Arts and Education Advocate Peggy Cooper Caftritz (1947-2018)

 

FOR THOSE WHO CARE ABOUT equity and access in arts and education, a major ally and important advocate has been lost. Peggy Cooper Cafrtiz (1947-2018), the Washington, D.C., arts patron who co-founded the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, died Feb. 18 at a local hospital. She was 70.

Her son Zachary Cafritz told the Washington Post the cause was complications from pneumonia. The Post obituary reported, “She had severe health problems in recent years, including back surgeries and a gallbladder operation that left her in a coma for more than a week.”

A major collector of African American art, Cafritz spent decades serving on the boards of government and cultural institutions—the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, American Film Institute, Smithsonian Cultural Equity Committee, and D.C. School Board—working to bring about diversity in mainstream organizations and opportunities for underserved populations.

 

D.C. DOYENNE

EARLY ON, CAFRITZ SOUGHT TO BRIDGE the stark divides between black and white, and rich and poor, in the predominantly black District of Columbia. “The majority of power in this city is black, and the majority of money is white,” she told The Washington Post in 1979. “We’ve got to bring the two together. At some point in this society, everything has to converge.”

Cafritz was a senior at George Washington University when she first envisioned the foundation for what would become a public high school primarily serving students of color from economically challenged neighborhoods with a curriculum that balanced core academics with training in the visual and performing arts. Six years later, the fledgling idea was institutionalized when she helped establish Duke Ellington in 1974. Notable alumni include conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas; operatic mezzo soprano Denyce Graves; singer-songwriter Me’Shell Ndegéocello, and comedian Dave Chappelle.

Cafritz was a senior at George Washington University when she first envisioned the foundation for what would become a public high school primarily serving students of color from economically challenged neighborhoods with a curriculum that balanced core academics with training in the visual and performing arts.


WILLIAM VILLALONGO, “Father I Cannot Tell a Lie, 2009 (acrylic, velour flocking, paper, and wood panel, 87 × 62 inches). | Courtesy the artist and Susan Inglett Gallery, New York, Photo by Jeremy Lawson

 

After earning her law degree, she met Conrad Cafritz, a wealthy white developer. They lived together for eight years before marrying in 1981. Beginning in law school, she had been taking care of foster children, which they continued to do over the years, raising them alongside their own three children. In 1986, the family built and moved into a new house in a tony Northwest neighborhood.

The 15,000 square-foot home was an ideal backdrop and exhibition space as Caftritz’s art collection grew over the years. Art collectors often focus on a specific period, style, or medium, but her interests were relatively broad, encompassing artists of African, African American, and Caribbean descent who work across a wide spectrum of subject matter. She embraced both beauty and provocative political works.

Early on, she purchased works by Edward Mitchell Bannister, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, and Alma Thomas. Eventually she concentrated on contemporary artists, acquiring works by both established figures such as El Anatsui, Barkley L. Hendricks, Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas, Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, and Kehinde Wiley, and acclaimed rising talents including Noah Davis, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Titus Kaphar, and Toyin Ojih Odutola. Their paintings, drawings, sculpture, mixed-media installations, and photography, were densely displayed in every room, filling all the walls throughout her home.

The couple divorced in 1998, but for more than 20 years, 3030 Chain Bridge Road was an engaging salon where a national roster of artists and curators felt at home, and a dynamic mix of political, cultural, and education figures regularly gathered to socialize, solve problems, and raise money for various campaigns and causes.

3030 Chain Bridge Road was an engaging salon where a national roster of artists and curators felt at home, and a dynamic mix of political, cultural, and education figures regularly gathered to socialize, solve problems, and raise money for various campaigns and causes.

She was elected president of the D.C. School Board in 2000, just as the federally appointed D.C. financial control board returned jurisdiction over the failing pubic school system to the local school board. School vouchers, student performance, and infrastructure issues were all major concerns. Her leadership drew criticism for closed-door decision making, and public remarks deriding unqualified teachers and irresponsible parents.

Here is how the Post summed up her six-year tenure on the school board: “To supporters, she was a dogged champion of accountability in an unwieldy bureaucracy that no one person could fix. To her detractors, she was a bully.”

