The Hotelmen, an exhibition of new work by Jacksonville-based artist Erin Kendrick, delves into the story of the Cuban Giants, the first professionally salaried Black baseball team, who played in St. Augustine from 1885-1886. Kendrick’s work is immersed in a world in which the Cuban Giants were the first generation of Black people freed by law. In an era following the Civil War and preceding the tumultuous Civil Rights era of the 20th century, baseball itself was largely segregated. By gathering, studying, and attuning herself into a bygone way of life, Kendrick’s artwork is both empathetic, contemplative, and purposeful. Hotelmen is both an homage to Frank Thompson, head waiter at the Hotel Ponce de Leon and organizer of the Cuban Giants, and to the historical reality that most African American athletes worked in hotels to support themselves during baseball’s off seasons.1
Wooden pennant flag paintings, screen prints inspired by vintage posters, Flagler-era tableware, and reproductions of historic photographs alike foster this step into the past. Kendrick’s painted surfaces teem and ripple with expressive colors, blooming forth portraits of the original Cuban Giants players. In her cakewalk paintings, she explores how different veins of identity overlap, grapple, and converge. Particularly, she expresses the strange imbalance of performance and sincerity. Both baseball players and cakewalk dancers (an African American dance for the amusement of Southern elite), played to entertain affluent white audiences, such as the patrons of the Hotel Ponce de Leon during the 1890s. For the Cuban Giants, entertaining and performing was a part of their lives on and off the field, both in baseball, as hotel staff, and in performing cake walks and other minstrelsy acts. In Kendrick’s paintings, sharp color contrasts expose the players in visible and vivid hues—at once cool in tone, and then radiant, molten, and sunny. Although she suggests both the harshness and significance of being seen, Kendrick’s colors ultimately find harmony, flowing through her to the surface, layer upon layer, in a process that is spontaneous and unexpected.
As a child, Kendrick had an early interest with color and in ripping paper to build new shapes. Breaking apart and putting together again— the act of assembling– is a meaningful approach Kendrick takes for The Hotelmen. The Cuban Giants, living in a world thick with racial segregation, helped evolve Black baseball, through the Negro leagues, into one of the most successful business ventures of the 20th century. Despite black communities finding increased economic vitality through outlets like baseball, obstacles to their economic and social freedom persisted, many of which are still evident today. Kendrick carefully assembles this history as it was, while also processing it in her own way, through the lens of 21st century America.
By creating colorful tributes to the Cuban Giants and pairing them with an array of archival media, including excerpts from the 1875 Civil Rights Act, Kendrick recognizes the role Black baseball played in survival, community, and freedom.
Text by Alexa Brantley (Art History, ‘23) CEAM Art History Intern
1 Coker, Gylbert. “The Hotelmen,” exhibition catalog essay, 2022.