New Art Discussions: Dion J. Pollard on Cigar Life

by Daniel Richardson

Dion J. Pollard's Cigar Life Series Melds
Class with Jazz Inspired Notes

Pollard looks to welcome the curious and unversed into a world of smoky Blackness
in his impressions of the cigar scene.

Cigars and Brandy, Dion J. Pollard (Courtest of the Artist and The Black Art Depot)

What's in the smoke? The bass line of a cello and smooth saxophone tones of Charles Mingus' Profile of Jackie?

It's the sax playing seductive notes that travel across the room, lingering as the orange embers of a cigar flare in and out.

The cigar conversations are slow and rhythmic, with hands slapping five affirming each inflection point and snaps that are perpetually on beat.

This sweet, heavy smoke carries with it the whispers of each party present, mixing itself with the music so that it becomes indistinguishable where one ends and one begins. To the uninitiated, this scene, this question of what's in the smoke, can be equally intimidating and enticing. Like Mingus' Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, the cigar club is inviting and cool -- never in a rush to get the next note.

Cigar Lounge, Dion J. Pollard (Courtest of the Artist and The Black Art Depot)

It's no wonder artist Dion J. Pollard engrossed himself and his work into the Black cigar culture with his Cigar Life Series.

"I think smoke and the way it moves and how it forms; it's a mystery [and that's what is intriguing]," Pollard says. "Okay, what's going to happen -- it's going to build over there, and it's going to form something solid like clouds. Jazz has that feeling. When I listened to it, I felt – this is the first time I'm really saying this – it has kind of that smoky feel to me, Jazz, that smoky feel. It just goes together, and it just flows together well."

Pollard's Cigars and Brandy encapsulates the Black cigar experience. Its vibrant variations of blues, greens, and purples enhance the landscape of the cigar scene. The shadowy figures in the background are amplified by the smooth and embellished Black figure in the foreground.

The shadowy sax player elevated on the stage is placed in such a way one could imagine him being a reflection of the way the Black figure holds his cigar and glass of red wine.

Cigar and saxophone in tandem releasing melodies that combine to birth Black cigar culture.

Using shadows is Pollard's way of materializing the shroud of mystery hanging over a cigar lounge. This "mystery" isn't to connote danger or nefariousness, but again, seduction and curiosity.

Shadows not only entice the eye to explore more, but they also toy with imagination.

Dion J. Pollard (Courtest of the Artist)

"[What interests me] was just the mystery behind it all, Pollard said. "Me wanting to understand the whole culture because you had this cultured people. People would be amazed at the amount of people that are into this cigar culture. It's a culture thing."

The enjoyment of cigars is not limited to Black people, but Pollard understands that, like anything imbued with Blackness, a history of a community comes with it.

"We're colorful people, you know what I mean," said Pollard as he discussed the Black imprint on cigars. "We can make anything beautifully festive and wonderful. Just our culture – when we connect to something as Black folks – our connection to something, we elevate those things. It's beautiful. So [by] just us adding our colorfulness, our history, to me, there's a difference."

The attraction of Cigar culture to Jazz or any other syncopation of Black music is the cigar itself as the "real standout character" of Pollard's Cigar Life series.

Almost like an instrument, once in the hands of and controlled by Black people, it begins to tell a different story – to become uniquely tied to the holder.

"It is well known that the performance technique a Black jazz musician uses is not the same as that of his white symphonic counterpart," wrote scholar and preeminent Black composer Olly Wilson in 1974.

"[T]he distinct manner of playing an instrument as if it were an extension of the voice has been a unique Afro-American feature throughout the history of Black-American music."

Olly Wilson, Jazz Composer (Courtest of Oberlin College Archives)

With jazz, each lyrical note is a tribute to the history of Black people. It is a connection point to another member of the Black experience – a way to relay the stories of our past and present conditions.

The cigar's relationship to this experience is clear and apparent as the smoke moves differently and carries with it a different tune.

The cigar club allows everyone to take their time and make themselves comfortable. Before long, a new member is a veteran of the smoke and can harness this smoke to paint the picture for the next brother or sister who's drawn in.

Being drawn into and immersing himself in the culture is how Pollard accurately captured the essence of his subject. A woman he was introduced to as True Black invited him to her group of women cigar enthusiasts; from there, he was a part of the smoke. In 2016, through a connection made by True Black, he was able to host his first art installation at the Tinder Box cigar lounge in Waldorf, Maryland.

This show allowed Pollard to be embraced and enveloped by cigar life.

Smokin' Hot, Dion Pollard (Courtest of the Artist and The Black Art Depot)

How Pollard's painting of Smokin' Hot is styled is reminiscent of the women who make their presence known in the cigar clubs. The meticulous dress of the woman as she stands out in front of a city skyline. The dark shades of reds, purples, and blues accent the white fur coat that adorns her shoulders and arms.

Pollard says the way the woman holds the cigar is distinct from the men – much more conscious of the cigar and herself. The smoke has a way of avoiding contact with her; instead, it creates a shroud over her, almost crown-like.

The regality and confidence of the Black women who gathered in cigar spaces is what drew Pollard in the first place.

The club that seemingly eschews the idea of exclusivity does, however, expect the member to be fluent in cigar.

"But [my son] connected to it," Pollard said. "He said, 'Dad, I really started listening to [Jazz], and I get it now. I get the feeling of it.'

Dion Pollard and Son, Mikel Pollard (Courtest of the Artist)

I was amazed, and this was when he was a youngin'; 24. It's about the conversation. It's not [about] age, but you know in a culture, all are welcome. If you're smoking a cigar, you speakin' my language. You don't have to say anything; let the smoke do the talking."

The words and cadences of the cigar lounge are easy to learn and hard to forget -- just listen to the Jazz.



Daniel Richardson is from Southwest, GA which makes him Southern, but not country. He has lived in Atlanta for nearly a decade where he attended and graduated from Atlanta Metropolitan State College and Georgia State University where he completed an undergraduate degree in Journalism.

To Daniel, art gives him the ability to study the stories of the Black experience and explore it more fully.

Contact Daniel Richardson on: Twitter


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