The friendship between multidisciplinary artist Derrick Adams and Marcus Samuelsson first blossomed at the Rush Arts Gallery in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. It was the mid-1990s, and a blur of art exhibitions, music performances, and restaurant openings infused with the feel of casual social gatherings were unfolding within the Black community. Samuelsson, newly ensconced in the city, was eager to embrace the dynamic cultural scene and frequented Rush. Adams, who spent over a decade as manager and then curatorial director at the nonprofit organization, was struck by Samuelsson’s fervent support of the arts. “Marcus was one of the people consistent in being present,” Adams recalls.
Fast forward to 2010, when Samuelsson opened Red Rooster in Harlem not merely as a place to savor comfort food, but for locals to gather. Adams was among the artists whose work graced the restaurant—and later Ginny’s Supper Club downstairs—as well as Red Rooster Overtown in Miami. Most recently, Adams made fantastical Art Deco-style mermaids that are mounted on the walls of Hav & Mar, Samuelsson’s latest restaurant, also in Chelsea. “Marcus thinks about artists as collaborators. He’s interested in their imprints on spaces,” he points out.
With the mermaids, he “wanted to create something that was a little bit more whimsical, a little bit more provocative,” Adams adds, noting the large 8-foot-high wood cuts swathed in fabric collage “scales.” These mermaids were spawned from a variety of inspirations, including the water goddess rooted in African folklore and images exchanged over text with Samuelsson that delineated the connections between seafood, soul food, and Black America. Adams also deemed Samuelsson his muse for the project, discerning such subtle details as how the chef wears his scarf to “reference a textured quality of adornment and layer of pattern,” Adams says.
A native of Baltimore, Adams arrived in New York in 1993, earning his BFA at Pratt Institute and MFA at Columbia University. He spent much time dedicated to cultivating up-and-coming artists at Rush, simultaneously laying the groundwork for his own career spanning painting, collage, sculpture, performance, video, and sound installations that explore ideas “relating to the way that Black history and Black history-makers are so much a component of American popular culture,” he says.
Consider Floaters, his colorful series of paintings that depict Black Americans relaxing on inflatable pool toys, and Sanctuary, his museum installations that draw from The Negro Motorist Green Book, the guidebook that listed safe accommodations and restaurants for Black people road tripping during the Jim Crow era. Both examine the interplay of leisure and politics.
Adams continues to underscore a positive narrative about the Black experience, starkly different from those who observe it through the lens of suffering and oppression. “I’m looking at the people who are enjoying themselves or each other’s space whenever they can—on the stoop, on the train, at the supermarket, walking down the street. That is my motivation for the energy I bring into my work,” he says.
His latest endeavor, the Black Baltimore Digital Database, is yet another investigation of the culture. The archive, which garnered a $1.25 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to help fund infrastructural needs, will celebrate the long-forgotten pioneering achievements of Black Baltimoreans in art, entrepreneurship, literature, music, science, sports, and other areas. Eventually, the database will grow into a brick-and-mortar building, doubling as a research facility. “It will empower the way people think about the future,” explains Adams. “It’s almost an obligation to uncover hidden histories important to building cities that are somehow in a challenging situation right now.”
Community wellbeing has long been intertwined with his mission. Rush served as an alternative art space, and so much of Adams’ life there revolved around chefs, musicians, poets, and filmmakers, strengthening his passion for “helping other people gain opportunity for their creativity,” he says. This inclusive approach is ultimately what led him to launch the Last Resort Artist Retreat in Baltimore, a still-in-the-works residency for Black creatives slated to open next spring.
Many talented Black people reside in his hometown, yet Adams knows they are “disconnected from access,” he says. His main objective for the retreat, then, is wooing people to Baltimore and letting them see it as “a city of possibility,” one that can also provide experiences and financial stability to locals who wish to stay there for the long haul.
Rather than keep attendees holed up in their rooms churning out work for most of the day, Last Resort will be designed to break down barriers and foster social engagement, uniting people from disparate Baltimore neighborhoods. Conversations will flow here, part of Adams’ philosophy that creativity is a 24/7 process.
“You don’t have to make art to make art. A lot of people who are from working-class backgrounds feel the pressure of being useful, being productive, creating something physical to account for their time and space and their actual being, their presence,” he explains, but an imaginative mind is devoid of boundaries. “It’s more about how much you can think, how much you can envision, and how much you can fantasize.”
This article originally appeared in HD’s November 2022 issue.