No one, however, disputes that Cafritz was always a dedicated and passionate advocate for students and an outspoken champion for diversity in the arts. Her enthusiasm is reflected in her new book, “Fired Up! Ready to Go! Finding Beauty, Demanding Equity: An African American Life in Art. The Collections of Peggy Cooper Cafritz.”

 


“Fired Up! Ready to Go! Finding Beauty, Demanding Equity: An African American Life in Art. The Collections of Peggy Cooper Cafritz,” by Peggy Cooper Cafritz, with contributions by Thelma Golden, Kerry James Marshall,‎ Simone Leigh, Uri McMillan, Jack Shainman, and Hank Willis Thomas (Rizzoli Electa, 288 pages). | Published Feb. 20, 2018

 

WRITING HER OWN NARRATIVE

LONG SCHEDULED FOR OFFICIAL RELEASE Feb. 20, it’s a visual feast featuring page after page of full-color images of hundreds of art works she acquired over the years, interspersed with written contributions by New York gallery owner Jack Shainman, Chicago-based artist Kerry James Marshall and Thelma Golden of the Studio Museum in Harlem, among others. Cafritz chose a collage painting by Njideka Akunyili Crosby from her collection to grace the cover.

I reviewed “Fired Up! Ready to Go!” for The Washington Post and concluded by noting the book’s immense value as a documentation of her legacy: “The boundless possibilities of a talent like Akunyili Crosby’s is what motivates Cafritz’s patronage. How fortunate for the rest of us to now have this gorgeous record of her singular collection and ongoing life’s work.” Those words take on new meaning with her passing.

The lavishly illustrated volume unfolds from a nearly decade-old tragedy. In 2009, her art-filled residence burned to the ground. The fire destroyed most of her holdings, more than 300 works of art. The vast collection was considered among the most significant of its kind. The loss of her treasured collection led to the book, which documents many of the works in her original collection that are no longer extant, and also presents examples from the new collection she began assembling in recent years.

With prices beginning to rise on the strength of the African American art market and her personal resources post-divorce and post-fire somewhat reduced, she adjusted her approach to buying. Although she purchased new works by many artists represented in her first collection, Cafritz began to focus less on global art stars and sought more works by critically recognized mid-career and up-and-coming artists, local D.C. artists, as well as the Duke Ellington artists she had always collected.

The transition was more in step with her desire to support and encourage younger, less experienced artists, as well as under-recognized ones. It was a natural process. The artists she knew were always the best resources to find out about new artists she should know.

Newer acquisitions have included works by Nina Chanel Abney, BK Adams, Derrick Adams, ruby onyinyechi amanze, Samuel Fasso, Derek Fordjour, Vanessa German, Kojo Griffin, Samuel Levi Jones, Deana Lawson, Henry Taylor, William Villalongo, and Saya Woolfalk. The size of the new collection had already eclipsed the original, growing to more than 500 works.

Among the many, many works illustrated from both collections in the book are “I Belong Here,” a neon work by Tavares Strachan; a mixed-media tapestry installation by Ebony G. Patterson, a “Civil Rights Throw Rug” by Theaster Gates made from decommissioned fire hoses; Duron Jackson’s “Ruminations Chair” made entirely out of dominoes over plywood; paintings by Jennifer Packer, Arcmanoro Miles, Chinedu Felix Osuchukwu, and Philemona Williamson (no longer extant); and a trio of chrome plated bronze jockey figures by Sanford Biggers that was charred and melted in the fire, “but too close to [Cafritz’s] soul not to keep.”

The volume begins with an essay by Cafritz in which she talks at length about her childhood, the roots of her passion to help others, her decades of work and many accomplishments, and the challenges she experienced in her public and private lives. She is incredibly candid and transparent, but does not dwell on any particular chapter or details of her life for too long.

While “Fired Up! Ready to Go!” generally focuses on her art collections and advocacy for artists, the opening essay she penned makes clear that the groundbreaking personal narrative of this consequential woman would make for an engrossing biography.

The book, as presented, provides a glimpse into her world defined by her encounters with artistic legends who came before her, experts who have helped guide her collecting, and artists who have benefitted from her patronage and friendship.

