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  David Driskell's Big Picture
By Esther Iverem
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 23, 1998

Someday, somebody'll write about me,
Black and beautiful –
I reckon it'll be
Me myself!

– Langston Hughes

Talk about a passionate life.

When David Driskell came to the world of African American art, it had no place in the broader context of American art history. Through his passion and persistence – not to mention scholarship and taste – he has played a pivotal role in changing that. In so doing he has altered the nation's artistic landscape.

There is no sign of that passion in his unassuming manner, in the way he casually stands in his Hyattsville living room, where paintings and sculpture by Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett and Jacob Lawrence are being carted away for a major exhibit of his art collection. Students regularly crowd into the house to soak up its warmth and eat his gumbo or his wife Thelma's sweet potato pie. This is a man who doesn't need to thunder.

His speaking style combines the cadence of a minister, the restraint of a gentleman, the erudition of a scholar and the irreverence of an artist. At 67, he is of that generation of Southern black men and women who got where they were going through gentle but persistent nudging. "Narratives of African American Art and Identity: The David C. Driskell Collection," on exhibit at the Art Gallery at the University of Maryland, reinforces his life's devotion as a scholar, artist, curator and collector of African American art.

"David is a Renaissance man," says painter and Howard professor Starmanda Bullock. "There's his way of understanding how we even handle color and shape. There's his understanding of the images that arise from this atavistic quality that comes from ancestors."

Driskell has created a bridge of scholarship between the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and the visual arts wing of the black arts movement, which he nurtured during the 1970s. He is both heir to the intellectual Alaine Locke (followed by James A. Porter and James B. Herring at Howard University) and a mentor to the next generation of black visual arts scholars and curators. These include Deborah Willis Kennedy, curator of exhibitions at the Smithsonian's Center for African American History and Culture; Mary Schmidt Campbell, former director of the Studio Museum of Harlem and now dean of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University; and Richard Powell, chairman of the department of art and art history at Duke University.

Driskell's groundbreaking exhibit, "Two Centuries of Black American Art," opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976. It encouraged African American artists and spurred the creation of similar shows around the country. For art students subsisting on college programs that offered little or no information about blacks, the catalogue he wrote for "Two Centuries" served as an indispensable text.

"That exhibit was a watershed in both its scholarly approach and popularity," says Thelma Golden, curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Golden, 31, was in grade school when "Two Centuries" toured. She didn't see the show but says its catalogue, which she discovered while an undergraduate at Smith in the mid-1980s, was a revelation.

"It was really easy with David's catalogue to learn the depth of African American art that you wouldn't learn in art history courses," she says. "There was a whole range of literature – primarily from historically black colleges – that was relatively unknown. The bibliography alone is a critical contribution to the field."

Driskell's collection, which he began as a college student, includes some 450 pieces, including an original Rembrandt etching that he found in Denmark for $10 and an original Matisse linocut that he snagged at the Alexandria Thieves Market for about $3. But the bulk of it is devoted to African and African American art and is considered one of the major such private collections in the country, just behind that of Bill and Camille Cosby, whom he has advised for the past 20 years. His placement of works by black artists on the set of "The Cosby Show" in the 1980s created a new class of black art collector when great numbers began buying inexpensive print reproductions. He is working on a book about the Cosbys' collection.

He also advised the White House three years ago on the purchase of the first work by an African American artist to hang there, which turned out to be "Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City," a landscape by Henry Ossawa Tanner.

Finding a Black Self

"I'm not going to give in to someone else's definition of me," Driskell says, sitting in his airy library. "I'm not going to give in to that when I don't think it's connected to what I am and who I can be."

When speaking, he tends to glance down in moments of introspection. But on this matter of self-definition, he looks you straight in the eye and speaks with conviction, later referring to a Langston Hughes verse that sums up his determination to speak for himself.

