Artists Sam Gilliam and David C. Driskell. | © 2017 Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington

 

THE FIRST TIME Lilian Thomas Burwell met Sam Gilliam, he told her if she wanted to be taken seriously as an artist she should get her own studio space. “He didn’t know me from Adam,” said Burwell, recounting the story at the National Gallery of Art last month. “I don’t know if he remembers that,” she said, glancing past artists Sylvia Snowden, Floyd Coleman and David Driskell at Gilliam, as she recounted the anecdote. Gilliam looked over furrowed his brow, reluctantly smiled and shook his head, amused.

Gilliam and Burwell met at a gallery opening in Washington in the late 1960s. Burwell had worked as a publications and exhibits specialist at the Department of Commerce and was in the early years of her career as a master teacher of art in the District of Columbia public schools. She taught from 1967-1980, the last five years at Duke Ellington School of the Arts. She said she became an educator in order to have a foundation to support her practice. Six years older than Gilliam, she heeded his advice, building a studio onto her home.

The initial encounter with Gilliam, who at the time was distancing himself from figuration and embracing abstraction and the endless possibilities of color, was the first of many. Having known each other for decades, the two Washington artists are ensconced in a community of African American artists with personal and professional connections to each other and ties to Howard University, Barnett Aden Gallery, Catholic University of America, University of Maryland, College Park, and Driskell, the artist, scholar, and curator, himself an institution.

Burwell made the remarks at a March 17 discussion convened by the National Gallery of Art’s Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA). The artist panel was the highlight of a two-day symposium titled “The African American Art World in Twentieth Century Washington, DC.” Gilliam and Burwell were among the eight artists who participated in the conversation, which also included Driskell, Snowden, Coleman, Keith A. Morrison, Martin Puryear, and Lou Stovall.

READ MORE about the two-day symposium at the National Gallery of Art

Curator Ruth Fine moderated the panel. Now retired, Fine had a long career at the National Gallery where she organized “The Art of Romare Bearden” in 2003, the museum’s first major retrospective of an African American artist. More recently, she curated “Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis” the first major museum retrospective of Norman Lewis (1909-1979), which opened at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 2015.

 


From left, Artists David C. Driskell, Floyd Coleman, Sylvia Snowden, Lilian Thomas Burwell, and moderator Ruth Fine at the Wyeth Foundation for American Art Symposium, “The African American Art World in Twentieth-Century Washington, DC” presented by CASVA at the National Gallery of Art. | © 2017 Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington

 

AMERICA IS FAMILIAR with the creative insights and cultural resonance that emerged from African American artists during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920-30s. Chicago had a parallel scene in the early 20th century. In the late 1960s, AfriCOBRA, a collective of African American artists, was formed in Chicago. More recently, curator and scholar Kellie Jones has brought attention to African American artists active in Los Angeles from the 1960s-80s. The CASVA symposium presented a cohort of African American artists rooted in Washington.

The historic gathering was a rare opportunity to hear from a group of influential artists who have had critically acclaimed careers, helped build and sustain institutions, and educate generations of artists, art historians, and curators. Most of the artists are transplants, coming to Washington as early as the late 1940s.

The panelists, aged 74-89 were all educated and began their careers in the mid-20th century, and the discussion shed light on how the founding of Howard University’s art department in 1921 influenced generations of African American artists in Washington and beyond, played a pivotal role in the broader culture of the nation’s capital, and how the institution for decades was the center of the African American art world.

The discussion shed light on how the founding of Howard University’s art department in 1921 influenced generations of African American artists in Washington and beyond, played a pivotal role in the broader culture of the nation’s capital, and how the institution for decades was the center of the African American art world.

At the beginning of the conversation, each of the artists spoke briefly about their art and practice, influences, and early experiences in Washington. Some included images in their discussions. There were many humorous moments throughout, with the audience erupting regularly in laughter. Along the way, Fine posed a couple of questions to the group and toward the end, inquiries from the audience helped prompt further exchanges and recollections among the artists.

LEARN MORE about artist Lilian Thomas Burwell

Burwell, 89, was the first to share her story. A native of New York, she attended Dunbar High School and earned an MFA from Catholic University. In addition to mentioning Gilliam, she noted her longtime friendships with Felrath Hines, who she referred to as her “spirit brother,” and Alma Thomas. Burwell said Thomas and her sisters grew up with her mother. Thomas lived within blocks of their family and advised Burwell not to be too social.

The artist said she received the same wisdom from James V. Herring and Alonzo Aden, the founders of Barnett Aden Gallery, which operated between 1943-1969 and is considered one of the first black-owned galleries in the nation. Herring and Aden told Burwell to concentrate on her work. Driskell wrote an essay for her book “From painting to sculpture: The journey of Lilian Thomas Burwell” (1977). Over the years, she was also close with Snowden, a neighbor early in their careers.

 


SYLVIA SNOWDEN (b. 1942), “Mamie Harrington,” 1985 (acrylic on Masonite), on view at National Gallery of Art, March 17, 2017. | Corcoran Collection (Evans-Tibbs Collection), Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

HUMOROUS INSIGHTS FROM SYLVIA SNOWDEN

WHEN SYLVIA SNOWDEN SPOKE, she had the audience in stitches. She opened by saying “I am Sylvia Snowden and I paint pictures.” Born in Raleigh, N.C., she earned undergraduate and MFA degrees from Howard, where she studied with Driskell, and later pursued her own career as an instructor teaching at Howard, Cornell University, University of the District of Columbia, and Yale University. Snowden discussed five people who had influenced her: Lila Asher, Driskell, Lois Mailou Jones, James A. Porter and James Lesesne Wells.