 

Gordon_Parks_37.003
GORDON PARKS, “Mr. and Mrs. Albert Thornton, Mobile, Alabama,” 1956 | Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation

 

SOUTHERN ROOTS

BORN AND RAISED IN SEGREGATED MOBILE, ALA., Cafritz’s family was educated at historically black colleges. Her father owned a local mortuary and life insurance business. Her paternal grandparents met at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., where they were also married. She says her grandmother, Alice Cooper, founded the first school for black children in Mobile (perhaps inspiring her own desire to establish Duke Ellington).

Her parents, A.J. Cooper Sr. and Gladys Mouton Cooper, met and married at Hampton University in Hampton, Va. Back in Mobile, they sent their six children to a black Catholic school run by white nuns. Her mother took her to church and the movies and believed in good grooming and dress.

“Today I can details in people and things and paintings and sculptures with eyes that perhaps I owe to my mother,” Cafritz writes. “My dad taught me to see in an entirely different way: through listening, reading, and analyzing. He could make ideas and issues visual for me. He saw people who were victims of fate, circumstance, politics, race, or all four. When I look at art, I see details and context. And sometimes my parents come to mind.”

Her father had an extensive personal library where she found James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son” and his quote, “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” After reading those words, Cafritz said she immediately “hungered for more.”

She writes: “In that moment, Baldwin gave me a license which I would use for the rest of my life. It was also Baldwin who taught me to consider connections between different forms of art through his relationship with the great painter Beauford Delaney, an artist whose work I would eventually own. Their work and these connections all became, for me, howls of the African American experience in this country.”

“[James] Baldwin gave me a license which I would use for the rest of my life. It was also Baldwin who taught me to consider connections between different forms of art through his relationship with the great painter Beauford Delaney, an artist whose work I would eventually own. Their work and these connections all became, for me, howls of the African American experience in this country.” — Peggy Cooper Cafritz

She was in sixth grade when Martin Luther King Jr., came to Mobile to promote his book “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story.” Cafritz attended the 1958 event with her father and King visited their home afterward and he signed her copy of the book. “His written message to me said that I should aspire to be a quiet, strategic leader like my dad. I skipped my dad’s quietude,…” she writes.

She says her father’s attempts to integrate Mobile’s Jesuit high school failed. After those efforts, the family was no longer welcome at the black Diocesan high schools, either. As a result, her father started sending his children North to boarding school. For high school, Cafritz went to St. Mary’s Academy, a white Catholic girls boarding school in South Bend, Ind., not too far from the University of Notre Dame where her three older brothers were students.

In the mid-1960s, when it came time to make a decision about her own college education, the idea of going to Washington, the majority black “Chocolate City,” was appealing. The economic diversity, African Americans in powerful positions running city agencies and filling Federal jobs, all of it was alluring. She writes: “What young Black person wouldn’t want to join this feast of accomplishment, a city that presented the chance to be a part of seeking solutions to urban problems?”

Cafritz chose George Washington University. She immediately fell in love with the physical campus and its academic offerings, but was instantly put off by its social and cultural realities. Cafritz was among the first black students admitted to the university, but it was still segregated. The day after orientation she and other students picketed the sororities and fraternities demanding that they open up their membership.

 


VANESSA GERMAN, “Reality Check: To Call the Police Use this Phone,” 2013 (mixed media assemblage, 46 x 24 x 14 inches). | Courtesy the artist and Pavel Zoubok Gallery, New York, Photo by Anthony Glover, Courtesy Rizzoli

 

FIRED UP! READY TO GO!

“IT ALMOST MADE ME HAPPY. I just knew that I could use the skill set my father had forced me to develop to serve a great plate of change at George Washington University,” Cafritz writes. “GW was the place I learned institution building and the commitment to create a place for equity in our culture.”

“I just knew that I could use the skill set my father had forced me to develop to serve a great plate of change at George Washington University. …GW was the place I learned institution building and the commitment to create a place for equity in our culture.” — Peggy Cooper Cafrtiz

She co-founded the school’s Black Student Union and by her senior year change swept the Greek organizations, codified by a 1968 anti-discrimiation measure passed by the university administration and student government.

