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Printmaker combines black history and Greek mythology in a tapestry of hope

Rein Whitt-Pritchette’s “Odysseus” carries an oar across his shoulders on his way home from war.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The prints thread black history and Greek mythology in a tapestry of hope.

Rein Whitt-Pritchette survived the Vietnam War as a radio operator and then moved to New Mexico.

“When I finally got out, I decided I didn’t want to be part of the corporate world,” he said. “I ski bummed in Aspen. I met (the author) Leon Uris, and he bought my first major work.”

Whitt-Pritchette grew up in Englewood, Colorado, and began attending the University of Colorado before being drafted.

He discovered serigraph printmaking as a student at the University of New Mexico. He fell in love with the process of creating multiple drawings using blocks and screens.

Today his work hangs in the permanent collection of the Albuquerque Museum.

He created a series based on “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad” after the realization that there was a personal connection he had missed. It turned into the series “The Folks on Coffee Hill.”

Rein Whitt-Pritchette looks to black history and Greek mythology for ideas.

“I had been in the Army and had no respect for anyone or anything,” he said. “I decided it was time for me to read the classics.”

He stumbled across a line that left him gobsmacked. In “The Iliad,” Poseidon feasts in the lands of the Ethiopians because they were God’s chosen people.

It made no sense.

He read deeper until he realized the sun god, Helios, sank the sun so low that it turned the skin of the Ethiopians black.

“I kept going ‘Wow,’ ” Whitt-Pritchette said.

“There was an historical basis for it; it wasn’t like I was trying to say anything.”

He’d always loved Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” He finally saw black people like him portrayed in the classics.

He began by giving the people in Coffee Hill Greek names.

His “Odysseus” carries an oar across his shoulders on his way home from war.

Poseidon had forced him to stay as he attempted to destroy Troy. The oar represented a winnowing stick to separate wheat from the chaff.

“Penelope” is Odysseus’ wife, who waited 20 years for his return. She is drained of color as she weaves his funeral shroud by day, then dismantles it at night.

Other works reflect more topical themes.

A print of a group of children standing before a building reflects both Prohibition and racism.

The kids are from a black temperance group. They’re standing in front of a saloon.

“They took the kids and made them sign pledges not to take a drink,” Whitt-Pritchette said. “Then they put them in front of bars to shame the fathers.”

“The strange thing about it was Carrie Nation was the most prejudiced and would not recognize the black temperance societies.

The shadow of lynching looms in the image of a tree branch reflection in a window.

Whitt-Pritchette fell in love with printmaking so much that it cost him his sight.

“I’m going blind,” he said. “When I was young and stupid, you don’t read the directions.

Rein Whitt-Pritchette says he fell in love with printmaking so much that it cost him his sight.

“I stared into ultraviolet light all night long, and that started the retinitis pigmentosa. Being an artist, you have to suffer,” he added with a chuckle.

He hasn’t given up. He wants to create an online gallery of his work with the help of a corporate sponsor. He’s also searching for someone to help with the screening for a piece called “The Quilting Bee” with 125 colors.

He can still make his way around his Albuquerque home. Friends take him on monthly grocery shopping trips.

“It’s frustrating, but other than that I’m OK,” he said. “The good thing is my work is in an art museum, so I succeeded.”

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