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Maybe the geometric forms in James Huff's paintings have started to come full circle outside the canvas.

Weird things are happening with - and as a result of - his art work.Huff's painting ``Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow' is the featured work for the 1997 African American Arts Festival. It appears on posters and brochures for the two-month celebration sponsored by the United Arts Council of Greensboro.

But for Huff, an Atlanta native and Winston-Salem resident, the painting's selection has an even deeper meaning. It was the only work he ever painted in Greensboro, done at UNCG almost 20 years ago when he was a master of fine arts student.

And now it comes back to the city of its creation as a symbol of African American pride, celebration and hope.

``Of all the pieces that I entered in this competition, the only one that I completed in Greensboro was the one that they chose for the festival,' Huff says from his Winston-Salem studio. ``Things like that are starting to happen now, those kind of 'oooo' incidents.'

There have been a few others.

``Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow' is one of the few paintings by an African American artistincluded in the permanent collection of the N.C. Museum of Art. The painting was selected in 1979 as the first-place winner in the museum's annual art competition; it won over about 2,500 other works.

``It was the very last piece entered in that competition on the very last day,' Huff says. ``You had to be there by 6 p.m., and I got there at 5:59 p.m. Then the last one ended up being the one that won.'

It was a heady accomplishment for Huff, who would go on to become only the fifth African American artist (there are now 12) with work in the museum's collection. But as Huff saw it, he had not fully arrived and would not until other black and minority artists were better represented.

``A lot of people felt that I was too militant,' Huff says, ``because if I saw something I felt was incorrect, I would make a statement about it.

``During the civil rights movement, no one protested any museums. But during the times when they (black people) couldn't sit at the Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, they also couldn't go in a museum to look at art either.'

It was a civil rights battle that was fought in the background of such other issues as integration and equal employment. Huff's style was not to picket on the front line or to stage a boycott. He made appointments to talk to curators and administrators. Man to man. Face to face. Artist to arts advocate.

He talked about the need for inclusion to officials at the N.C. Museum of Art - both before and after capturing the first-place award. He spoke to leaders of the North Carolina Symphony and the Division of Historic Sites, urging the inclusion of African American and Native American culture.

His name began to circulate on a grapevine that didn't always attest to the sweetness of his labors. Some didn't understand Huff's quiet protests.

``I would hear from someone who knew me and knew the person I had met with, and the word would pass that ``If he is doing OK, why should he worry about anybody else?' '

But that degree of concern for his fellow man, for his brother man, is what infuses Huff's art. He paints his love of black women and cites his wife and fellow artist Earnestine Huff as one of the most influential people in his professional and personal life.

He also paints images of strong black men, including the hopeful ``Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.' That painting haunted the African American Arts Festival committee, which individually and then collectively decided on Huff's painting because it reflected the sentiment of the black male movement.

``We kept coming back to this one,' Committee Chairman Gerald Williams says. ``Everybody was drawn to that particular one.'

The historic 1995 Million Man March spotlighted black men and renewed the push for responsibility and family commitment. Huff's painting seemed to embody just what committee members wanted.

``We hope the entire community of Greensboro goes through an examination of this print and will actually see and feel the same thoughts we felt with this painting,' Williams says. ``It makes a statement of encouragement to the black male to take more responsibility for himself and family.'

As for Huff, he'll go on painting positive images from his Winston-Salem studio. Up next is a $1.5 million commission from Shaw University's Talbert O. Shaw Living-Learning Center.

And in the pattern that has come to circle Huff's artistic life, there's a story with that project. The exact spot where 18 pieces by Huff, Earnestine Huff and son Quentin Huff will hang in the Living Center is on the same spot where Huff used to live at the former YMCA, a building that has since been torn down.

It was in those old living quarters that Huff also did his very first painting - a portrait of former Gov. Bob Scott - as a mature artist.

``As soon as I saw the new building, I knew,' Huff says. ``I said, 'This is really something. This is really freaky.'

``The old artists used to call it 'the fire,' when your work goes to another level.'



Age: 47

Family: Wife and business partner Earnestine; son Quentin; daughter Jasmine

Residence: Winston-Salem

Education: Bachelor of arts degree in art from Shaw University in Raleigh. Master of fine arts from UNCG

Career highlights: First-place winner of the N.C. Museum of Art's 1979 art competition. Designed the bronze plaque in downtown Greensboro commemorating the Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins by four N.C. A&T students. Work is included in the private collections of entertainer Bill Cosby, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson Sr. and former U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger.



What: African American Atelier's Sixth Annual Founding Members Exhibition, featuring James Huff

When: 3 p.m. today

Where: African American Atelier, Greensboro Cultural Center, 200 N. Davie St.

Admission: Free

Information: 333-6885


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