWitt is a Master of Fine Arts student and the first artist-in-residence in the Department of Art Practice at UC Berkeley. Whether hes sculpting a gigantic shoe from clay George Floyds shoe, he says, a heavy shoe that nobody wants to wear or hes growing cotton plants in the departments new Platform Artspace, DeWitt wants his art to get inside peoples minds and hearts and encourage them to recognize the humanity in everyone.

Fred DeWitt: I grew up right around here in Berkeley. Im from B-town. Berkeley High Yellowjackets. I ran track at Berkeley High School. We would run up the street to UC Berkeley and up to the fire trails every day. I ran the 400 meters. Yeah, I ran that, and I ran the relays. My father was actually a state champion. He won the state meet (in 1957) at Edwards Stadium down there, in Berkeley. So, you know, Berkeley always represented a special place for me. Im talking about UC Berkeley, it was always a very special place for me.

I was a child in the 60s, I grew up mostly in the 70s. In those days, people chose to be there not only because of economics, but because of freedom. They wanted to come to California and have a new experience in life. California has always kind of represented free spirit. People were coming from other parts of the country and other places in the world to be themselves. When they couldnt do that in the Midwest or the East, they felt constrained, they could come here to San Francisco, to Berkeley, to Oakland and discover new things and find out who they were.

Painting of a building with people outside of it

Black Lives Still Matter, made with oils on wood. (Painting by Fred DeWitt)

But I grew up in that free spirit. I grew up in that, you know, you talk about, This is the home of the Black Panthers I grew up with that around me, that was around me, that was in the community.

[Audio clip: Historical footage and interviews with Black Panthers KTVU Fox 2 San Francisco: Lets get into the inner workings of this. Lets get into the inner workings of a Black revolution and why Black people have a right to take whats theirs. You can read the platform in the program. Its a basic program. And it simply says exactly what Black people have been crying for for 400 years: 1. We want freedom. We want the power to determine the destiny of our own Black communities.]

They were cool. Thats what I thought. I thought they were cool. They had black leather jackets and berets, and they were young Black people with their fists in the air talking about liberation and talking about injustice.

They seemed to have a certain sense of pride about themselves. They talked about community they had the free breakfast program, and they had their own schools. And they had cool leather jackets.

two images: one photo of a man running a race and a painting of the same man running with wings and two dogs next to him

Left: Fred DeWitts father, Fred DeWitt Sr. (pictured), ran track for Berkeley High and won the 1957 state meet at UC Berkeleys Edwards Stadium. Right: The Hunter and His Dog, made with natural pigments, Sumi ink and glue. (Photo courtesy of Fred DeWitt; painting by Fred DeWitt)

One day, I saw Obama come into the Santa Monica airport. Forget about the politics, that was cool. I had to look at myself in the mirror and say, Hey, Fred, what can you do?

I never thought Id see a Black man be the president in my lifetime, and I had to go home, and I had to say, What can you do to help your country and your community? How can you step up? Im a person with a disability. I cant use that as an excuse. Im old and Black. I cant use that as an excuse. I said, I can go back to school. I can learn to paint and draw and do all those things that I wanted to do. I can step up and help my community as a teacher.

When I started my journey to go back to school, I was like, I dont know how Im going to do this. I dont know if Im going to be talented enough or smart enough. Everybodys going to be smarter than me. Everyones going to be more talented than me. Theyre all going to be healthier than I am. But I was like, Hey, Im just gonna work hard.

two photos: one of Fred DeWitt's grandmother with a determined look on her face and a painting of her with a vase and a line of women walking

Left: DeWitts grandmother, Precious Warner, 98, after voting for Barack Obama for president in 2012. Right: The Pink Dragon, made with natural pigments on paper. (Photo and painting by Fred DeWitt)

But then, when Obama was in office, Trayvon Martin got killed. And my girlfriend at the time, she had a disabled son he has autism and we were terrified. He didnt know how to raise his hands if you said, Stop, dont do that! He really wouldnt know what was going on, right?

So, I really started painting things from my childhood and painting things that really resonated with my own life. I started talking about violence against the Black body. Blues artists, they sing it out, they play it out. I try to paint it out.

I have a painting of Trayvon Martin (The Witness) that I had in my first MFA show here that really means a lot to me. Hes camouflaged in the painting. Im talking about that violence, but I have to camouflage it in some kind of way with flowers and other things, other objects are in there. At the base of the painting I put some Skittles, because Trayvon Martin went to the store and got Skittles and iced tea. It represented kids eat that, this kind of youth. But it also represented the whole history of sugar production and slavery. Why cant young Black boys be boys? Why do they have to be treated as men, seen as men, when theyre children?

painting with a red background and flowers

The Witness, made with natural pigment, Sumi ink and glue on canvas over a wood panel. (Painting by Fred DeWitt)

When I got to Berkeley (in 2019), they said, Do everything but paint. They said, You know how to paint, now what are you going to do? So, I started off growing cotton plants, but now Ive shifted, and I grow some other kinds of plants some plants that mark the resistance of Black people. Weve been in this country for 400 years.