At Howard, she took a drawing class with Asher six hours a week. “I am a figure painter and I learned a lot about drawing the figure from Lila Asher. Many people who do the figure and are very well known, need to take Lila Asher’s course,” Snowden said and the audience roared. She added, in all seriousness: “What Lila Asher can do with a simple line, it’s beautiful.”

“I am a figure painter and I learned a lot about drawing the figure from Lila Asher. Many people who do the figure and are very well known, need to take Lila Asher’s course. What Lila Asher can do with a simple line, it’s beautiful.” — Sylvia Snowden

Snowden said she had done some research to prepare for her appearance on the panel. “I went to the library and I looked up everything I could and David Driskell is everywhere. I mean everywhere,” she said to knowing laughter from the audience. “He has been involved with art on all levels since the 40s, all levels. He realized like all black people do, that we don’t have a space to show our work. Instead of complaining about it, he built a center, the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland that shows work of African American artists and African art. That’s quite a tribute to a man who writes books, who lectures, who is known around the world. I have a great deal of pride because I studied with Mr. Driskell.”

LEARN MORE about artist Sylvia Snowden

She mentioned Driskell’s color dexterity and what he taught her about how to use complementary colors, and how to mix colors. “He is an expert at color, understands color. He taught me things about color that I still remember,” Snowden said. “The formula for flesh is to use white, cobalt violet and …orange. ‘You know what they call flesh? Not me,'” she said, pointing to her own brown skin. The audience loved it.

She said Driskell has been very supportive. Lois Mailou Jones helped Snowden get her first job at Delaware State College, a historically black college now known as Delaware State University, where she also had her first show. Driskell came to the exhibition. “You don’t remember?” she asked, looking over at him. He nodded. “You do?!,” she said, pleased. Decades later, Driskell also showed up at her latest show at American University’s museum, “Sylvia Snowden: The Feel of Paint” (Nov. 12-Dec. 18, 2016). That’s support,” Snowden said. (She said Asher came to the AU exhibition, too.)

Her work was on view at the National Gallery, too. A painting by Snowden was displayed in the lobby area just outside the auditorium. On the occasion of the symposium, the museum was exhibiting works from the Evans-Tibbs Collection of African American art it acquired in 2015 from the Corcoran Gallery of Art when it was shuttered. The works on view included four paintings and selection of research materials, among them “Into Bondage” (1936) by Aaron Douglas, “Autumn Drama” (circa 1969) by Alma Thomas, and “Mamie Harrington” (1985), an acrylic on Masonite painting by Snowden.

By now, Snowden had been speaking for some time and Fine subtly indicated as much. “You want me to be quiet now?” the artist asked. “But I have so much more to say.” Laughter ensued.

 


FELRATH HINES (1913-1993), “Yellow and Gray,” 1976 (oil on linen). | Smithsonian American Art Museum
Gift of the Barbara Fiedler Gallery, 1978.128

 

FLOYD COLEMAN ON FELRATH HINES

“IT IS AN HONOR for me to be here with these distinguished artists, fantastic individuals that I have known for a long time,” said Floyd Coleman, a professor emeritus at Howard. Coleman was born in Sawyerville, Ala., and earned his Ph.D. from the University of Georgia. His teaching career includes stints at Clark College in Atlanta, Southern Illinois University and Jackson State University in Mississippi, before joining the faculty of Howard in 1987. He served as head of the art department and in 1990 founded the annual James A. Porter Colloquium on African American Art.

The scope of the discussion was open, but the artists were given suggested guidance if they needed it, proposing they talk about a person, work of art, or event that influenced their practice. Coleman focused his discussion on Felrath Hines (1913-1993), an artist who worked in abstraction and was a conservator at the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum of Art and Sculpture Garden.

“Hines is an artist I got to know very well. Lilian talked about Fel a minute ago. From 1987 until he passed in 1983, I had a great deal of contact with Fel. The last six months of his life, I saw him at least every week, if not two times a week. We spent a lot of time in the studio talking about art, talking about painting and the like,” Coleman said.

During his succinct presentation, Coleman projected an image of “Midnight Garden,” a 1991 painting by Hines that is in the collection of the Driskell Center. The geometric composition was executed in blues and greens, with black and white. “I feel that this work is a virtual portrait of Samuel Felrath Hines,” Coleman said. “It shows that he explored many different mediums. He of course, in his career, had explored various types of abstraction. He dealt with gestural abstraction, biomorphic abstraction. He did lyrical abstraction. He did a wide range of geometric, hard edge-type iterations. This work reflects something of his sense of what an artist should be about.”

Coleman continued: “Like Sylvia and others spoke about color, Fel was very much interested in color. He wanted to in a way speak in color. He would talk about color, space, and design structure. Those were the things he built his work upon.”