The subject has come up in a discussion of the critical controversy stirred up by the "Two Centuries" show. It began when New York Times critic Hilton Kramer wrote in 1977 that the show was more "social history" than art and included many "mediocre" works. Driskell created a national stir a few weeks later when he asked NBC anchor Tom Brokaw on the "Today" show who Hilton Kramer was, and declared that Kramer must not know anything about black art. His answer to Kramer was that all art is a part of social history and that Kramer's assessment was simply a veil to hide his prejudices while at the same time not conceding that blacks and other groups had been left out of the American art world.

This was a time of debate on such issues. In October 1970, when Driskell saw his friend Georgia O'Keeffe at the opening of her retrospective at the Whitney, he complained to her about the scarcity of places for African American artists to exhibit. She was incredulous.

"What are you complaining about?" she asked him. "You're a man! If there's any such thing as the niggers of the art world, it's women. It's not any man."

Not surprisingly, his scholarship is reflected greatly in the "Narratives" show. Curator Juanita Holland has divided the exhibit into five historical and social sections, beginning with the ways African American artists in the 19th and early 20th centuries, attempting to subvert popular derogatory images of blacks, created art that mimicked that of the white mainstream.

"The works in the show are by American artists," Holland says. "They are all artists of African descent, but their works do not necessarily share stylistic affinities or common evolution or purpose. What they all express are the overriding concerns about how to construct self, how to be black in white America, how to be an artist, and how to arrange all of these selves within one body and within one lifetime."

From Eatonton to Academia

When Holland speaks of Driskell's collection, she could just as well be talking about Driskell himself. He was born in Eatonton, Ga., in 1931, the only boy and the youngest of four children of George W. and Mary Lou Cloud Driskell. When he was 5, the family moved to North Carolina, where they lived in a little stone house accessible only by a dirt road that snaked through the woods. It was there that Driskell grew up, doted on, protected by his older sisters, ducking farm chores, playing with his pet hen, exploring his budding interest in art and excelling at his schoolwork.

"He was determined that he was going to school," recalls his sister Jean McDuffie, who lives in Washington. "He would take his good shoes and hide them in the barn so he could take them and wear them to school."

His father, pastor of two local Baptist churches, was a blacksmith and made furniture. His grandfather, a native of the Georgia Sea Islands, made intricately woven horse harnesses and other ornaments from paper-thin sheets of tree bark. His mother wove baskets from bulrushes and pine needles, made quilts and concocted dyes from berries, onion peel and black walnuts.

In his living room, Driskell leans over a darkened solid pine chest with forged iron locks. He explains that it was his father's bank and that it used to be buried in a secret spot under the house. His siblings didn't want that or any of the other stuff around the house, and for much of his childhood – growing up with homemade and secondhand things – he didn't want it, either.

"We wanted everything from a factory," he says with a little snort, rubbing his palm over the rough chest. "We wanted things made from plastic. Now I try to put my hands on everything that I can find that he made."

Driskell was the first of his family to go to college, and this he simply willed to happen. In September 1949, his Aunt May gave him a sendoff party. Everyone knew that he was going to Howard University. The local black paper even carried a news item.

But Driskell hadn't actually applied to Howard and didn't know he was supposed to. With money he had earned working in the fields he hated, he boarded a train to Washington and surprised his sister Jean by showing up at her Capitol Hill apartment.

Then he "went to college," just showed up on Howard's campus carrying his high school report card. After being treated with a mixture of derision, cold shoulders and generosity, he was allowed to enroll the following quarter.

In addition to studying with James Porter, an important scholar of African American art history, he gained a passion for collecting while working for James Herring, who had founded the Howard University Art Gallery, and for Washington's influential Barnett-Aden Gallery. Another of his teachers was Lois Mailou Jones, who was influential in securing his admission to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine in 1953, two years before he graduated from Howard.

As an undergraduate, he also met Thelma G. Deloatch, and courted her by taking her to church services and movies. They married in 1952, began collecting art and had two daughters, Daviryne and Daphne, who remember attending art openings and meeting famous people like Langston Hughes from their earliest years.