Cafritz had the same frustration with race beyond campus. With friends, she visited and took advantage of Washington’s substantial cultural assets—the Smithsonian and many other museums and galleries. They even ventured to New York City to experience the arts. The adventures were fun and relaxing, she said, but soon elicited ire.

“The more we educated ourselves about these institutions, the more pissed-off we became,” she writes. “Our broader experiences taught us that it wasn’t just a problem for the museum world. Theaters, orchestras, any cultural institution, you name it, they were all the same: white.”

They took issue with the lack of diversity in institutional, curatorial, and programming leadership and representation among the artists who performed and exhibited works. From that period forward, equity and access in the arts was a priority and an operating philosophy for Cafritz.

The genesis for the Duke Ellington School of the Arts came about a half century ago, when Cafritz seized an opportunity to bring about change. It was 1968 when she chaired DC’s first Black Arts Festival, working with the local school district and Department of Parks in Recreation to recruit city students to participate. The children performed and learned about careers in the arts. It was held at GW and sponsored by the Black Peoples Union. The poster for the event was designed by Sam Gilliam and Lloyd McNeill and printed by Lou Stovall.

Planning the festival, Cafritz connected with Mike Malone, a Georgetown graduate student who later forged a career as director, choreographer, and theater performance professor. They formed a fast friendship and saw the potential and need to sustain the programming the festival offered. Cafritz said she wrote up a proposal overnight detailing their vision and submitted it to Lloyd Elliot, the president of GW. He agreed to lend the university’s support. GW donated space and helped guide them through the process of fundraising.

 


LYNETTE YIADOM-BOAKYE, “No Head for Violence,” 2011 (oil on canvas, 16 × 18 inches). | © Lynette Boakye-Yiadom, courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, Photo by Jeremy Lawson

 

The festival grew into a summer program called Workshops for Careers in the Arts, with choreographer Debbie Allen serving as the first dance teacher. By 1974, Cafritz and Malone developed and expanded the summer arts-training program into a public high school—Duke Ellington School for the Arts.

“The goal for all our students is freedom from limitations. We believe that people of color owe it to themselves to become so well educated and so well trained that they will be able to do whatever they damn well please,” Cafritz writes. “Not only must they go to college or conservatory, they must become leaders in the art world.”

“The goal for all our students is freedom from limitations. We believe that people of color owe it to themselves to become so well educated and so well trained that they will be able to do whatever they damn well please. Not only must they go to college or conservatory, they must become leaders in the art world.” — Peggy Cooper Cafritz

Duke Ellington teaches students to paint, perform, and more importantly, it encourages their intellectual prowess. Hank Willis Thomas is a sterling example of how the cultural education the school provide its students can be practically applied to a career.

An alum of Duke Ellington, New York-based Thomas has a robust artistic practice that explores language and images, through the lens of race, history, and identity. He has also produced a series of socially and politically engaged projects.

He co-created “Question Bridge: Black Males,” a multi-screen video installation that provides a platform for black men to share their experiences living in America. During the 2016 presidential election, he also co-founded “For Freedoms.” The first-ever artist-run Super PAC (political action committee) was presented as an exhibition, public information messaging and advertising created by dozens of artists, and an artist residency at MoMA PS1. Last fall, “The Beautiful Game,” his first UK solo show, was on view at Ben Brown Fine Arts in London.

In the early 1990s, Thomas focused on Museum Studies at Duke Ellington. He later earned degrees from the California College of the Arts—an MFA in photography and MA in visual and critical studies. He writes about the immeasurable value of his high school education in “Fired Up! Ready to Go!” Thomas said, learning “the power to connect ideas through objects, to reframe historical narratives, and to make connection points with seemingly disparate ideas and artifacts,” enabled him to forge a conceptual practice without ever developing the skills to paint and draw.

 

AN ART-FULL LIFE

ESTABLISHING DUKE ELLINGTON WHICH CONTINUES TO THRIVE TODAY, was Cafrtiz’s great triumph. Her life’s work contains many more formidable feats, but over the arc of her life she also suffered, and powered through, a number of tragedies.