“[Felrath Hines] was very much interested in color. He wanted to in a way speak in color. He would talk about color, space, and design structure. Those were the things he built his work upon.” — Floyd Coleman

When he concluded, Snowden said Coleman was so brief he should yield his time back to her. She still had more to say, which again prompted laughter from the assembled.

 


From left, JAMES PORTER, Portrait of James V. Herring, 1923 (oil on canvas). | Howard University; JAMES PORTER, “Self Portrait,” circa 1935 (oil on linen canvas). | Swann Art Galleries

 

DAVID C. DRISKELL ON HOWARD ROOTS

“I GUESS MY CLAIM TO FAME would be that I studied life drawing with Lila Asher before Sylvia did, in 1952,” said David C. Driskell, smiling wide. He expanded upon the comment, recalling fondly his memories of Howard.

“I just want to say a few words about the Howard experience through James V. Herring, founder of the art department at Howard University and James A. Porter who proceeded him in that position,” he said.

“Now much has been said about these two gentleman. …They had a spirit about them of inclusion, about wanting all of us to understand the true meaning of art and that it wasn’t just something that was academic. That it was communal, that it was something that was spiritual, and that it was something that we should have a lifetime commitment to.”

“[James Herring and James Porter] had a spirit about them of inclusion, about wanting all of us to understand the true meaning of art and that it wasn’t just something that was academic. That it was communal, that it was something that was spiritual, and that it was something that we should have a lifetime commitment to.” — David C. Driskell

Indeed Driskell, 85, has demonstrated an unrivaled dedication to the field. A highly regarded artist and scholar, he is a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland (UMD) at College Park, where the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African American Art and Art History was founded in 2001.

LEARN MORE about the David C. Driskell Center

The High Museum of Art in Atlanta established the David C. Driskell Prize in 2005. The first of its kind, the honor annually recognizes contributions of artists and scholars to the visual arts and study of art of the African diaspora. Naima Keith, deputy director of the California African American Museum in Los Angeles is receiving this year’s Driskell Prize on April 28.

Before joining UMD and serving as chair of the art department (1978-1983), Driskell was director of University Galleries and chairman of the Department of Art at Fisk University (1966-1976). He has authored exhibition catalogs and published numerous other books, including an extensive series on African American art with Pomegranate. He has also curated many exhibitions, among them “Two Centuries of Black American Art, 1750-1950” in 1976 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, one of his first and most significant shows.

He has hired his contemporaries and former students, and taught two generations of artists, curators, and scholars.

HAVING CARRIED THE TORCH, the favorable outcome initially seemed unlikely. Born in Eatonton, Ga., Driskell grew up in North Carolina, before heading north to Washington.

His entry into Howard was precarious. In 1949, classes were already underway when he showed up and asked to be admitted. “I came here with the notion that I was going to go to Howard University, even though I hadn’t made an application,” Driskell said.

“I showed up after school had been in session for three weeks and they looked at me strangely. I had my report card and I was class salutatorian at my little four-room segregated high school in Appalachian Western North Carolina. And they were like, ‘Okay, school’s been in session three weeks. You can’t just walk in and go to college.’ And I said, ‘But what do I need.’ They said, ‘You need to make an application.’ And I said, ‘I am here. Give me one.'”

Driskell went on to study with Herring, Porter, Asher, James Lesesne Wells, and Lois Mailou Jones. He earned an undergraduate degree from Howard and an MFA from the Catholic University.

 

 

MARTIN PURYEAR ON DC CONNECTIONS

Martin Puryear first met Driskell at Catholic. Puryear, 75, was an undergraduate and Driskell was a graduate student pursuing his MFA. The connection is one of several ways the lives and experiences of the two artists have intersected.

The only artist on the panel who was born in Washington, Puryear is a bit of an outlier among the group. Despite having deep roots in the city, his life as an artist began and exists outside the city. Because of this, he indicated he was uncertain about participating in the panel with its focus on Washington artists.

“I am back where I started. I was born in Washington and as many people probably know, Washington is a very transient city and my family has been here. I am a third generation Washingtonian. So I am really from Washington, but my life as an artist didn’t really happen [here]. I never maintained a studio here,” Puryear said.

“I was born in Washington… I am a third generation Washingtonian. So I am really from Washington, but my life as an artist didn’t really happen [here]. I never maintained a studio here.” — Martin Puryear

“After I finished my college years, I moved away and would come back …repeatedly to visit family and also to exhibit in different capacities. I was a little hesitant, because I am not really, in a certain sense, I didn’t make my career in Washington.”

After graduating from Catholic, Puryear joined the Peace Corps and went to Sierra Leone where he immersed himself in the fundamentals West African woodworking and basketweaving. He studied in Stockholm at the Royal Swedish Art Academy and came back to the United States, earning an MFA from Yale University. Then he was hired by Driskell to teach at Fisk, which he did for two years. It was during this time, Puryear said, that he got to know Driskell.

PURYEAR HAS LIVED AND WORKED in upstate New York for 25 years. There he has developed an innovative sculptural practice informed by his travels and education that utilizes traditional craft, carpentry, and boat building skills. His modernist abstract works are inspired by the natural world and draw on a range of cultures, histories and motifs. They are defined by experimentation with scale, form and materials, including stone, and various woods and metal.

