On Saturday, April 20th at 4:00 PM, the National Gallery of Art will screen a new 30 minute documentary about noted D.C.-area artist and art historian, David Driskell. The film, David Driskell: In Search of the Creative Truth, shows Driskell at work and explains his variety of influences.
David Driskell in his studio, from In Search of the Creative Truth
Driskell, as we learned when we interviewed him back in December, is a wealth of knowledge about artists like Aaron Douglas, Augusta Savage, Jacob Lawrence and Langston Hughes (all of whom were Rosenwald fellows). David Driskell: In Search of the Creative Truth is available to view on IMDb.com. When it screens at the National Gallery of Art, Driskell will be present along with his collaborator, print maker Curlee Holton, and Dr. Johnnetta Cole, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.
“INsite/INchelsea,” a modern art exhibition at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in Manhattan, closes its nearly 3 month run this Saturday, March 9th. The show features work by 5 of the most prominent artists to receive Rosenwald fellowships: Eldzier Cortor, Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, Augusta Savage and Charles White. Incidentally–and interestingly–the Rosenfeld Gallery’s selections from these artists displays what their art looked like before they received their Rosenwald grants.
For example, take a look at Cortor’s 1938 “Rooftops on Wabash,” a painting of Chicago rowhomes framed through a second story apartment window. With the help of the Rosenwald Fund in the mid-1940s, Cortor went on to develop his artistic practice outside of this kind of urban space (traveling to South Carolina and, later, the Caribbean) but it’s fascinating to see this earlier stage in his career. Likewise, you’ll see Jacob Lawrence’s 1937 “Christmas in Harlem,” which displays some of the same style he would perfect in his acclaimed “Great Migration” series, completed with the help of consecutive Rosenwald grants in 1940, 1941 and 1942. From Charles White, the gallery offers a 1936 oil portrait, a piece that’s markedly different from the epic, historical murals and prints he would create later in his career, after his consecutive Rosenwald grants in 1942 and 1943.
Finally, be sure to see Augusta Savage‘s famed “Gamin” (1929), a beautiful piece that put the great sculptor on the map and earned her 3 Rosenwald grants to study art in Europe in 1929, 1930 and 1931. Because these works of art were likely the ones that initially drew the attention of the Rosenwald Fund grant administrators, viewing them can give you a glimpse into the Fund’s working process. If you are in the area, take the time to visit the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery before the exhibit closes.
Augusta Savage, who received three consecutive Rosenwald fellowships, created a monumental sculpture for the 1939 New York World’s Fair entitled “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” While the original sculpture was destroyed, lot 24 of this auction is a smaller version of the sculpture that was offered at the World’s Fair, a haunting memento of the great lost work.
One of the pleasures of producing The Rosenwald Schools has been that, even though we select our interviewees based on their knowledge on a specific topic, more often than not they surprise us with fascinating facts, anecdotes and new points of view that we weren’t previously aware of. This was very much the case with the interviews we filmed on December 11th, and we’re extremely thankful for the time and effort of the interviewees who spoke with us that day.
The Rosenwald Schools
One great surprise occurred during our interview with David Driskell, a longtime art professor and a noted artist himself. We initially reached out to Mr. Driskell because of his knowledge of African American art and Rosenwald Fund fellows (several of whom he knew personally), but it turns out he had a story to share about a Rosenwald School as well from his upbringing in rural Rutherford County, North Carolina.
In the spring of each year, we would leave our little one-room school to go down to Cliffside, North Carolina to a four-room school, which I was told was a Rosenwald school. It was a brick building, and we didn’t have any brick buildings in our area. We would go there for what we called Commencement. It had nothing to do with graduation, it actually had to do with displaying your creative skills, your oratorical skills, drawing, paintings […] and it was where I first exhibited my art made from the local clay in the brooks. (David Driskell, Dec. 11, 2012).
David Driskell (with a poster advertising his artwork in the background)
Another unexpected connection was made in our next interview, with Denise Johnson. Ms. Johnson is a descendent of Clinton Calloway, head of Tuskegee’s Extension Department and a crucial administrator of the Julius Rosenwald’s school-building program. Johnson is a resident of the Washington D.C. area, and she also shared with us that Clinton Calloway’s brother, Thomas, founded a town named Lincoln in nearby Prince George’s County, Maryland, where he organized the construction of a Rosenwald School.