She writes briefly about the harrowing experiences. While she was in law school, her father committed suicide. Then, soon after she earned her law degree, she was brutally raped on two separate occasions. Her divorce was bitter. She had serious health problems. Her house burned down, destroying her art collection. Then five years later, her nephew A.J. Cooper suddenly died, just as his campaign for the D.C. City Council was getting underway. He was only 34.

“…I have enjoyed a spectacularly lucky professional life. In contrast, my emotional autobiography has been tumultuous, sometimes tortured,” Cafritz writes.

“…I have enjoyed a spectacularly lucky professional life. In contrast, my emotional autobiography has been tumultuous, sometimes tortured.” — Peggy Cooper Cafritz


NICK CAVE, “Soundsuit,” 2009 (mixed media including synthetic hair, fabric, metal, and mannequin, 108 × 36 × 20 inches). | © Nick Cave, courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, Photo by Jeremy Lawson

 

She found solace in helping others and forming an artistic community around her, often inviting close friends to stay overnight at her home when they were in town, rather than checking into a hotel.

Cafritz owned work by more than a dozen black artists represented by Jack Shainman Gallery. She first met co-founder Claude Simard when she wandered into the Chelsea gallery. “He was quiet, but warm, and immediately made me feel welcome,” she writes, adding that his death in 2014 broke her heart. Since the early 2000s, she has maintained an enduring friendship with Shainman, his partner, who contributed to the book.

Recalling when they first met, he said Cafritz was fascinating. “So many collectors blindly follow trends and listen to what others are doing, but Peggy is different,” Shainman writes.

“An independent thinker with encyclopedic interests, Peggy developed her very personal eye over many years of looking at artwork and talking with artists. She has never been motivated by amassing and hoarding art; instead she derives real pleasure from living with art, looking at it, experiencing it, and learning from it.”

“An independent thinker with encyclopedic interests, Peggy developed her very personal eye over many years of looking at artwork and talking with artists. She has never been motivated by amassing and hoarding art; instead she derives real pleasure from living with art, looking at it, experiencing it, and learning from it.” — Gallery Owner Jack Shainman

In the summer of 2009, Shainman visited Cafritz at her home where “Power to the People,” an accumulative wall sculpture by Kerry James Marshall, was installed in the entrance hall. He represents Marshall and brought new pendants from the artist to add to the work which was designed to grow over time and paid tribute to American civil rights leaders and was

The collector and gallery owner talked late into the night and he promised to help develop a database documenting her art collection. Shainman departed early in the morning with a memory stick containing the only digital record of the Cafritz collection. The next day, fire consumed the home and claimed nearly her entire collection of art, including Marshall’s “Power to the People.”

It was a blessing that no life was lost. Cafritz and her family, however, had to navigate the instant loss of material items, official documents and irreplaceable sentimental objects, such as family photos, and of course their house and art. She recovered by mustering the same conviction and drive necessary to transcend the segregation she grew up with, the steely readiness she had drawn on throughout her life.

 


JAS KNIGHT, “Summer,” 2015 (oil on linen, 18 × 22 inches). | Photo by Jeremy Lawson

 

Cafritz was watching television on the eve of the 2016 Presidential election when she saw President Barack Obama making a campaign appearance in Pittsburgh for Hillary Clinton. He recounted an experience from eight years earlier. Exhausted from relentless campaigning in 2008, then-Presidential candidate Obama arrived in Greenwood, S.C., where he was invigorated by the enthusiasm of an elderly black woman—a member of the city council and local NAACP. When she chanted “Fired Up!” the small crowd gathered to hear Obama’s White House pitch responded, “Ready to Go!”

The refrain was familiar to Cafritz who received the same “forceful invocations” throughout her life from supportive, purposeful women who wrapped her with the wisdom and strength to endure difficult times. It is the balm that saw her through many setbacks and the reason why she invoked the clarion call for the title of her book.

“As I think about the ways I have mourned this loss, I reflect on how quickly I have managed t chase emotions like despair and futility off my plate after the fire. Like these women, and because of them, I was raised fired up, ready to go.”