By any measure, Puryear has had a successful career. He has a permanent presence in his hometown. “Bearing Witness,” a towering sculpture of hammer-formed and welded bronze was installed in front of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in 1997. The Museum of Modern Art organized “Martin Puryear” (2008-09), the first U.S. retrospective of his work in more than a decade. Featuring 46 works, the traveling show was also at the National Gallery of Art, where it was the first exhibition in the museum’s history to be presented in both the East and West buildings.

The past few years have been exceptional. “Martin Puryear: Multiple Dimensions” (2015-16) was billed as revelatory, the first exhibition to go behind-the-scenes and offer an “unprecedented look into Puryear’s inspirations, methods, and transformative process.” The show featured 72 objects and 14 sculptures, dating from the artists college days to the present. Organized by the Art Institute of Chicago, the exhibition traveled to the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington. Ruth Fine, who moderated the panel contribute an essay to the catalog for “Multiple Dimensions.”

“Big Bling,” the largest temporary outdoor sculpture Puryear has created was on view at Madison Square Park in New York City through April 2. Part animal, part abstract form, the monumental structure stands 40 feet high. Next month, “Big Bling” travels to Philadelphia, where the public installation will be accompanied by “Martin Puryear Prints: 1962-2016,” an exhibition at The Print Center guest curated by Fine.

Puryear went on to further discuss the years he overlapped with Driskell at Catholic University and encountering the outsized figures of Washington’s art world.

“I think I met James Porter at an opening at the Alonzo Aden Gallery (sic). So I had a little bit of contact with that,” Puryear said, “and I realized that the Barnett Aden Gallery was a real cutting edge gallery in Washington at the time. There were very few galleries that were showing what would be considered cutting edge at the time. Kenneth Noland who was on the faculty at the time (at Catholic), I never had a course with him, but he was on the faculty. He showed work at Barnett Aden gallery. It wasn’t simply limited to showing the work of African American artists.”

After his stints in Sierra Leone and Sweden, Puryear met another artist on the panel. “I was away for four years and then I came back to Washington and heard this name,” he said. “‘You’ve got to meet Sam Gilliam. He’s the new art star in Washington. (The audience laughs.) That’s when I met Sam Gilliam and we’ve been in some kind of contact over the years, ever since.”

 


SAM GILLIAM (b. 1933), “Relative,” 1968 (acrylic on canvas). | Collection National Gallery of Art, Courtesy NGA

 

ANECDOTES FROM SAM GILLIAM

That was then, and not much has changed. Sam Gilliam, 83, is probably Washington’s most well-known artist, black or white. Born in Tupelo, Miss., he grew up in Kentucky and attended the University of Louisville where he earned a bachelor’s degree and an MFA. After school, he headed to Washington.

“I came to Washington in 1952,” Gilliam said. “I knew that the head of my department at the University of Louisville and the head of the art department at Howard were classmates at Harvard, so through Sterling Brown, and a Post photographer who knew Sterling Brown, we invited Dr. Porter over for an afternoon…”

Gilliam said after his military service and teaching sixth grade, he was poised for the next step in his professional life. “I was ready for success, and success in that sense meant that I would teach college, not the sixth grade,” he said. “Dr. Porter said, ‘Well, you’re passionate aren’t you?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Well, you’ll make more money teaching high school.'” The audience fell out laughing. “And he was right,” added Gilliam.

He taught at McKinley Technical High School and later on the college level, too, while pursuing his art. By the 1960s, his art practice had traction. A Color Field artist associated with the Washington Color School, Gilliam’s first solo museum show was at the Phillips Collection in 1967.

Working in abstraction, he embraced color and distinguished himself by introducing innovative techniques to his work, including drape paintings created by removing his canvases from their stretcher frames. In 1972, Gilliam represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in a group show. He was the first African American artist to participate in the international exhibition. Over the decades, Gilliam exhibited widely at galleries and institutions. The Corcoran Gallery of Art organized a traveling retrospective in 2005.

READ MORE about Sam Gilliam on Culture Type

RECENTLY, GILLIAM HAS BEEN ENJOYING a bit of a renaissance. In 2012, Gilliam joined David Kordansky Gallery. The Los Angeles gallery has presented his work from the late 1960s and early 1970s at Frieze New York and Frieze Masters in London.

Gilliam’s work is hitting new high marks at auction and “Green April,” a solo exhibition at David Kordansky, was on view last year. Also, a major installation by Gilliam is featured at the Smithsonian’s recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. David Kordansky just announced the release of Gilliam’s first monograph in 10 years.

Sitting to Puryear’s left, Gilliam shared a few of brief but poignant memories and encounters.

His artistry has influenced his children. He said when his middle daughter was in medical school, she was a Rhodes Scholar. When she came back and was in her final year, she expressed doubt about her decision to study medicine.

He recalled: “She said, ‘Dad, I think I want to follow in the family tradition.’ And I said, ‘What’s that?’ She says, ‘I want to be an artist.’ And I said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘You have two sisters. One was the filmmaker. One wants to be an architect. I want to be an artist. We need support.'” After a loud applause, Gilliam continued.

“Upon her graduation from medical school (more laughter), she was working in a hospital in Chicago. I visited her at her apartment and she had more African sculpture, more quilts, more color, more photographs, and I said, ‘Did I do the wrong thing?’ But of course, if you are not an artist, be a collector.”

