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Donora artist illustrates inmate’s poetry

The works of Donora resident Herb Edwards are displayed in galleries, as well as private collections throughout the United States and foreign countries. An art career that spans more than 50 years was influenced by the graphically sophisticated magazine covers that dominated the late 1940s and early ’50s.

Edwards has won numerous awards in juried art shows. He has been commissioned to paint portraits of prominent political, corporate and entertainment personalities.

At age 82, Edwards recently completed his first book illustration, “Grassroot Poems of a Prisoner,” a book of poetry written by Gregory Dean Moore.

Edwards was selected for the project because of his talent in portraying realism in his paintings with all his subjects flawlessly detailed.

For the last 10 years the author has compiled poems and essays written while behind bars.

“I read the poetry and chose the ones I wanted to illustrate,” said Edwards. “I haven’t met the young man and I don’t think I want to. I feel I would lose the image I have of him in my mind by meeting him. It’s like hearing a voice on television and not seeing the person. Finally, when you do see the face the voice doesn’t match the face.”

About 18 illustrations are found throughout the book.

“What I read tells me the poet runs the gauntlet of thought,” said Edwards. “I guess, when you’re confined like that, what else can you do but think?”

The book project is the result of a relationship with attorney Velma L. Jackson, of Sewickley, who represents Edwards in his art career. Moore contacted Jackson in 1992 to ask her to look over his case for a possible appeal.

“After we looked into the case we found we couldn’t help,” said Jackson. “Anyone who could support his story was deceased.”

Moore, 43, had been incarcerated since he was 17 years old. He was sentenced to serve 30 to 60 years.

“In writing back and forth with him we realized he had a special talent with words,” said Jackson. “He was extremely frustrated because no one could help him. He is extremely gifted and we encouraged him to write a poem a day to take his mind off of being a prisoner. He takes everything we ask very seriously. Lo and behold we have this volume of poetry.

“We were able to see him come from never having written poetry to this intense message,” she said. “I’ve always enjoyed poetry and I’m swept overboard by what Moore writes. His poetry is profound.”

A favorite of Jackson is the poem, “My True Love When This Has Passed,” which is dedicated to a special woman. The poet looks to the future when he leaves behind the prison walls. Two lines that captivated Edwards, “The blues being sung in a steamy cafe, And all my sorrows are miles away,” are the basis for the illustration.

“It’s a night club scene with a woman singing,” said Jackson. “The combination of the poem and illustration are peaceful and profound. While in prison he has a special person and he tells her that when he gets out she may not want him but she has made him more because of her love.”

Jackson described another poem from the book, “If I Could Live My Life Again.”

“In this poem he said he would sincerely think of the wages of crime and sin and about better alternatives if he could live his life again,” she said. “The poetry in this book has universal appeal. We are hoping this book will appeal to children to encourage them to do something different. Kids today have gotten to where we can’t touch them. Sex and drugs are overpowering. We want to reach them and hope through this book they will see the reality of life through the pain of a black man behind bars.”

Edwards began his career as a commercial artist after graduating from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in 1951.

“As a black man it was difficult to find a job so I did a lot of freelance work,” said Edwards.

The son of a Methodist minister, Edwards said he bounced all over Pennsylvania the first 16 years of his life. Growing up, he never realized he would become an artist but knew he could draw. In 1961, Edwards had his first one-man show featuring about 32 paintings.

“The show was the result of a public relations person seeing some of my commercial work,” said Edwards. “I was invited to do the show. Like an idiot I agreed, not knowing what I was getting into. I agreed to have at least 30 paintings ready in about 18 months.”

From that original group Edwards sold only three paintings. But he said he learned a lot from that experience. The next show was held in Toronto, featuring 18 paintings, with 15 sold.

“Quantity took away from quality in the first show,” said Edwards. “Also the fact that I didn’t know what I was doing when it came to putting on a fine art show. I think it was a case of wanting something too fast.”

Edwards said he gets ideas for canvas from conversations with others or he might take something from a picture that captures his interest.

“I’ll do a whole scene around that little segment from another picture,” Edwards said.

Edwards boasts of more than 500 paintings during his career from abstract to contemporary. He most enjoys his paintings that depict people and real life.

Until last year Edwards taught art to students at Agape School in Monessen and held classes at the Mon Valley YMCA since 1986.

“I can teach someone how to paint but the creativity has to come from within,” said Edwards. “Unless you can put that creativity onto a canvas then you really aren’t an artist.”

Edwards and his wife, the former Audrey Thompson, of Donora, are the parents of one son, one grandson and four great-grandchildren ranging in age from 1 to 15 years.


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