“THIRD AND RHODE ISLAND” depicts a residential block in Washington, D.C. The painting captures a row of red brick homes, a white wood porch, concrete walkways, and leafless trees. The circa 1930-40 work by Hilda Wilkinson Brown (1894-1981) is in the collection of the American Art Museum in Washington. Another artist, Lilian Thomas Burwell, Brown’s niece, donated the painting to the Smithsonian museum in 2011.

 


HILDA WILKINSON BROWN, “Third and Rhode Island,” circa 1930-40 (oil on canvas, 22 x 27 inches / 55.9 x 68.6 cm). | © Lilian Thomas Burwell, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Lilian Thomas Burwell, 2011.21

 

A few years after Burwell made the gift, Brown’s painting caught the attention of filmmaker Cintia Cabib when she spotted the Washington scene on the cover of a brochure at a Historical Society of Washington conference. This was in 2014.

“I thought it was really beautiful,” she told The Washington Post. “I became so intrigued by that painting, I started doing some research.”

“I thought it was really beautiful. I became so intrigued by that painting, I started doing some research.” — Filmmaker Cintia Cabib

Cabib set out to learn more about the late artist, which led her to Burwell. As a result, what she envisioned might be a documentary about one Black female artist, turned out to focus on two. The film’s website describes them both as “accomplished but under-recognized.”

Cabib’s short documentary, “Kindred Spirits: Artists Hilda Wilkinson Brown and Lilian Thomas Burwell,” is airing on WHUT, the local PBS station in Washington, on July 7 (today), July 16, and July 19. Additional virtual events, including a screening and a discussion, are planned later this month.

Born 1894 in Washington, D.C., Brown earned an undergraduate degree from Howard University and a master’s from Columbia University. She taught art at Miner Teachers College in Washington, the principal institution that trained black teachers in the city, during segregation.

Brown’s modernist paintings included “Third and Rhode Island,” which depicts LeDroit Park. Brown lived in the neighborhood and chose the community and its residents as the subjects for most of her paintings. In addition to the Smithsonian, she is represented in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Art Institute of Chicago.

“HILDA WILKERSON BROWN was my mother’s older sister, my aunt, my pseudo mom, my other mom, the most influential person in being who I am as an artist,” Burwell says in “Kindred Spirits.”

Burwell was born in Washington, too, in 1927. She grew up in Harlem and attended New York’s High School of Music and Art. Still struggling to recover from the Depression, her family returned to the nation’s capital and she finished at segregated Dunbar High School. It was her aunt who supported Burwell’s desire to become an artist and convinced her parents to let her pursue it.

 


March 17, 2017: From left, Artists David C. Driskell, Floyd Coleman, Sylvia Snowden, Lilian Thomas Burwell, and moderator Ruth Fine at panel discussion for “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

 

Burwell attended Pratt in New York City on a partial scholarship and Brown and her husband paid the balance of her fees and expenses. She later earned an MFA from Catholic University in Washington.

“I know that I would not be who I am today if it had not been for her influence and her nurturing,” Burwell says of Brown.

Burwell also became an educator like her aunt. After working as a publications and exhibits specialist at the Department of Commerce, she became a master teacher of art in the D.C. public schools. She taught from 1967-1980, the last five years at Duke Ellington School of the Arts.

“Hilda Wilkerson Brown was my mother’s older sister, my aunt, my pseudo mom, my other mom, the most influential person in being who I am as an artist.” — Lilian Thomas Burwell

Today, she lives and works in Highland Beach, Md., the African American community settled by the son of Frederick Douglass. Her practice is dedicated to abstraction. She makes nature-inspired paintings and sculptures.

In 1997, Hampton University Museum presented Burwell’s 30-year retrospective. “From Painting to Painting as Sculpture: The Journey of Lilian Thomas Burwell” was accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog.

Her work was recently featured in the exhibition “Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today” at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Mo. In 2017, Burwell joined fellow artists for a panel discussion about the African American art world in 20th-Century Washington.

The late David Driskell (1931-2020) also participated in the discussion. In “Kindred Spirits,” Driskell says he first saw Brown’s work at the Black-owned Barnett Aden gallery. She was also featured posthumously in an group exhibition dedicated to Black female artists.

Titled “Black Women Visual Artists in Washington, D.C.,” the 1986 show was presented by the Bethune Museum-Archives in Washington and organized by assistant director Guy McElroy. There were 18 local artist featured in the exhibition, according to the Post, including Brown, May Howard Jackson, Alma Thomas, Lois Jones, and Elizabeth Catlett.

“We wanted to present a group of people fully equivalent to artists exhibited in large art galleries and museums,” McElroy told the Post. “And we wanted to raise the question to other galleries: ‘Why have you not paid attention to these people?'” CT

 


Trailer for “Kindred Spirits: Artists Hilda Wilkinson Brown and Lilian Thomas Burwell,” which debuts on PBS July 7, 2020. | Video by Cintia Cabib

 

FIND MORE about “Kindred Spirits” on the documentary’s website

FIND MORE about Lilian Thomas Burwell on her website

 

BOOKSHELF
“From Painting to Painting to Sculpture: The Journey of Lilian Thomas Burwell” accompanied Lilian Thomas Burwell’s 30-year retrospective at Hampton University Mseum. The artist was also featured in the landmark group exhibition documented in “Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today.”

 

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