Louis Delsarte was a painter, muralist, draftsman, printmaker, poet and educator whose stylized expression was as expansive as his life experience. He was born and raised in Brooklyn to parents who socialized with artists of the Harlem Renaissance — Lena Horne, Count Basie, Langston Hughes — and he came of age during the Summer of Love, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Era. His inspirations included the Renaissance masters, Marc Chagall and Charles White. His paintings were the visual equivalent of a Gabriel García Márquez novel and he had an eclectic taste in music.
“Louis reminded me of a cross between Ellington and Hendrix,” says Kevin Sipp, curator of the City of Atlanta’s Gallery 72, and Delsarte’s friend and mentee for three decades. “He could take that rooted sound and transform it into something that was rooted in the totality of the universe. That lyricism, the way it navigated reminded me of the best of jazz and the best of psychedelic rock. Hendrix could take the blues and turn it into something cosmic. Louis did the same thing with a paintbrush.”
Louis Delsarte, 75, died May 2 from cardiac complications. A public memorial service will be held once it is safe to do so. Delsarte is the third Atlanta-linked African American artist/scholar to die in the past month. David C. Driskell, for whom the High Museum of Art’s Driskell Prize is named, died April 1, and Emory University’s Pellom McDaniels III died April 19. Only Driskell’s death was linked to Covid-19.
Delsarte was an associate professor in arts and humanities at Morehouse College. He taught painting and drawing at Howard University, Morris Brown College (where he had tenure) and Spelman College during a 42-year career. He held fine arts degrees from Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute (B.A.) and the University of Arizona at Tucson (M.F.A.), and attended classes at the Brooklyn Museum and Hans Hoffman School of Art.
Contemporary critics recognized Delsarte as the “Dream Weaver.” He lived on a commune in Arizona and painted tarot cards as an emerging artist. He was a master colorist who captured allegorical scenes in watercolors, acrylics, pastels and drawings. He was interested in documenting life, death, tragedy, happiness, sorrow and birth. He saw himself as a conduit for the ancestors — channeling their voices in enchanting compositions that were extravagant and anachronistic.
Delsarte’s paintings are in public collections at the High Museum, Hammonds House Museum and Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum. Harlem’s Studio Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., have featured his work in solo and group exhibitions.
In 2001, the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority commissioned Delsarte to revitalize the Church Avenue subway station in Brooklyn’s Flatbush section with his glass mosaic Transitions. Six years later, the U.S. Postal Service selected his Selma to Montgomery as the central image in a stamp series. His 129–foot Dreams, Visions and Change, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Mural was unveiled at Atlanta’s Peace Plaza in 2010.
“I invite your readers to visit any of Louis’ murals and sit there for a while and listen to the work,” says Arturo Lindsay, a Spelman art and art history professor. “Yeah, I mean listen. At first glance, his work appears to be eye candy. But the juxtapositions of complementary colors, analogous colors, primary, secondary and tertiary colors were complex and labor intensive. You could feel the aché [a Yoruba term for life force] coming off them and vibrating into people. If Langston Hughes was a poet of the people, then Louis Delsarte is the people’s painter.”
Delsarte was rigorous in his mission to impart knowledge through instruction and did so without being arrogant or demeaning toward his students. Extremely sensitive and observant, he was a consummate artist — right down to his inability to master the realities of time, adhering to schedules and meeting deadlines.
September Gray, director and founder of September Gray Fine Art Gallery, whom Delsarte regarded as a third daughter, laughs when remembering how challenging it could be to get canvases from his studio to her exhibition space because “Louis never thought he was ever finished.”
Fortunately, his wife and manager of 30 years, Jea Delsarte, flew her husband’s kite — keeping him grounded while allowing him to explore metaphysical planes, spirituality and abstract ideas without losing his connection to the real world.
“Louis loved making connections through his art,” Jea Delsarte says. “People were fascinated by the color, images, mystery, fantasy and hidden layers.”
People were primarily fascinated by Delsarte himself. Like his parents, he cultivated friendships with a highly creative, eclectic circle of friends. He counted Romare Bearden and Hale Woodruff as early mentors, and Robert Mapplethorpe as a confidante. Poet-performer Patti Smith chronicled her kinship with Delsarte in her 2010 memoir, Just Kids.
“We were a crew of misfits, even within the liberal terrain of an art school,” Smith says of her tribe. “We often joked that we were a ‘losers’ salon.” All jokes aside, those impromptu salons bore fruit that left Smith breathless, including the time Delsarte (who never left home without a sketchpad) delivered what she called the most beautiful and tender portrait anyone had ever painted of herself, Mapplethorpe and Delsarte enjoying some very, very good weed in her South Jersey living room.
The most recent subject of Delsarte’s singular gaze was jazz musician Dwight Andrews, senior minister at Atlanta’s First Congregational Church. Andrews says he was humbled by how his close friend depicted him at the pulpit surrounded by congregants — and Delsarte’s ability to create “a particular kind of energy . . . a combustion of color, sound and timbre put together to make this incredible soundscape in color.”
Light cannot be diminished by physical absence and, by all accounts, Delsarte’s light was incandescent.
“Louis was always looking beyond the lived experience to show you the universal experience,” says Sipp. “When I curated his solo exhibition at Hammonds House in 2010 and named it Spirit Chasing Rainbows: The Art of Louis Delsarte, everybody said that was the poet in me coming out. But it was the only way I could express the magical realism in his work. Sometimes you have to step outside the body and physical realm to express emotion. The majority of the great artists have always found a way to make their work seem timeless and timely at the same time . . . and Louis had all the hallmarks of a legendary artist.”
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