“As I think about the ways I have mourned this loss, I reflect on how quickly I have managed t chase emotions like despair and futility off my plate after the fire. Like these women, and because of them, I was raised fired up, ready to go.” — Peggy Cooper Cafritz

LOYAL SUPPORT

FOLLOWING THE FIRE, MANY ARTISTS REACHED OUT to Cafritz, phoning and visiting. She said Rozeal brought her a painting and that many others offered to remake works that were destroyed.

“I owned two Chuck Close photographs; one of Kara Walker and the other of Lorna Simpson. Both were burned in the fire,” Cafritz said. Then one day her friend Bill Warrell brought her a small photograph of Walker. She added: “Bill lived on the same alley as a printer for Chuck Close. He found that photograph and framed it and gave it to me. Bill also painted a portrait of me several years ago. He has always been an art soldier.” Cafritz used Warrell’s image as her author portrait on the inside cover flap at the back of the book.

Two years after the fire, she moved into spacious downtown condominium. The first thing she hung in her new home was another work by Marshall. She calls it an image of a “powerful female figure.” The untitled 2009 ink on paper drawing is a study for one of Marshall’s artist paintings that appears on the cover of the catalog for “Mastry,” his 30-year survey exhibition. “Depicted as a majestic painter, the woman stares confidently at the viewer and it is obvious that she is the master of her own fate,” Cafritz writes, clearly inspired by its symbolism as a statement about her own life.

Soon the overnights resumed. On a spread featuring two paintings by Nina Chanel Abney, Cafritz includes a warm citation: “One weekend, Nina and Kenya (Robinson) came to visit me because they rightfully thought I needed some of their TLC. They kept me hysterically laughing for two days. Asleep when they left, I awoke to two humorous, lovely surprises crafted from Magic Maker and masking tape. Nothing like magic from artists’ hands.”

Cafritz is a loyal collector. She calls Zwelethu Mthethwa “my friend.” In June 2017, a Cape Town court sentenced the South African photographer to 18 years in prison for murdering a 23-year-old sex worker who was kicked and beaten to death. An untitled image from Mthethwa’s 2007 Sugar Cane series is featured in “Fired Up! Ready to Go!” Cafritz includes a brief, full-throttled notation demonstrating her 360-degree view. She acknowledges she may be courting controversy by presenting his work in the wake of his conviction. At the same time, she states that she admires the work of SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce), the organization that was vocal and present throughout the years-long court proceedings.

“I owned his work a long time before he was a convicted murderer. I know this man I have spent time with him,” Cafritz writes in part. “If he did this, he should be punished as any other murderer would be. But it would be dishonest of me not to represent his work, as he has been in my collection for years.”

 


SIMONE LEIGH, “No Face (Black),” 2015 (terracotta, india ink, colored porcelain, and epoxy, 18 × 9 × 8 inches). | © Simone Leigh, courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York, Photo by Anthony Glover

 

She writes that Simone Leigh fills her with “fire and pride.” Brooklyn-based Leigh, who founded Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter, makes sculptures that explore the invisible labor of black women.

In the book, Leigh writes “not enough has been written about [Cafritz’s] construction of an African American avant-garde. Her collection should be considered not only from an art historical point of view; it is also a documentation of a series of relationships and support structures she has put in place that carve out a large swath of the art of the African diaspora. I can’t imagine where we would be without her.”

“Her collection should be considered not only from an art historical point of view; it is also a documentation of a series of relationships and support structures she has put in place that carve out a large swath of the art of the African diaspora. I can’t imagine where we would be without her.”
— Simone Leigh

Leigh asked fellow artists to share their experiences with Cafritz for the book. A Yale MFA, Titus Kaphar is establishing a post-graduate studio mentorship program for artists of color in New Haven. “Peggy made an art world that was quite opaque, understandable in a way that has been invaluable to me. I am hoping to provide this kind of support for other artists,” he said.

William Villalongo, an assistant professor at the Cooper Union School of Art, describes Cafritz as his “greatest and longest supporter.” He introduced her to LaToya Ruby Frazier, a social documentary photographer from Braddock, Pa. “Before meeting her, no one had backed my work.” Frazier said. Cafritz was the first to acquire a photograph from her Notion of Family series and the image was among the rare works that survived the fire.

