This article was originally published in the February 2018 Princeton Echo.
Southern-born artist Ben Colbert grew up during the height of the Civil Rights movement. Sit-ins and protests were a normal part of life in Savannah, Georgia. Colbert realized at an early age that activism and art were mutually important to him. Activism gave him purpose in giving back and art gave him peace of mind.
“My artwork allows me to be creative and I can do it at my own pace,” he says. “Any artist will tell you they look for approval and recognition, but I don’t intend to get wealthy on this venture. It’s very personally satisfying for me and has a calming effect.”
This comforting effect is important when Colbert thinks back to his roots. Astute and genuine, he uses serene watercolor paintings that focus on elements in the environment to create images that take the viewer to a particular time or place. Variable bands of color are used to represent land forms, horizon lines, waterways, and other familiar features of the landscape.
Colbert, a former Princeton resident who now lives in Lawrence, is currently involved in a public art project called “Cows in Our Town,” which was created to promote awareness of local artists and McCarter Theater’s ongoing production of “Stones in His Pockets.” The project’s name is a reference to a prominent creature featured in the Irish comedy by Marie Jones.
Area artists were invited to use their artistic styles to paint the cow-shaped cut-outs. The finished cows have been installed in businesses and public spaces with a description and additional information. The installations will remain in place until the play finishes its run on Sunday, February 11.
Colbert shows his talent and restraint when painting by allowing for there to be white space on the canvas. He uses these unpainted areas to draw your attention to the vivid painted areas of his expansive peaceful images, which is how he painted the piece he was given.
“The design on the cow is based essentially on my artistic style, which is an interpretation of how you would see a landscape in a photograph,” Colbert says.
He explains he can’t say where his cow artwork is located because the idea is for people to find the artworks within the community. (McCarter Theater is giving out prizes to Instagram users who post photos of found cows with the hashtag #CowsInOurTown.) When the project is over, the cows will be sold by the Arts Council of Princeton. Half of the money raised will go to the artist and the rest will be donated to the Urban Mental Health Alliance, a Trenton-based non-profit organization that advocates for the mental health and wellness of urban families and communities.
Colbert (he pronounces his name Col-bert, unlike the talk show host) recalls a childhood during a time when water fountains and door entrances were separated by race and African Americans could not sit down at restaurants. Colbert’s stepfather was a porter and his mother stayed home with his nine other siblings.
“I don’t go around telling poor stories — I don’t have to tell people what it’s like to live in a house where there are nine other children,” Colbert said. “It’s what happened in that experience that resulted in me and all of my siblings having access to higher education.”
All of his siblings went to college — education was an important pillar in his family. Community and his church were equally as critical, which led Colbert to see the injustices in the world at the time. He saw that his community wasn’t treated equally in the eyes of the law. Frustrated with this when he was a teenager, he went with a group of peaceful protesters who sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter.
When they sat, the store turned off the lights and the white patrons immediately stormed out, with one woman pouring a cold substance into Colbert’s lap as she angrily hurled unkind words at him and left. He was taught in these situations to drop to the ground and cover, since you never knew what kind of retaliation could take place. He was relieved when he found out it was icy soda that was dumped on his legs and not something else.
“It was a way for her to protest my presence,” he says. “She didn’t really hurt me, but I thought I was burned and ruined for life. We were taught how to handle situations like that by falling to the floor and protecting your body.”
He would later also participate in wade-ins, which were done at beaches that were off limits to African Americans, and a court walk-in with 300 other classmates from his high school who wanted to register to vote.
This enduring drive for more led Colbert to receive a degree from Savannah State College (now Savannah State University), and later he earned a master of fine arts in drawing and painting from the University of Georgia. For nearly three decades after college, he worked as a program administrator for Educational Testing Service (ETS).
Colbert’s work relocated him to Atlanta and then to the Princeton area in 1974. Having a wife and three sons, he decided to put art on the backburner while his primary focus was to provide for his family. After his children left the nest and retirement was in sight, he began getting back to his roots of art and activism in 2000.
“Everyone should have a point of your life when you really can be personally satisfied with what you’re doing,” he said. “I didn’t belabor my job, but this time is very personally satisfying and I think it’s what’s keeping me healthy.”
As an artist Colbert has been awarded top honors by the Savannah Art Association, the National Conference of Artists, and the Calloway Art Festival IIX. He has also had more than 20 exhibitions across the county, including at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the University of South Florida, the Savannah Arts Festival, and the Montgomery Center for the Arts in Skillman, among others.
He is also currently on boards of the Arts Council of Princeton and the Princeton Community Housing Group and serves as chair of the Paul Robeson House Committee and as an elder at the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church.
Colbert said this last decade and a half are an important time for him to feel like he is giving something back to the community, which is why the restoration of the Paul Robeson House is so imperative to him. The house at 110 Witherspoon Street is the birthplace of Paul Robeson, the singer, actor, and activist who was born in 1898 while his father was minister of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church.
Colbert wants the house to be a historical landmark that serves as a memorial to Robeson, who was a scholar athlete, accomplished performer, and had an unwavering commitment to equality on behalf of the poor and underserved — much like Colbert, who lived in Robeson’s old neighborhood when he first moved to the area.
“We really do want to save it is as a symbol to Princeton,” he said. “It would be the first historical building that’s been initiated by the African American community.”
“We’re now in the process of renovating, and its current infrastructure does not meet current building codes, so it has to be upgraded and there’s foundation work that needs to be done,” Colbert said. “It’s sort of like clearing the swamp and discovering all the alligators.”
The Paul Robeson House is in the process of creating a fundraising campaign, which will likely start in the spring. The goal, Colbert said, is to raise roughly $1 million that will go to the physical renovation and the rest to the activities that the structure will facilitate. The hope is the foundation will be a historical center, a gallery and a place for public meetings, as well as play a continued role in helping to provide affordable short-term housing to those in need.
When Colbert reflects on his life of 75 years and the projects he is involved in, he hopes he has made a lasting positive impact.
“If my life has made any difference it’s because that’s exactly what I would expect of someone who has had the experiences I have — to give something back,” Colbert said. “The Robeson project and what good it could do for this community and what good it could do for Princeton is important to me.”
For information on the foundation visit thepaulrobesonhouseofprinceton.org.