HE HAD TWO GEMS about Alma Thomas. The first involved artist Kenneth Nolan and his fondness for Thomas. In 1977, the Color Field painter’s retrospective was on view at both the Hirshhorn and the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Gilliam was standing with Nolan greeting guests at the opening when Nolan spotted Thomas. “At the end of the line was Alma Thomas. She was in a wheelchair at the time. …[Nolan] looked to the end of the line and he started to run and he ran and spoke first to Alma Thomas,” Gilliam said.

The second involved liquor. Gilliam said, “Alma and I were kind of buddies because she was painting flowers on one side and she’d switch the paper over and she’d do these puzzle parts. But mostly because she would always invite you by to talk art, because under the kitchen cabinet she had a bottle of Johnny Walker.” Everyone laughed when he mentioned the whisky.

The recollections provided insight into Gilliam’s persona and illustrated the interconnectedness of Washington’s art world, a fact that the artist emphasized.

“I didn’t go to Howard, but I was never far from Howard. But more essentially, I was not very far from those products [of Howard]. I know everybody at this table,” Gilliam said. He noted when David Driskell came back to Washington from Fisk and became head of the art department at the University of Maryland, he joined him. Gilliam said, “I met Keith. I knew about Martin, and Lou and I worked together making prints.”

“I didn’t go to Howard, but I was never far from Howard. But more essentially, I was not very far from those products [of Howard]. I know everybody at this table.” — Sam Gilliam


This exhibition features works printed by local artist and master printer Lou Stovall who worked with JACOB LAWRENCE on the 15-panel series between 1986-1997. Shown, “Toussaint at Ennery (print based on painting from The Life of Toussaint L’Ouvertureseries),” 1989 (silkscreen on rag paper). | Printed by Workshop, Inc., Washington, D.C., Collection of Di and Lou Stovall, Courtesy The Phillips Collection

 

MASTER PRINTMAKERS: LOU STOVALL ON JAMES LESESNE WELLS

Through the end of April, the Phillips Collection is exhibiting “The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture.” The narrative series by Jacob Lawrence (1917–2001) documents the exploits of the Haitian revolutionary. The paintings were first shown at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1939. Lou Stovall, 80, an artist and master printmaker, worked with Lawrence to create silkscreen prints from the series between 1986 and 1997. The prints on view at the museum are on loan from Stovall’s private collection.

For nearly 50 years, Stovall has been producing print projects with the likes of Elizabeth Catlett, David Driskell, Sam Gilliam, Lois Mailou Jones, James Lesesne Wells, and Lawrence. Stovall founded The Workshop in 1968. Adjacent to his home, the printing studio is a respected institution in the Washington art world and beyond. Stovall initially made community posters in the studio, but over the years it became an active facility, training students, and producing hand-pulled fine art prints for critically recognized artists.

Lou Stovall initially made community posters in the studio, but over the years it became an active facility, training students, and producing hand-pulled fine art prints for critically recognized artists.

There are 41 paintings in the L’Ouverture series. Lawrence condensed the narrative down to 15 works for the print series. At the same time, he increased the scale of the images. It was a complex undertaking suited to Stovall’s patience and expertise. As The Phillips notes, Lawrence worked with Stovall “to translate the colors and fluid movement of the original tempera paint to each composition.”

During the panel discussion, Stovall sat at the end of the table next to Puryear listening intently as all of the other artists took turns reflecting on connections and influences. Last up, Stovall followed the suggestion of the organizers and paid tribute to an inspiring figure. In a thoughtfully written presentation, he described artist and printmaker James Lesesne Wells as his mentor at Howard.

BORN IN ATHENS, GA., Stovall grew up in Springfield, Mass., and set his sights on printmaking early. “I knew that I wanted to become a significant silkscreen printmaker, which I had envisioned in high school,” Stovall said. He attended the Rhode Island School of Design before heading to Howard where he earned his BFA. There he met Wells who came to Washington, D.C., from New York in 1929. Wells was hired by James A. Porter to teach printmaking.

LEARN MORE about master printmaker Lou Stovall

Stovall said, “He brought with him some of the dynamic initiatives which caused the Harlem Renaissance to last through history as we know it. Wells was an active artist in Harlem during that period of amazing aesthetic thought and creativity and later wells became my mentor at Howard University in the 1960s. What he brought to Washington was his system of values based upon community input and outreach. Wells involved himself in printmaking as a means to join a world of artists who he identified as a vehicle for his participation. He led workshops with Charles Alston in Harlem, where Jacob Lawrence was a student assistant, and together they shared their knowledge of making art with this young man.”

At Howard, Stovall received the same wisdom from Wells who came to the university and joined what became “a tradition of young artists striving to infuse a spirit of possibility in this art world.” Stovall recounted with fondness, appreciation and respect the atmosphere in which he honed his craft. He cited a culture of sharing and participating, being exposed to inclusive thinkers, ambition to succeed, and being involved in “the new.”

Wells and Stovall had common goals. Stovall said, “Mr. Wells recognized my statement of purpose, that I was a kindred spirit in that we both saw printmaking as our life pursuit. Though he engaged himself with relief printmaking and I pursued silkscreen we both embraced craft as our God-given direction. Wells was a master craftsmen …pushing the limit of existing traditions as he sought to extend the possibilities of the medium to match the challenging demands of his artistic vision. That also became my mantra.”

