In Conversation with Samella Lewis
Artist and art historian Samella Sandra Lewis, who died on Friday, May 27th, is renowned for her contributions to African American art and history. Born on February 27, 1924 in New Orleans, Louisiana, Lewis’ heritage led her to view art as an essential expression of the community and its struggles. Her art is deeply personal, with each piece embodying experiences from her life. Lewis has been the recipient of numerous awards and distinctions. In 1995, she received the UNICEF Award for Visual Arts, and from 1996 to 1997 she worked as a distinguished scholar at the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities in Los Angeles. Scripps College has also named an academic scholarship in Lewis’ honor.
How did being a southerner shape your perspective?
Growing up in the south during the era of segregation and Jim Crow gave me a clear picture of the injustices that Black people had to face, and still face in this country which touts itself as the land of the free. Seeing the conditions that black and poor people had to work under and live with daily helped to shape and define me as an artist. I knew early on that I couldn’t just paint pretty pictures. Instead, I had to visually document these experiences that I felt and saw happening all around me. While some things have changed over the years, many things remain the same. This is why throughout my life I have remained committed to using art as a means of educating, enlightening and inspiring Black people, and all people who wish to make this a better world.
You occupied so many spaces during your trailblazing career — artist, educator, author, art collector, art historian, curator, movement founder, activist, museum founder. Which one of those most defines you? Which role is most uniquely you?
I would say being an artist defines me the most. It’s what I started out doing since I was a little girl and it led to everything else. All of these roles are uniquely me. It’s just been my evolution. First doing art, then trying to educate people about my art and the art of other African Americans past and present through books and magazines such as the Black Art Quarterly, which evolved into the International Review of African American Art which we started in the 1970’s and is now published by Hampton University. Then, because of the lack of diversity in the mainstream museums and galleries, we saw the need to create such institutions in our own communities. We did this so that the artists would have a place to exhibit their works and so the community could have a place to come and experience these works.
What would you share with artists today about making their voice heard in the conversation on how to change our country? What role must artists play?
I would tell them to take advantage of any opportunity to express their opinions with their voice and through their works. Do the kind of work that expresses serious ideas. Take hold of what is important to you and things that will be important to others. Create work that will sustain ideas and perpetuate movements.
Museums — The Whitney, Guggenheim, NOLA Art Museum — are being called out for a lot of things — lack of people of color in collections, as curators and administrators. Do we need to rely on museums to validate Black art and artists?
While it would be nice to have more Black representation in the mainstream museums, we don’t need to rely on them to validate Black art and artists. We have to utilize the resources that we have such as African American museums and galleries. Also, institutions of higher learning like Hampton University and Howard University have wonderful art programs. There is also the David Driskell Center for the Study of Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and The African Diaspora as well as community art centers like the Watts Towers Art Center that we have here in Los Angeles. Publications like the International Review of African American Art and your publication Pigment International are also very important in the validation of African American art and artists.
Elizabeth Catlett was your mentor. What are your thoughts on the role of mentors? Who were some of your mentees?
Mentors are very important. Mentors give us guidelines based on their experiences that help us on our journey through life. If I didn’t have Elizabeth to tell me things, I probably wouldn’t have noticed many of the things she introduced me to, because they were not apparent in my everyday life. Just looking at the sky, the sun and the cosmos. She taught me how to see things as visuals and then apply them. My most well-known mentee was Allyson Saar who I taught at Scripps College. As an educator I tried to be a mentor to all of my students. Many have gone on to have successful careers, if not as artists, as curators, and other positions in the field of art.
You collect WPA and Harlem Renaissance art. Do you have any favorite current artists?
Some of the artist that I like are Kerry James Marshall, Mark Bradford, of course Alison Saar. There are so many great young artists today, and I wouldn’t want to leave anyone out.
You were influenced by so many cultures having spent time in Taiwan, Brazil, Africa. Which culture outside the U.S. most influenced you? Why is it important for Black artists to experience other cultures?
Africa has the resources that spoke to the early traditions that I was interested in. While I have been greatly influenced by the art and culture of Brazil, the Caribbean, and even Asia, Africa is the root of it all. It is important for Black artist to experience these other cultures for their own personal growth as an artist and as a person.
You work in a variety of medium — watercolor, linocut, woodblock, oil, pen and ink — do you have a favorite/preferred medium?
My favorite medium to work in would probably be oils, however being versatile and able to work in different mediums has allowed me a broader range of expression.
Dr. Margaret Burroughs spoke about legacy, how would you sum up your legacy?
While it is up to others to determine my legacy, I can only hope that my legacy will be significant enough to inspire people and help them improve their lives.