Elizabeth de Souza

Sleeping in the Fire: The Black Artist in America is a forthcoming book that uses the life of McCleary “Bunch” Washington, late father of author Elizabeth de Souza, to illumine stories about African-American visual artists of the past and present. The project as a whole has three parts—a creative nonfiction book, a traveling exhibition featuring select artists profiled in the book, and a short documentary film.

Born in 1937, Bunch Washington was an African-American visual artist and author. His 1973 release The Art of Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual was the first major book on a black artist. Published by the legendary Harry Abrams, the luxurious eight-pound volume was an instant classic that helped vault Bearden into the ranks of America’s greatest artists. Sadly, while Bunch’s book was becoming a collector’s prize, its authorship was persistently attributed to others. Without gallery representation for his own artwork, Bunch struggled to earn a living wage. Eventually, a mental health crisis a lifetime in the making forced him into the streets of NYC.

Titled after the journal Bunch kept during those harrowing years, Sleeping in the Fire explores the mystifying link between art, culture, and mental health. Many of the inquiries contained in its pages, revealed through a decade’s worth of interviews and experiences, are now both fueling and confounding our national dialogue about race and social justice. One voice has rarely been invited into this conversation—the black artist in America. Perhaps its time we ask—and listen.