Stovall continued: “In my talks with him, I shared my thoughts to accomplish silkscreen print making as the best medium for which to make art because it had the possibility of clarity, brightness, and strength of modern art. It was all about making beautiful images, beautiful pieces which could be affordable at a time when it seemed that the ever-increasing price of art would be out of reach for young collectors it was necessary, (and it has always been necessary) to establish an accessible market.”

“In my talks with [James Lesesne Wells] I shared my thoughts to accomplish silkscreen print making as the best medium for which to make art because it had the possibility of clarity, brightness, and strength of modern art. It was all about making beautiful images, beautiful pieces which could be affordable…” — Lou Stovall

IN 1985-86, THEIR RELATIONSHIP came full circle when Wells visited Stovall’s studio to “observe and help” as he made a silkscreen print of the elder artist’s painting “Still Life with Violin.” A year later, after the exhibition “James Lesesne Wells: 60 Years in Art” (1987) was presented by the Washington Project for the Arts, Stovall said he was able to raise $13,000, with support from artist friends, for the show to be transported for display at the Studio Museum in Harlem. The funds provided for Wells’ travel to New York, and the packing, shipping, and return the exhibition.

“I also credit Mr. wells for sharing with me his sense of community and the possibilities of participation,” said Stovall, who had a solo exhibition at the American University Museum a few years ago. “As he shared with me, so he touched the artistic community of Washington, D.C.”

 


JAMES WELLS (1902-1993), “Still Life with Violin,” 1987 (serigraph, edition of 99). | via Weschler’s auction house

 

DAVID DRISKELL’S COURSE CORRECTION

The connections continued. Earlier in the discussion, David Driskell told a story about an experience at Howard that would set the course for his career. He was in a drawing class taught by “Professor Wells” in 1951 when he met James Porter for the first time.

“He stood behind me and watched me draw for a moment, and he said, ‘What is your name?’ I told him and he said, ‘I don’t think I know you. Are you an art major?’ And I said, ‘No, I am a history major.’ And he looked at my drawing and he said, ‘Well you don’t belong over there. You belong here.’ Driskell recounted. Then he said, “So I went and changed my major. That was my introduction to Porter.”

In his recollection of Porter, Driskell emphasized the formality and great expectations that infused Howard. “Howard University people in those days, their whole deportment was you must dress well, you must speak well, you must act well. And all of that was a part of the whole atmosphere of art.”

He continued: “I wanted to say that Howard had an atmosphere about it of encouragement in the arts and it was communal in the sense of the universe of Washington. Everybody knew everybody. I met Mr. Duncan Phillips (founder of the Phillips Collection) through Professor Herring at the Barnett Aden Gallery in 1952. I was working there. I mean you got a chance to meet people. I met Langston Hughes there at the Barnett Aden Gallery and Romare Bearden and people like that. They had a sense of community beyond Washington and they tried to introduce you to that, not just in the classroom. Howard was really at the center of art production in those days. Everybody outside of the Washington community knew about art at Howard.”

“I met Langston Hughes there at the Barnett Aden Gallery and Romare Bearden and people like that. …Howard was really at the center of art production in those days. Everybody outside of the Washington community knew about art at Howard.” — David C. Driskell


From left, Artists Martin Puryear and Keith A. Morrison at the Wyeth Foundation for American Art Symposium, The African American Art World in Twentieth-Century Washington, DC, presented by CASVA at the National Gallery of Art. | © 2017 Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington

 

KEITH MORRISON ON BROAD VISION OF HOWARD

The youngest of the group, Keith Morrison, 74, said he appreciated the history and legacy of Howard that Driskell emphasized. “What I got from Howard and Barnett Aden, from David, all the people, was first of all a sense of history. I am a very history-conscious person,” said Morrison. “But more than that, they told a story. They were great storytellers and their vision was a story of people of African descent and for me that was very, very important.”

Morrison earned both his BFA (1963) and MFA (1965) from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Throughout his career he has spent time in Washington and had many connections with the city and its influential figures.

“I met Sam [Gilliam] not in Washington but in Chicago. In fact, I met Martin [Puryear] in Chicago, as well,” Morrison said. “I met Sam in my studio… we spent a lot of time drinking… I remember riding down the Dan Ryan Expressway …in a sports car. We almost crashed. Sam was a huge artist…”

He continued: “David, who I’ve known for so long, was kind enough to invite me to come to the University of Maryland. So this is like a reunion to me.”

An artist, curator, and critic with a long career as a professor and university administrator, Driskell hired Morrison at Fisk (1967-69) and the University of Maryland, College Park (UMD), where he became a professor in 1979. Morrison went on to serve as chair of the art department at UMD, from 1987 to 1992 (Driskell was previously chair, from 1978-1983) and later had a brief stint as dean of UMD’s College of Arts and Humanities (1996-97).

LEARN MORE about artist and educator Keith A. Morrison

“I CAN’T SAY I WAS INFLUENCED by anyone in Washington, but my life as an artist was very much affected by Washington,” said Morrison. “I had come to Washington long before I moved here. I first came to Washington in 1967 to meet Dr. James Porter 1967. He recalled encountering Porter, Driskell, and Lois Mailou Jones.

