Columnists :: South End Character
Peace by Alison Barnet
MySouthEnd.com ContributorTuesday Aug 14, 2012 Many people knew him as Peace, some as his alter ego Jimi Hendrix. He was the Sixties type who stood on Tremont Street at the corner of West Dedham greeting people over and over with "Peace." Kirkland Oliver died last week of prostate cancer at the age of 66, and I, for one, am going to miss his good humor, his wacky fixation on masonic symbols and numerology, and his interest in my writing.
In the late Sixties, in Hempstead, Long Island, New York, Kirkland and his then wife ran a dashiki workshop in their basement and were written up in the New York Times. Kirkland was quoted as saying, "We’ve had the Nehru, now it’s time for the daishiki" (sic). Dashikis were new and different, and their company was part of a larger idea of empowering black people. Anticipating Kirkland’s future style, the article continued: "Mr. Oliver has also designed several hats to go with the daishiki and is putting together beaded necklaces of bamboo and dried acorns to be worn in place of ties." At the time, says his friend John Hampton, Kirkland was a Black Panther and "way up in there." Kirkland carried around grainy copies of the article for years.
He claimed to have met Jimi Hendrix five times in Greenwich Village. "The first time I met Jimi, I had on a red, black, green dashiki," he told me. "He pulled on me and said where did I get the shirt."
Kirkland moved to Boston in 1976. He first lived in the Fenway, then on Worcester Street near Shawmut and at Torre Unidad on West Dedham Street for at least the last twenty years, a distinctive figure in a cape covered with peace symbols, images of Jimi Hendrix and Frida Kahlo, and an American flag on his back.
He was a collage artist, doing hundreds of them, mostly 11 by 17. "I make collages to tell the story of my life, like people write novels. My base is newspapers. I just spread the paper on the floor and glue it together...I do it out of love. It taught me who I am inside. Making the collages gives me peace." Predictably, the collages include many references to and pictures of Hendrix and Kahlo, along with meaningful bits and pieces of phrases: "Old but good," "power of words," and "the world’s a stage." Kirkland was often featured too.
In a description of himself as a "self-taught artist" in preparation for a show that may never have happened, he wrote: "Kirkland Oliver, who in an earlier life cavorted with Jimi Hendrix, produces collages capturing the excitement of that earlier era and many of the profound questions raised during the American cultural revolution of the 1960s."
He must have spent a fortune copying collages for his friends. My favorite story is when I working at the Doubleday bookstore in the Pru several years ago. I was at the cash register with a long line of customers in front of me when I heard something at the doors. There was Kirkland in full regalia, tall pointed black hat, American flag, and a huge envelope reeking of patchouli, the hippy fragrance. My customers’ eyes bugged out as he advanced, passing the envelope to me over their heads. Inside, I knew, were dozens of collages. "Peace, Alison," he said. "Peace, Kirkland," I answered.
Oh, I know he was crazy or, let’s say, spaced out, but I enjoyed him. He was a good, kind, observant person, and never, to my knowledge, mean. He always made me laugh. "You live East Springfield I live W. Dedham St.," he once wrote to me. "I can’t figure how come...yours is east and mine is west. I feel somebody is lying."
John Hampton met "my buddy Kirkland" (but not Hendrix) in Greenwich Village in 1969-70, running into him again years later at Project Place, where John was the chef. Kirkland was there every day, years before John worked there, "an integral part of Project Place." The two would talk about jazz for hours. "He was someone who listened to music who wasn’t a musician but could distinguish all the instruments," says John.
Another friend, Nancy MacKinnon, knew Kirkland as a man of routines. He went to Wally’s every Monday night, to the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge every other Friday, and to Morse’s for a fish dinner once a week.
When he came to South End Branch Library parties, largely because of his friendship with Hampton and his wife Carol, he always requested that the Pat Loomis band play John Coltrane’s "My Favorite Things." Although Kirkland wasn’t there the last time, Nancy says they played it anyhow.
Alison Barnet is the author of Extravaganza King: Robert Barnet and Boston Musical Theater. She has lived in the South End since 1964 and has been writing about it for almost as long.