David C. Driskell’s journey as an artist, educator, curator, essayist and scholar of international acclaim evolved despite his early life and public policies engineered to curtail human potential. He was born June 7, 1931, in Eatonton, Georgia, to a sharecropper father who was a traveling preacher, and a mother who raised four children at home. Driskell, the youngest, would have followed in his father’s footsteps had it not been for the prophecy of his grandmother, a Native American woman named Cloud.
“Cloud looked at David’s palm when he was 6 years old and told his mother and father that they should not send their only son to pick cotton because he was destined to go to school,” says Frank Stewart, a fine art photographer who studied art history and painting at Fisk University in 1968 when Driskell chaired the departments. “After that day, David never spent another moment laboring in the fields.”
Driskell, 88, died April 1 of coronavirus-related pneumonia. He lived in Hyattsville, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C., and not far from the University of Maryland, where he taught for years. The university is home to the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora.
Driskell was one of 12 recipients of the National Humanities Medal in 2000, during the Clinton administration. In 2005, Atlanta’s High Museum of Art established the David C. Driskell Prize, the first national award to honor and celebrate contributions to African American art and art history. In 2018, he received a Lifetime Legacy Award from the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The High Museum plans to open a retrospective of Driskell’s work on February 6, 2021.
His death has left a void that reverberates among a generation of artists, museum professionals, academics and collectors worldwide.
“David was a lion,” says Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, director of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art. “He helped define the field of African American art and art history. But beyond being a giant within those disciplines, he was a giant of humanity.”
A MOMENT AT THE EASEL
When Driskell was 5, his family relocated from Eatonton to he Appalachian foothills of western North Carolina — where he attended segregated schools and benefited from superior instruction despite the constraints of Jim Crow laws. North Carolina paid black students to attend out-of-state graduate programs to maintain the University of North Carolina’s whites-only policy. That’s how Driskell wound up with a fourth-grade teacher who had earned her doctorate in education from the University of Michigan.
By the time he competed his studies at the four-room high school for children of color, the prevailing message from educators and his parents was clear: If Driskell wanted something different from life, education would be key. He was one of 18 students from his graduating class of 24 that went to college, but his plan to enroll at Howard University failed when he showed up, report card in hand, without having applied for admission.
Undeterred when encouraged to reapply for the spring semester, Driskell simply sat in on classes until he was formally admitted. The next year, he experienced another life-changing divine intervention.
He was at an easel during a drawing class when James A. Porter, a pioneering art historian who chaired Howard’s art department, walked by. He took a look at Driskell’s sketch pad and said the young man should change his major from history to art. “You have a good mind, so you can’t just be a painter,” Porter said. “You’re going to have to help define the field and keep the tradition going.”
Driskell was one of the first undergraduates admitted to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture — a summer intensive at which he learned how to grind pigment to make paints and received classical training on the fundamentals of egg tempura, frescos and other painting methods and materials. He graduated from Howard with a B.F.A. degree in 1955 and from Catholic University, also in Washington, D.C., with an M.F.A. degree in 1961.
He was a professor and department chair at Alabama’s Talladega College, Nashville’s Fisk University and the University of Maryland. He wrote seven books on African American art and scores of catalog essays for such artists as Aaron Douglas, Palmer Hayden and Jacob Lawrence. He held 10 honorary degrees.
When Driskell curated the groundbreaking traveling survey Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750–1950 and wrote a companion catalog, it changed his career, says Robert G. O’Meally, professor of English and literature at Columbia University. The exhibition, featuring the work of 63 artists, debuted in 1976 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
“The impact of David’s book and exhibition is immeasurable because his scholarship showed there was a legacy that had been overlooked,” O’Meally says. “We knew there was a tradition in African American literature and music, but David corrected the perceived wisdom that African American artists were sui generis by proclaiming their work as part of a tradition that dated to 1750.”
Driskell’s peers still consider that catalog a manifesto. When meeting Driskell for the first time, such contemporary artists as Kerry James Marshall and Theaster Gates asked him to autograph their well-worn editions. Collectors sought out his advice.
Bill Cosby reached out to Driskell and said, “I just read your book. It meant a lot to me and I would like to talk with you about it,’” O’Meally says. Cosby asked Driskell to organize annual art history tours for his children to show them the bridges of Italy, the pyramids of Egypt and other important monuments of arts and culture. “I think David did the equivalent for thousands through his writing, teaching and art,” O’Meally says.
“Behold Thy Son”
Driskell and his wife, Thelma, divided their time between homes in Hyattsville and Falmouth, Maine, where painting among the pine trees was a longtime source of inspiration. His paintings explore spiritual, romantic and abstract cosmologies, and he’s been represented by New York’s DC Moore Gallery since 1995. Behold Thy Son, painted in response to the 1955 murder of Emmitt Till, has been called a modern-day Pietà and is part of the permanent collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The painting’s title is a quote from the Bible, John 19:26: “When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son!” The painting was a metaphor for the experience of being black in America. Still considered a tour de force of moral authority and artistic merit, Driskell said the painting “cleansed me of the hate” and convinced him that social commentary “was not for me.”
An avid collector, he amassed one of the most comprehensive private collections of mostly African American and African art. O’Meally recalls “gawking at the treasures lining the walls in Hyattsville” including canvases by Romare Bearden, original prints by James Van Der Zee, a Rembrandt etching and a Matisse linocut.
Sing Lathan, a New York-based producer, lived with the Driskells while at Howard University in 2000 and witnessed Southern hospitality firsthand. “Dr. Driskell was always available,” she says. “There were so many students, scholars, artists, educators and museum curators who would come through for breakfast, lunch or dinner . . . and it was all very impromptu.”
“A soft-spoken revolutionary”
Driskell’s skills as a gardener and chef paralleled his capacity for cultivating kinship and knowledge. His home-cooked meals were legendary among those lucky enough to be invited to his table. And the bounty — whether fruits or vegetables or the grapes he pressed into wine — was always homegrown.
“David’s people lived off the land and that experience stayed with him through his life,” says Stewart. “He could coax life out a rocky 6- by 6-foot plot of land. He grew pears, figs and peaches at his homes in New England and the D.C. area. He knew how to preserve food in the ground. We could be walking through a parking lot, and he would tell me what edibles were growing between the rocks and gravel, which mushrooms I could eat without getting poisoned and what onion was growing beneath the soil.”
Barnwell Brownlee, the 2013 recipient of the High Museum’s David C. Driskell Prize, says she’ll miss her mentor’s exceptional voice of reason the most. The High’s Rhonda Matheison, who oversaw publication of a catalog celebrating 15 years of Driskell Prize acquisitions, says she can’t imagine not having weekly chats “with David, who was like a second father to me.” O’Meally marvels at the miracle of a man who was able to develop an independent sense of integrity about himself and an unacknowledged art form and rich culture that were historically disenfranchised.
“David was a soft-spoken revolutionary,” O’Meally says. “He was not carrying a blackjack, talking trash and barking at the big gate, as Ralph Ellison would say. Instead, he quietly trained the next generation of teachers and artists, served on boards and made his presence felt. He was the embodiment of the high standards of African American creative expression and intellectual integrity.”
Driskell is survived by his wife of 68 years, Thelma Deloatch, daughters Daviryne McNeill and Daphne Cole, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
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