“I never taught at Howard. I don’t believe I ever even exhibited at Howard, but Howard has been really very important to my grounding as an artist, my finding a better understanding of why I was doing what I did and the people who have been mentioned here, over the last few days, are people that I have really found very important to me as an artist—James Herring, Dr. Porter, and people have mentioned Alain Locke, and the many exhibitions, the wonderful exhibitions that they did at Howard since the inception of the Howard Gallery… through today,” Morrison said.

“Howard has been really very important to my grounding as an artist, my finding a better understanding of why I was doing what I did.”
— Keith Morrison

“When I lived in Washington, I did some work studying the artists at Howard and the makers of art—Herring and Porter, including David—I was struck by how wide afield they went at looking at art and the kind of exhibitions they had and the artists that appeared.”

Morrison discussed the selection of art presented at the gallery including white and European artists, Picasso and Matisse, among them. “At first, it was tempting to think that they were being wider integrationists and expanding the art world to find a place for themselves as black people,” he said. “They were doing that, but I realized they were doing something else. They were forging a world vision, creating a world view for art from an African American perspective.”

BORN IN JAMAICA, Morrison has held many academic posts and has hired countless scholars at institutions around the country. In addition to his tenure at UMD, most recently, he was dean of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University (2005-08). He was also named dean for the College of Creative Arts at San Francisco State University (1994-96, 1997-2005), and dean of academic affairs at the San Francisco Art Institute (1993-94). Early on, he served as chair of the art department at DePaul University in Chicago (1969-71), and was associate dean of the College of Architecture and Art at the University of Illinois, Chicago (1972–76).

In 2001, Morrison represented his home country at the Venice Biennale, the only year Jamaica participated in the international art exhibition.

Further marveling at the global perspective introduced at Howard’s gallery, Morrison also noted its exhibitions of art from Brazil and Haiti, and shows of African art. He said he would be remiss if he did not also mention the influence of Jeff Donaldson, who co-founded AfriCobra and in 1970 became chair of Howard’s art department and director of the art gallery.

Morrison said Donaldson, who he had also met in Chicago, augmented the vision of Herring, Porter and Locke. What Donaldson did, “was to bring in the importance of ideas carried by people who were slaves, people who were not necessarily formally educated. Vernacular ideas. People who were left out in many ways. Street art. Street ideas,” he said.

“What [Jeff] Donaldson did, “was to bring in the importance of ideas carried by people who were slaves, people who were not necessarily formally educated. Vernacular ideas. People who were left out in many ways. Street art. Street ideas.” — Keith Morrison

With no formal association with Howard, like so many Morrison was profoundly shaped by the institution, its foresight, and reach.

“In the mid-80s the idea of African American art or black art is still very controversial and a lot of people, black people and white people, spent a lot of time debating the merits of that,” Morrison said. “So finding a grounding in terms of that was very important to me and what I found grounding was not in the definition of what the art should look like, but rather a global perspective that included the experiences people of African descent, looking at art worldwide.”

 


MARTIN PURYEAR (Born 1941), “Lever No. 3,” 1989 (carved and painted wood). | Gift of the Collectors Committee, 1989.711, Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

WASHINGTON, SEGREGATION & THE NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART

Reflecting about Howard, reminded Driskell of the atmosphere beyond the campus, navigating a segregated city.

“I came to Howard University in 1949, eight years after this gallery (National Gallery of Art) was established and I say this to the credit of this institution. We were talking about it at breakfast this morning. This was one of three places in Washington, D.C.—still a segregated city in 1949—this was one of three places where African Americans could come and feel at home,” Driskell said.

“They could come and eat in the cafeteria. There were three places in Washington where you could eat without the police coming to lock you up—the National Gallery of Art’s cafeteria, the Methodist Building cafeteria over near the House of Representative, and the Saverin restaurant in Union Station.”

“There were three places in Washington where you could eat without the police coming to lock you up—the National Gallery of Art’s cafeteria, the Methodist Building cafeteria over near the House of Representative, and the Saverin restaurant in Union Station.” — David Driskell

AT THE NATIONAL GALLERY, Puryear’s sculpture “Lever No. 3” was on view in the East Wing, in an area of the museum near the auditorium where the artist panel took place. Acquired by the National Gallery of Art in 1989, the work composed of carved and painted wood was featured in the artist’s (2008-09) retrospective at the museum.

Inside the auditorium, Puryear said, “There is lots of history here at this table. Even though, as I said, I am …not somebody who has lived here all of these years, I can echo what David said about what Washington offered, especially the National Gallery.”

He continued: “I was taken here as a child and I was introduced to all the museums on the mall as a very young child. It is one of the formative influences in my life, being taken to the National Gallery. I was young enough, when I was first came here, to be absolutely in awe of all the naked, carved marble statues. Statues of people with no clothes. That was really, to a little child, one of the strongest memories I have. (Lots of laughter) That’s how young I was.”

Puryear also recalled how at a young age his penchant for art was nurtured in the city, revealing another connection with Driskell. The sculptor grew up in Southwest Washington in the 1950s on a block of apartments. His father was a postal clerk and his mother was a teacher.

His parents were “very encouraging to all us to get out of our neighborhood” and explore the city, he said. They also took note of his drawing when he was very small. A relative who he described as a bachelor uncle who served in the Army, went overseas and “had a little touch of Europe,” also noticed his artistic talent.

