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The varied art of Oliver Lake comes to the Metropolitan Gallery

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 14, 2012 - When Oliver Lake returns to St. Louis from his home in northern New Jersey, he’s usually here to play saxophone with one of his own groups or as a member of the famed World Saxophone Quartet.

But this Friday, Lake is coming back to the city where he grew up for the opening of an exhibit of his art at the Metropolitan Gallery as part of the Nu-Art Jazz and Visual Arts Series. A variety of Lake’s art — from mixed media paintings in small and larger formats as well as works that he labels “talkin’ sticks” — will be on display at the gallery through April 20. (The exhibit will also feature works by S. Scott Davis III.)

Lake, a native of Marianna, Ark., who moved to St. Louis with his family at the age of 2, is certainly best known for his prolific musical accomplishments over the past four-plus decades.

Lake began his musical career as a member of the ground-breaking St. Louis artistic collective, the Black Artists Group (BAG) in the late 1960s. After moving to New York in the early ‘70s, Lake became a founding member of the legendary World Saxophone Quartet in 1977 — a group with which he still regularly tours and records.

Lake also leads his own 17-piece big band and performs frequently with several of his own smaller groups: Trio 3, his organ Quartet, a quartet featuring steel drum and as part of a new band, Tar Baby.

Time for art

But art has been a part of Lake’s life since he was a teenager. And despite a focus on music as he developed his professional career, art has continued to capture his interest.

“I did some art in high school — mostly drawings with colored pencils,” recalls Lake during a recent phone conversation from his New Jersey home. “Once I got interested in playing music, art fell by the wayside. But it always remained something that interested me — until I had a conversation about a decade ago with Douglas Ewart.”

Ewart was an early member of Chicago’s influential musical collective, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in the 1960s. In addition to his musical accomplishments on saxophones, clarinets, flutes and a variety of other instruments with AACM, Ewart has earned acclaim for his work as a sculptor, costume designer and creator of masks and musical instruments that reflect his artistic vision.

“I have known Douglas for many years and always admired that he was able to combine music with creating art,” recalls Lake. “I remember talking to him about art, and I told him that I would love to do it again, but just didn’t think I had the time. He asked me if I had 15 minutes a day to spare. I told him that I’m sure I did. That’s when he told me, ‘Then you’ve got time to paint.’ It really turned me around, and that’s exactly what I did. I started painting for 15 minutes a day.”

Since then Lake has gone on to devote more time to his art. In 2005, he had his first gallery exhibit. And his focus on art has continued to grow — to the point that Lake has four art exhibits scheduled in 2012.

For Lake, music will always be a primary focus. But it’s clear that his commitment to art and to poetry complement and fuel his musical creativity — and in turn, his music pushes his other artistic work.

“Art is like a meditation to me,” he explains. “When I’m making art, I’m not thinking about anything else. I get the same feeling when I’m playing music, so there are some things that carry over between art and music for me. So in a way, my poetry feeds my music, which feeds my art and my music feeds back into my poetry.”

Always busy

For Lake, who turns 70 Sept. 14, it's clear that this anniversary has become a focal point for him to kick up his commitment to all aspects of his music, art and poetry in 2012.

“Musically, I’ll be going to Europe twice with World Saxophone Quartet this year,” says Lake. “Trio 3 will be playing at Birdland later this year in New York and doing a live recording with special guest Jason Moran on piano. My Big Band just recorded a CD, and it’s coming out this year as well. And I’ve also got a new CD coming out with the band Tar Baby, which includes Orrin Evans on piano, Eric Revis on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums. And that’s in addition to my art exhibits and getting the word out about my new book of poetry.”

This weekend will be a quick trip in and out of town for Lake. He comes in Thursday to hang his artwork, will attend the opening on Friday evening, and then has to return East Saturday. But those who attend the opening will have the chance to not only see Lake’s art – they’ll also get to hear him play some of his music and recite poetry as well.

“I’ll be talking about my art at the opening, of course,” says Lake. “But I’ll be doing a 15 to 20 minute musical performance on saxophone, too. And I’ll also be reading some poetry from my new book, 'If I Knew This.' So I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to come back to St. Louis — even if it’s a short visit.”

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.

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