Lou Stovall, a master printmaker who created intricate, vividly colored screen prints — often in collaboration with nationally recognized artists including Alexander Calder, Jacob Lawrence and Sam Gilliam — while turning his backyard studio into one of Washington’s most vibrant artistic hubs, died March 3 at his home in the District. He was 86.
The cause was complications of heart problems, said his wife, Di Stovall.
For more than half a century, Mr. Stovall was a linchpin of the Washington art scene, partnering with leading artists at his studio, Workshop Inc., which he opened near downtown in 1968 and later moved to a converted garage behind his home in Washington’s Cleveland Park neighborhood.
Working with sponges, brushes, towels, squeegees, hand-cut stencils and a rich array of oil-based inks, Mr. Stovall helped demonstrate that printmaking was an art form, not just a commercial craft. He made ornate miniatures and eye-catching larger pieces, painstakingly printing one color at a time while developing techniques to create thin, delicate lines, layer translucent inks on top of one another and incorporate unusual mottled, brushed and speckled textures.
“The most important part of what I do is to give artists who have ideas they want to express in a silk-screen print a way of doing it,” he told the New York Times in 1998. “If they can explain it to me or show me what they are looking for, I am willing to experiment until I find it.”
Mr. Stovall, a sturdy figure with a carefully trimmed beard, was initially known for making posters during an era of protest and upheaval, designing 1960s prints for Washington concert venues, cultural institutions and civil rights groups, often in conjunction with musician and artist Lloyd McNeill.
He went on to collaborate with D.C. artists including Elizabeth Catlett, Gene Davis, David Driskell, Paul Reed and his longtime friend Gilliam, searching for ways to translate the subtleties of their paintings and drawings to the silk-screen medium.
He was also a teacher, framer, poet, furniture maker and art-world impresario, working with the curator Walter Hopps to organize exhibitions and classes at the Dupont Center, a short-lived museum and workshop that opened in 1969 as an extension of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. At the center’s townhouse near Dupont Circle, Mr. Stovall made frames for Gilliam’s paintings, printed photos for the artist William Christenberry and helped teach printmaking to fourth-graders, military personnel and others.
At the Phillips Collection, ‘Lou Stovall: The Museum Workshop’ spotlights a D.C. institution with a goal of art that was accessible to all
“No one has done more for more aspects of our art scene than printmaker Lou Stovall,” Washington Post art critic Paul Richard wrote in 1974, adding that Mr. Stovall’s posters “introduced a thousand Washingtonians to the pleasures of collecting.”
“By printing works of others … by organizing lots of shows, by offering his services as framer and installer and adviser and promoter, he energized the art scene,” Richard added. “His teaching has been ceaseless. Stovall is most often glimpsed surrounded by a retinue of students, aides, apprentices and colleagues. His presence is at once modest and commanding, tolerant and strict, and his influence has been enormous.”
Mr. Stovall went on to receive commissions from first lady Nancy Reagan and Washington Mayor Marion Barry while working with artists far beyond D.C. Over the years, he collaborated with Josef Albers, Robert Mangold, Gwendolyn Knight and Knight’s husband, Jacob Lawrence, who would communicate with Mr. Stovall through long phone calls from his home in Seattle, working out ways to reinterpret his paintings of Black history as silk-screen prints.
One 1997 print, “The Burning,” depicted a scene from the life of the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture. A cluster of burning houses is shown behind a sea of black, green and turquoise grass, that work being the result of a phone conversation in which Mr. Stovall and Lawrence counted each blade of grass.
“We speak the same language,” Lawrence told the Times. “When I tell him that certain lines need to be sharper, that I want more depth or texture to the color, he knows exactly what I’m talking about. He makes it happen because he is a craftsman who is also an artist.”
As Mr. Stovall told it, silk-screen was an “agent of invention,” an untapped art form with “no rules” and endless possibilities.
“It was so interesting to … develop an image and then go away from it for a minute, or for lunch, or just the rest of the evening. Then, suddenly to wake up and think, ‘This is what I should have done,’” he recalled in an interview with his former assistant Anne C. Smith, featured in the catalogue of a 2022 exhibition at the Kreeger Museum in Washington.
“A lot of that came because of working with some of the artists who were looking for ways of doing things, and I was there to help them achieve it,” he continued. “It was more of an adventure than anything else.”
Luther McKinley Stovall, the second of four children, was born in Athens, Ga., on Jan. 1, 1937. When he was 4, his family moved to Springfield, Mass., where his father worked at a Westinghouse factory and his mother made rifle parts for a federal armory. She encouraged Lou’s interest in drawing, arranging for him to take art lessons with an instructor who lived nearby.
At age 15, Mr. Stovall was hired to work as a stock clerk at a grocery store. During a trip to the basement store room, he noticed a chemical smell coming from around the corner and discovered the store’s sign painter, who was screen printing grocery signs. Mr. Stovall stood watching, awestruck, until the printer caught him staring.
“Don’t just stand there,” he said. “Grab this.”
Mr. Stovall began working as his assistant. With encouragement from his high school art teacher, he also began experimenting with printmaking as a fine art, winning a scholarship to the Rhode Island School of Design. Around the start of his second semester, his father died, and Mr. Stovall dropped out to help support his family.
In 1962, he moved to Washington to enroll at Howard University, where his teachers included James A. Porter, a pioneer of African American art history, and the artist James Lesesne Wells, who helped him refine his silk-screen techniques. Mr. Stovall got a job at a nearby sign shop, Botkin’s — he was rejected, he said, until the day he showed up and began cleaning the store on his own initiative — and started using the store’s equipment to make his own prints after hours.
By the time he graduated from Howard in 1966 with a bachelor’s degree in art history, he was the shop’s foreman, working with colleagues who included fellow Georgia native and artist Di Bagley. She later joined his team at the Workshop and made miniature paintings on paper, glass and jewelry. They married in 1971 and had a son, William, who edited the 2022 book “Of the Land,” a collection of art and poetry by Mr. Stovall.
Mr. Stovall also had a daughter, Calea, from an earlier marriage to Elizabeth Wilson, which ended in divorce.
Besides his wife, survivors include his son, William; daughter Calea Stovall Reed; and two granddaughters.
Mr. Stovall moved in the early 1970s to Cleveland Park, where he began focusing more on his own art while still taking commissions from fellow artists. For decades, he made peaceful prints of birds, trees and flowers, with names such as “Breathing Hope” and “My Springtime Heart.” “I’m kind of a straight, formal guy,” he told Washingtonian magazine in 2006, explaining that he found joy in the pastoral images that dominated his work. “I prefer order in my life as opposed to serendipity.”
Some of his prints were just a few inches wide. Others, including “Secrets of the Day” (2010), were much larger — as well as more abstract — filled with brightly colored inks that he dripped and splashed through a screen, without using stencils, to create a painterly effect. Late in his career, he also used his own work as raw material, cutting some of his prints into thin strips that he arranged into collages.
In addition to making drawings and prints, Mr. Stovall served as a board member of the PEN/Faulkner literary foundation and volunteered with local art institutions, including as vice chair of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. It helped, he said, to have a variety of projects going on at any given time, whether making furniture — his clients included the Watergate prosecutor Earl J. Silbert — or making frames for fine-art prints that he sold to collectors.
“The work is a joy,” he told The Post in 1987. “I find all of it fun — the prints, the furniture and picture frames. I think I’d find it terribly boring to do just one thing.”