So, Im growing some corn and tomatoes and sweet potatoes and black-eyed peas and okra to mark that resistance in this kind of evolution.

And I made some sugar bowls that kind of talked about the whole sugar production and the slave trade. I made a fountain, a slave ship fountain. And I made a gigantic shoe: the George Floyd shoe (Brother Floyds Shoe). Thats a gigantic shoe that you dont want to wear. Nobody wants to be the martyr, nobody wants to put those shoes on of those people, right? So, I made a gigantic, heavy shoe that no one would want to wear.

When I was a kid, I believed there was going to be a revolution, even though I didnt know what a revolution was. But I thought things were going to change. But we see that things, theyve shifted. Im not sure theyve changed.

two photos: one of a man looking closely at a seedling and the other is of an altar outside

Left: Last summer, DeWitt started growing cotton plants. Now, hes begun to grow other kinds of plants: corn, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas, okra and tobacco. Right: Installation on the Artspace Platform. (Photos by Fred DeWitt)

[Audio clip: Black Lives Matter Protests Around the World by Great Big Story: Its alright to be angry (cheers) Turn it into indignation. Turn it into energy. (Chanting) Whats his name? George Floyd! What do we want? Justice!]

What we want is freedom. All we want is to not be brutalized. No one hates the police. Thats not it. We hate the brutalization. The oppression is what we hate. Thats what people are marching for. Recognize that we all are human beings. We all deserve respect and dignity.

What we want is freedom. All we want is to not be brutalized. No one hates the police. Thats not it. We hate the brutalization. The oppression is what we hate. Thats what people are marching for.

[Audio clip: Black Lives Matter Protests Around the World by Great Big Story: (Chanting) What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now! (Speaker) Lets stop hurting each other and lets get it right, man. Today is the day were going to stand up for our community, man. If we can do this, we can do more. We just gotta continue on pushing and not give up. ]

One of my most recent paintings is of Breonna Taylor (The Bedroom). Its kind of lovers in the bedroom and protest. These people never wanted to be there. They never wanted to be in my painting. Theyre there, but theyre not there. I try not to paint them, theyre not exactly figurative paintings. Theyre more abstract in nature. So, all these paintings, they mean a lot to me, in general, right? But also, they mean a lot to the world, I think.

Those faces you see up on all the billboards, those names you hear repeated, they are marking our time here. Theyre marking this spot. Now, what will come after this? I dont know, but I hope we can have some semblance of freedom in the future. That we dont have to keep over and over and over again talking about Trayvon Martin and George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. .

That maybe we can get to a place where that will be past history. The things Im painting will be history, right? They wont be this contemporary stuff thats happening right now. They wont be news.

painting by Fred DeWitt called "The Bedroom"

The Bedroom, made with oil on canvas. (Painting by Fred DeWitt)

The stuff Im working on now is really meaningful to me the stuff Im working on for the MFA show. Im trying to create these ceramic plates that are kind of memorials to the Black lives that have been lost.

I started doing my own research. I started doing genealogy research and I saw the way they used to mark African graves. They would just break a plate to mark that as a grave site. And the plates that are actually seed bombs, so when they break and they decompose, things will grow. From the destruction, life will come.

painting of people holding up a black body

Deposition, made with natural pigments, Sumi ink and glue on paper mounted on wood. (Painting by Fred DeWitt)

But, also, they will free some of these spirits up. The breaking of those plates will free Breonna to fly. Free George to move on. Let Trayvon Martin rest. And still, we have something growing.

These families that have been forced into these situations, they didnt want to be known in this way. They didnt want me making paintings about their death and about their life, right? And so, Im always torn because they have a profound effect on me and a profound effect on the world. We need to talk about these things.

Art is part of the culture, right? And so, those things have to be there to illuminate whats happening in society. And I think that art used as a tool to heal and promote social equality is important.

And it can be beautiful. You know, these stories can be beautiful.

They can make you feel good inside, too. They can question society, question these structures, but they can also be beautiful. And you can enjoy them. You can surround yourself with them, and you can be healed. I think art does have a role to play, and artists have a role to play. If we get artists looking inside at themselves and reaching out to other artists and reaching out to society, the world would be a better place.

Narration: This is Fiat Vox, a Berkeley News podcast. Im Anne Brice. You can subscribe to Fiat Vox, spelled F-I-A-T V-O-X, wherever you listen to your podcasts. For more episodes, visit our podcast page on Berkeley News at

Read more about DeWitt in a Q&A on the art practice website and find more photos of his artwork on his Instagram page.
See the Berkeley MFA show schedules for the classes of 2020 and 2021 on BAMPFAs website.

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