"Everything was related in the artistic sense," remembers Daphne Driskell Coles, who lives with her family across the street from her parents in Hyattsville. Her father, she says, "did these little magic tricks – a penny or a peanut disappearing behind his ear. He can still do that, and we still don't know where the peanut or penny went."

With only a bachelor's degree, Driskell landed a job as an assistant professor of art at Talladega College in Alabama. He received his master of fine arts degree from Catholic University, worked as an associate professor at Howard and then headed to Fisk University, where he was professor and chairman of the art department from 1966 until 1977. There he curated and wrote catalogues on more than 40 exhibits featuring the work of such artists as Aaron Douglass, Jacob Lawrence, Palmer Hayden and Alma Thomas.

In 1977, a year after the opening of "Two Centuries," he became a professor of art at the University of Maryland, serving as chairman of the department from 1978 to 1983. In 1995, he was named distinguished professor at Maryland. He will retire in December.

Window on a Life

"The important thing is to live with the art," he says, sitting in his dining room. "If I can't live with it, I don't buy it."

Favorite pieces from flea markets, gifts of dishes, fabric and beads punctuate the Driskells' lives and David Driskell's own work, which will also be on exhibit in a companion show at Maryland. His paintings range from landscapes to images of chairs and sometimes touch on themes from the Bible. (In 1990, he designed two stained-glass windows for the church he attends, People's Congregational Church in Washington. Three years later he designed 63 windows for DeForest Chapel at Talladega College.)

One of his many complexities is that while he has championed the right of artists to be politically outspoken in their work, he has not done so himself. But he long ago lost any sense that he must defend himself against those who might ask him to show his black card.

"I don't see an artist as less black if they aren't portraying the social context in their work," he says. "If your life is black, it's a given that your art is black, and it's black because of our social circumstances. I know who I am. I don't need to prove it to anyone."

A collection offers some hint, if not proof, of identity, especially as it ages and gathers critical mass. Maybe this "proof" all around him is one reason Driskell talks about feeling complete in all his roles – artist, scholar, curator, husband, father, grandfather.

This comfort, he says, extends even to "the New York thing." As an outsider, someone born and living far from the Hudson River and from the South, he has never received great attention in the Big Apple, though he is one of the few black artists represented by a 57th Street gallery. His collection will tour nationally, but no New York institution has agreed to exhibit it. But he says that doesn't matter so much to him now. After all, his career offers ample evidence that much of the groundwork for the African American visual arts world was laid elsewhere.

Into the Garden

Just when you think you've seen it all and despair of ever being able to distill Driskell's life – the collection, paintings, catalogues, biographies, magazine articles, books, archive, students, food, family – there is, finally, the garden.

He steps off his wide wooden porch, which bears a plaque indicating that the old Victorian home is a historic landmark. Spread before him is a half-acre transformed into a landscape of fantasy, nostalgia and spirit: oak, cedar, locust, pecan, magnolia, apple, peach, plum, pear and persimmon trees. There are figs, grape vines, bougainvillea, 25 different kinds of roses, all the greens – turnip, mustard, kale, beet, spinach.

And there, near the middle, is the bottle tree.

Leafless, with nails hammered into its bare, stubby branches, the tree sprouts any number of greenish Coke bottles, clear Ne-Hi bottles, cobalt blue milk of magnesia bottles.

People always stop and stare at it. When he wants to "be devilish," he tells them it is a "spirit catcher," and they scatter. In reality, it is a tradition brought over from Africa. You can find bottle trees all over the South. They honor the spirits of the ancestors. His honors his parents.

These were his parents' bottles. Driskell remembered their custom of burying them at the foot of a large hickory tree on their property. Twice, once almost 30 years ago when his father died, and again seven years ago when his mother died, he went to that hickory tree and started to dig. There, just barely below the surface, he found them.

"Art was always functional for African people," he says. "If there is anything different for us, it's how we deal with the arts and deal with history."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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