ATLANTIC CITY — The paintings are large, powerful, and tragic, treating themes of Philadelphia police violence against its Black residents with broad brushstrokes of color and classically inspired draping, complex compositions that reward close viewing with gut-punching discovery.

There’s a Black Frank Rizzo with his signature pearl-handled revolver, a depiction of a late-1970s rally against a proposed Philadelphia charter change, a MOVE member emerging from the Powelton Avenue house with arms outstretched, the 1978 police killing of a handcuffed Winston Hood.

It is a devastating trip back to a Philadelphia history that still reverberates, and, for decades, artist Melvin C. Irons Sr., 79, kept these paintings in his basement. A few attempts to show the art in Philadelphia in the ‘70s did not go well.

He stopped painting altogether.

This month, the paintings are back on display in a new context: alongside the traveling “Stitch Their Names” quilt project honoring victims of police violence, racism, and hate, on exhibit through February at Atlantic City’s African American Heritage Museum of Southern Jersey, curated by museum founder Ralph Hunter Sr.

“When an artist is a true artist, he’s telling a story,” Hunter said of Irons, who went on to a career as a social worker in South Jersey. “His story was not received. And he retreated from the story.”

The two quilts in the traveling exhibit, which marry the homespun warmth of the folk arts of cross-stitch and quilting and the stark legacy of lives brutally lost, include a smiling portrait of Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells in a pink top and jeans, a Black trans woman whose murdered body was found in the Schuylkill near Bartram’s Garden in June 2020. The portrait was stitched by Eleanor Trollinger of North Carolina.

‘People avoided them like the plague’

A few days before the Jan. 14 opening reception at the Atlantic City museum, Irons reflected on these paintings that have spent most of their lives in his basement, on a dirt floor.

“Those paintings are fairly modern and new and relevant, because nothing has changed since then,” Irons said in an interview from his home in Magnolia, N.J. He did not wish to be photographed, he said. The paintings are not for sale, but he has signed a series of prints that are.

The work was brought out in 2007 for an exhibit at the Newtonville, N.J., location of the African American Museum of Southern New Jersey, after Hunter met Irons through Irons’ wife, a musician, and was intrigued by his story and moved by his art.

“She told me about her husband who would never show his work again,” said Hunter. “I went to Magnolia,” Hunter said. “We talked for two or three days. Eventually, he said: You can come with a truck. It was an incredible opportunity. As a Black historian, I can tell my story far greater than anyone else. Melvin Irons was unable to find a venue to showcase his art. We look for artists who don’t have the opportunity to showcase their art.”

Hunter, 84, has devoted 20 years to Black history and art, and a collection that has now grown to 13,000 pieces. Another exhibit next month will be set up inside Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and feature the original doors of Club Harlem.

Hunter’s prior career was in retail, as the owner of the much-beloved head/gift shops A Shop Called East and Ginza in the Cherry Hill Mall and elsewhere. His collection of art and artifacts has more than outgrown the current space inside the Stockton University’s Arts Garage, and despite attention from Whoopi Goldberg and others, the museum still is in search of a larger, more permanent home.

Irons expressed little regret about giving up painting, even after studying art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Cheyney University, and said it was a practical and economic decision. He went on to a career as a social worker and youth counselor, working with YouthBuild and other groups. He married and had two children.

“The paintings I was making were not necessarily saleable,” he said. “They were showable but not saleable. They were big, they were MOVE-oriented, and people wanted to stay away from it.”

He said he made one attempt to show the work in Germantown in the late 1970s, in a park across from a Y near Greene Street and Germantown Avenue. “I took them up there, and people avoided them like the plague,” he said. “There was so much tension and conflict in the air. So people walk by and they look and they keep on going.”

Hunter said Irons told him of another attempted showing, in a parking lot outside the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, a display he said that was thwarted by Philadelphia police officers. Irons says his work and its reception can also be seen in the context of the long history of powerful protest art, including famous works like Picasso’s antiwar Guernica, which become controversial.

After the Germantown showing, Irons said, some of the MOVE members came to see him. “I came home one day from school, I had a whole living room full of MOVE members,” Irons said. “They were there to see what other pictures I had, maybe ask me what I was going to do with them. I don’t think they wanted me to make a huge profit from them. I just wanted the story to be told.”

He put the paintings in his basement and turned to other career pursuits. “I didn’t make any paintings,” he said. “I was busy trying to make a living. I wasn’t as committed as some of my fellow students who managed to hang in there and starve, become big in the art world in Philadelphia. I couldn’t see that. I couldn’t be upstairs painting or wherever, and have nothing to eat in the house.”

Irons recalled another showing in Millville, N.J., around the same time as the Newtonville exhibit, in a building that was used by police to meet and had a shooting gallery in the basement. He says his painting, The Assassination of Winston Hood, with a Black Frank Rizzo appearing to try to stop the other officers, all of whom Hunter points out have the features of Frank Rizzo, with his signature pearl-handled revolver and nightstick, was not allowed to be displayed.

The painting shows Hood, slain in July 1978, handcuffed, which police officials later denied despite the statements of multiple witnesses that Hood was shot as he lay on the ground in handcuffs. The officer was cleared in the shooting.

‘Just people to me’

Irons says the themes of his paintings from the 1970s are still current. They reexamine the treatment of MOVE members in the 1970s, which culminated in two major incidents: the killing of Police Officer James Ramp in a standoff outside their Powelton Village home in 1978, and the 1985 police bombing of the MOVE home on Osage Avenue that led to the deaths of six adults and five children. Fire officials allowed the building to burn, destroying an entire block of homes.

The group combined back-to-nature and revolutionary Black liberation philosophies under the teachings of John Africa, and Irons believes their story and beliefs retain their potency today, as the country grapples with climate change and violent clashes involving police and Black people.

“The police are still shooting and killing off Black people just like they did way back then,” Irons said. “I really hope it goes out of style. But given the context of it all, all that violence, maybe we’ll see it again next year.”

In one painting, Original MOVE People with John Africa, members are placed behind a police barricade and include mothers with children, and white members as well as Black. “They were just people to me,” Irons said. “I put them behind a police barricade because the difference of their position from the position of the law enforcement.”

One painting, of a man Irons identifies as Abdul Jon, a MOVE supporter, depicts a protest against what sounds now like a prosaic cause but was controversial: an attempt by then-Mayor Frank Rizzo to change the Philadelphia city charter to allow him a third term. But the powerful depiction resonates with current efforts across the country to change seemingly banal laws to expand or restrict political power and voting rights.

Irons is most proud of this painting, with its classically inspired draping of the protester’s jeans and T-shirt over the protester’s sculpted form, the stark backdrop of the painting with its all white top half, and bottom filled with protesters.

Said Hunter, “He’s become a philosopher now. He’d rather talk than paint.”

The “Stitch Their Names” memorial project and Melvin Irons’ paintings will be exhibited through Feb. 28 at the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey, inside the Arts Garage, 2200 Fairmount Ave., Atlantic City. Museum hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is free, but donations are encouraged.