 

ENCOUNTERS WITH GREATNESS

WHILE MOST OF HER ATTENTION AS A COLLECTOR was directed toward up-and-coming artists, Cafritz almost offhandedly describes fascinating connections with 20th century pioneers in African American art, dating from childhood to her years in Washington.

For a period, Cafritz worked in local television programming and documentary production. In 1972, Cafritz was making documentaries for Post-Newsweek and sought Jacob Lawrence as her next subject. Lou Stovall helped her connect with his agent, but she was unable to get on the Seattle-based artist’s schedule, so she hatched a dramatic plan. She staked him out at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport where she knew Lawrence would be arriving.

In the end, “We became lifelong friends,” she writes of Lawrence and his wife Gwendolyn Knight, adding that when the artists came to Washington, they stayed at her home. “I learned so much from this generous iconic artist about the generations of artists who have yet to receive their full due in the American cultural lexicon.”

“I learned so much from this generous iconic artist about the generations of artists who have yet to receive their full due in the American cultural lexicon.” — Peggy Cooper Cafritz on Jacob Lawrence


KAY HASSAN, “Untitled,” 2013–14 (paper construction, 93 × 63 inches). | © Kay Hassan, Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

 

“Alter Boy,” a circa 1920 photograph by James VanDerZee (1886-1983) is included in the book. Cafritz captions the image with a brief recollection of visiting the Harlem Renaissance-era photographer many times. “He and his wife often had an empty refrigerator and I would go to the grocery store to buy them food, drinks, and paper goods, but I was not able to take care of them to the extent they needed,” she writes. “When his wife died, I raised money to help bury her.”

Cafritz served on Washington’s first Commission on the Arts with Alma Thomas (1891-1978) and remembers sharing tea and long conversations with the artist. Thomas is recognized for her colorful, rhythmic abstract works, but an early figurative painting by the artist was among the works lost in the house fire. “Seeing her now receive the recognition that eluded her for most of her lifetime delivers bittersweet joy,” Cafritz writes.

In an incredible interview with her longtime friend Thelma Golden, Cafritz recounts how she first discovered her own creativity. Among the answers, meeting Gordon Parks when he was on assignment in Mobile for a Life magazine piece on segregation in 1956. Cafritz was only 9 years old when Parks visited her hometown to take a series of photographs that has recently been presented as an exhibition called “Segregation Story” at venues across the country

Cafritz said meeting the legendary photographer at that early age, and understanding the focus of his project, influenced how she viewed the world and her life’s purpose.

“I met him and I became deeply aware and observant of poverty. I used to get very angry about it. Those early experiences probably coalesced the anger and the creativity, because my creativity has never been separated from my political anger.” CT

 

TOP IMAGE: Peggy Cooper Cafritz. | Photo by George Washington University

 

BOOKSHELF
The release of “Fired Up! Ready to Go! Finding Beauty, Demanding Equity: An African American Life in Art. The Collections of Peggy Cooper Cafritz” is bittersweet, as it coincides with the death of the author. It is certainly a blessing, however, that Peggy Cooper Cafrtiz was able to publish the book, document her legacy and control her own narrative. A few other titles explore artists featured in her collection, among them, “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” Gordon Parks’s “Segregation Story,” and “Alma Thomas,” the exhibition catalog documenting the artist’s recent survey at the Tang Teaching Museum and the Studio Museum in Harlem.

 


This virtual tour of the new Duke Ellington School of the Arts campus, which reopened in August 2017 after a three-year $178.5 million renovation, is lengthy, but it has a fabulous soundtrack, including Ellington, Coltrane, and Vivaldi. In her book “Fired Up! Ready to Go!,” Peggy Cooper Cafritz says that besides her children and her grandchildren, Duke Ellington, which she co-founded in 1974, is her legacy. Last May, alone for a moment in the vastly transformed school building, she said she whirled herself in circles, spinning with joy and satisfaction. | Video by Duke Ellington School of the Arts

 

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