It was Thomas’ idea to give African Americans at the time an opportunity to buy land to live in a community on their own. Thomas bought land and sold it in small plots to families. As the communities started to grow they needed to have a school, and it’s my understanding that the local government was not forthcoming in providing the funds for the school. Interestingly enough—and maybe not as a surprise—Thomas decided to call on the Rosenwald Fund and ask for help. (Denise Johnson, Dec. 11, 2012)
The legacy of the Rosenwald Fund is felt even more strongly in another part of the D.C. area, where the pilot building in Rosenwald’s YMCA-building program stands in the heart of the historic African American community around U Street NW (we detailed the path the building took to construction in another blog post). In addition to shooting footage of the YMCA’s beautiful and well-preserved interior (which includes historical exhibits about the luminaries who frequented the building), we talked to the Dodsons, a father and daughter who are both experts on local history. Norris Dodson, who used the YMCA’s facilities as a young man and remains a passionate advocate for the building, spoke about the importance of passing that history on to the next generation.
When I played basketball at the 12th Street Y, I always recall having fun, making connections with people my age, learning to play fairly. But the one thing that was missing is that I was not told about the wonderful history of the building, that great basketball players played here: Elgin Baylor, John Thompson. In fact, John Thompson told us that he was discovered here. But I was never aware that John Thompson played here when I was playing. When I found that out, I was an adult. And I always thought that if I had known these guys played here, that I would have been a better basketball player, just because of that. I thought it was sad that so many kids in the neighborhood didn’t know that Dr. Drew and Thurgood Marshall and Langston Hughes and Montague Cobb and so many others who had international reputations, reputations that grew far beyond this community, all met here. If the kids of some generations had realized that, if that history had been taught to them, they would have been able to have confidence that they didn’t have and use that confidence to grow to higher levels. (Norris Dodson, Dec. 11, 2012)
Our cameraman, Michael Moser, getting some exterior shots of the YMCA
Lori Dodson, Norris’s daughter, added context to her father’s interview and also revealed a more recent connection between the 12th Street YMCA and Julius Rosenwald:
In 1982, due to the deterioration of this lovely building, it was forced to close its doors. It was a travesty because it was during a time when there were so many ills in the community, many problems among youth and drugs. It was a time, like during segregation, where this building and the type of character that it developed was sorely needed. And so a group of people came together, concerned citizens, and decided that they were going to protest the potential demolition of this building, […] a place like this that is so historically significant. […] Julius Rosenwald was key in making sure that this building was open and his family was also involved in making sure that it reopened once again. If this building were not open today then my family would have lost a lot of our personal history, and I know that that’s the case of many, many families. (Lori Dodson, Dec 11, 2012)
Lori Dodson on our set in one of the restored rooms of the YMCA
Artists of the Rosenwald Fund
Along with David Driskell, we interviewed another art history scholar, Dr. Richard Powell of Duke University. Powell is a wonderful storyteller and a fount of knowledge about Rosenwald fellows. He shared a series of backgrounds on notable beneficiaries of the Rosenwald Fund with us, including this story about sculptor and teacher Augusta Savage:
Augusta Savage is a legend in African American art history. I say that because so much of her life was filled with struggle, with perseverance and with creativity all mixed up. She comes from Florida, she settles in New York in the early 1920s. She’s working very hard to try to develop her skills as a visual artist and she’s lucky enough to win a prize that will allow her to go to France. The Fontainebleau School provides her with [this] opportunity, until they find out that [she] is African American. When word gets around through the Fontainebleau School that they are about to bring an African American to the school, they basically say, “No, we’re not going to give this award to you.” And it actually is a cause célèbre. [Later, in the early 1930s,] thanks to the Rosenwald Foundation, Augusta Savage has an opportunity to go to France. France, for artists, is like a dream come true: the opportunity to walk in the paths of other famous artists, to live a life that is liberating without people questioning or looking at you based on your race. She has a wonderful experience there. Interestingly, when she comes back to Harlem, she then shifts gears back into the community [and] puts all of her energy and effort into developing an art school, the Harlem Arts Center, as one of the places that young people like [Rosenwald fellow] Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis and other artists will go to learn about art. I often describe Augusta Savage’s school as a kind of latchkey school for young aspiring artists. Her school ended up being not just a place to study art, but it became kind of a community center. (Richard Powell, Dec. 11, 2012)
Savage was not the only Rosenwald fellow that went on to become a teacher and mentor to younger artists (other examples include Elizabeth Catlett, Aaron Douglas and Charles White) and we’re excited to be able to tell her story and the stories of other Rosenwald fellows in The Rosenwald Schools, and grateful to those who have lent their voices to the film.