The oldest of seven children at the time, Puryear said, his uncle “was dear to me.” He said, he “learned of an art school for children in Washington and he investigated it and he took me with some of my drawings to the school. It was in Foggy Bottom. I was in the sixth grade.” A woman Puryear assumed was Eastern European ran the school.

He made the leap about her background “because of her name and also the fact that she atypically for what was the prevailing pattern at the time… her school was open racially,” Puryear said.

“I was the only black kid there. But there was no question. Once I showed my work, she said, ‘He needs to be here. I would love to have him.’ …Like David said, it was a completely segregated city. But she was extraordinary. …She conducted this art school in a way that was so serious. You come in. You get your paints. Go to the easel. There is no gossip, chatter, playing. You did your work very seriously and that was a really crucial experience for me.”

“I was the only black kid there [at the art school]. But there was no question. Once I showed my work, she said, ‘He needs to be here. I would love to have him.’ …Like David said, it was a completely segregated city. But she was extraordinary.” — Martin Puryear

Years later, Puryear shared the formative experience with Driskell, who it turned out later had a job associated with the school. “We spoke about it, because when you were in college, I think you were delivering the youth art supplies, dropping off art supplies at this school for young people,” Puryear said to Driskell sitting nearby.

 


From left, Therese O’Malley, associate dean, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA), National Gallery of Art; moderator Ruth Fine; artists Floyd Coleman, Martin Puryear, Keith A. Morrison, Lilian Thomas Burwell, Sam Gilliam, David C. Driskell, and Lou Stovall; Kinshasha Holman Conwill, deputy director, National Museum of African American History and Culture; Gwendolyn H. Everett, associate dean of the division of fine arts and director of the gallery of art, Howard University; Elizabeth Cropper, dean, CASVA, National Gallery of Art; and artist Sylvia Snowden, at the Wyeth Foundation for American Art Symposium, The African American Art World in Twentieth-Century Washington, DC, presented by CASVA | © 2017 Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington

 

FINE ARTISTS IN A COMPLEX CITY

TOWARD THE END, Floyd Coleman who earlier paid tribute to artist Felrath Hines, jumped back into the conversation. He shared proudly his associations and early encounters with the other artists on the panel.

“We’ve been talking about influences and I can say I have been influenced by all of these people here,” he said. “When I look to my far right. I see Lou Stovall. In was in the early 60s when I first met Lou and he confirmed some of the things I had read about, particularly about printmaking and James Wells.” On his left, he said knew of Lillian Thomas Burwell and Sylvia Snowden and their work from the 70s forward.

At Southern Illinois University, Coleman taught studio art and graduate painting as well as contemporary seminars in art history and criticism.

“I talked about the work of Sam Gilliam and Martin Puryear in those classes and some of my students didn’t know who they were. But I said that they belong with all the other contemporary artists that I am talking about, whether it may be Lichtenstein or whomever, that they were in that category. And I have been saying this since the 1970s,” Coleman said.

“I met Sam in 1968 when he gave a brilliant lecture at the Atlanta High Museum and from that point on he was part of my seminar discussions in my contemporary art classes. Howardena Pindell and a lot of others.”

Coleman goes back even earlier with David Driskell to 1956. “I was a freshman at Alabama State College, now university. David was at a little place called Talladega College. And they were writing about in the white newspaper there,” said Coleman.

“Let’s face it. We’ve lived in an apartheid society. In this country, particularly in the South. It’s a little bit better in the North, but still apartheid, still racism, segregation and all of those sorts of things. But David in Alabama, in Klan country, David was doing all sorts of things and they were writing about it in the local white newspaper. They only wrote about black people when they were in jail or stole a chicken. But they were writing about David.”

“David [Driskell] in Alabama, in Klan country, David was doing all sorts of things and they were writing about it in the local white newspaper. They only wrote about black people when they were in jail or stole a chicken. But they were writing about David.” — Floyd Coleman

The audience was captivated by the story and laughed, but appreciated gravity of the era and the point Coleman was making about Driskell’s trailblazing experiences and contributions.

HIS OVERALL MESSAGE, Coleman said, is that he has greatly admired and respected Howard University and all of the artists participating in the panel discussion.

“Everybody sitting here today knows that you have artists who are of the finest caliber sitting here at this table. Washington is blessed, as it has been said on numerous occasions, with being a center for this kind of thought, this kind process and creativity,” Driskell said. “I am delighted to see this happening at our nation’s premier gallery and museum, the notion that the Howard University community has made a contribution.”

Marveling at the dynamics of Washington, Puryear concluded: “This city has so much complexity to it. This is such a good occasion to make these connections and bring these things out.” CT

 

BOOKSHELF
A new Sam Gilliam monograph, his first in a decade, was just announced by his Los Angeles gallery and is available now. Featuring a contribution by Ruth Fine, a former curator at the National Gallery of Art where she curated an exhibition of Martin Puryear’s work in 2008, the catalog “Martin Puryear: Multiple Dimensions” was published to coincide with the exhibition of the same name. The David C. Driskell Series of African American Art has explored the work of many artists, including Keith Morrison, Charles White, Faith Ringgold, Betye Saar, and Hughie Lee-Smith.