Robin Pogrebin for the New York Times reports that as Harlem Hospital gets a substantial makeover, a group of large murals that have graced the walls of the hospital since the 1930s are undergoing a multimillion dollar restoration. The murals were commissioned as part of the Federal Art Project of the WPA in the 1930s, and depict a variety of scenes from the history, everyday life and symbolism of African American culture. The murals, which have deteriorated and in some cases been covered up, will have a place of honor in a new publicly accessible gallery in the hospital.
A panel from Charles Alston’s “Modern Medicine,” WPA mural in Harlem Hospital
Photo credit: Columbia University
Among the murals is a diptych by Charles Alston entitled “Magic in Medicine/Modern Medicine,” which shows the history of folk medicine alongside modern innovations and contemporary doctors. Alston, who received consecutive Rosenwald fellowships in 1940 and 1941, was a primary driving force behind the murals. The WPA initially blanched at the black-centric subject matter, citing concerns that the content could offend the black community and claiming it was shortsighted to focus on black history in a community that may not always have the same racial complexion. Their misguided criticisms may have resulted from the fact that, according to the New York Times, this was perhaps the biggest federally-funded art project to date that commissioned black artists. In response to the WPA’s pushback, Alston formed the Harlem Artists Guild (with another Harlem-based Rosenwald fellow, Augusta Savage) and successfully lobbied the WPA into allowing the project to proceed. The murals were worked on by a wide variety of artists, including other Rosenwald fellows such as Ronald Joseph.
A panel from Vertis Hayes’ “Pursuit of Happiness,” WPA mural in Harlem Hospital
Photo credit: Columbia University
In addition to Alston’s murals, “Pursuit of Happiness” by Vertis Hayes is a particularly interesting part of the collection. One panel of Hayes’ work in particular (pictured above) depicts the migration of African Americans from the rural south to northern industrial cities. This hopeful painting utilizes a dramatic symbol of progress, a giant cog, which is a common motif in art from the time period that depicts African American history, and can be seen in artworks by two Rosenwald fellows: Lamar Baker’s “Ezekiel Saw The Wheel,” and Aaron Douglas’s “Aspects of Negro Life,” pictured below. The latter was another WPA-commissioned mural and was originally displayed in the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library (which is nearby to Harlem Hospital as well as the Harlem Rosenwald YMCA).
A panel from Aaron Douglas’s 1934 “Aspects of Negro Life”
Photographed by Hane C. Lee (flickr)
Below is an excerpt from “A Study of Negro Artists,” a 1937 film which depicts several Harlem artists at work. The video is cued to a scene from the film that shows muralist Aaron Douglas painting in his studio. Douglas received his Rosenwald fellowship the same year the film was made, probably on the strength of his recent WPA murals and the paintings he contributed as cover art to Rosenwald fellow Claude McKay. With his grant, the New York-based artist traveled to the south to gain new inspiration for his work. If you stay tuned to the film, the next section features another WPA muralist named Palmer Hayden.
Although it was initially resistant, the WPA’s Federal Art Project became a valuable patron of African American art. It’s no coincidence that there are many intersections between the WPA and the Rosenwald Fund. In the early twentieth century, before the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rosenwald Fund and the WPA worked toward a common purpose, and together they made up a huge proportion of the support nationally for black artists.
This blog featured some more murals a couple of weeks ago by a different Rosenwald fellow, Hale Woodruff. Daniel Schulman has written that Charles Alston shared Woodruff’s spirit of experimentation, moving between different artistic styles. It’s great that both of their works are being restored and displayed publicly.