BAIA BITS: Delilah W. Pierce
For Delilah W. Pierce, there was freedom in nature. Known for her vibrant and compelling depictions of the natural world, the talented painter, art advocate, and educator regularly promoted what she believed was the necessary role of art in enabling productive and rewarding lives, particularly for the Black community.
Born in Washington, D.C. in 1904 to a service worker and a homemaker, Pierce was influenced by the culture, vibrant communal networks, and educational aspirations of the many progressive-minded Negroes forging their way in the nation’s capital and along its popular U Street corridor, the epicenter of Black society. Despite segregation and periodic racial unrest, Pierce came of age in a rapidly changing city with strong middle class neighborhoods and schools where Negroes supported their own while simultaneously advocating for a more equitable social status.
In 1925, the 21 year-old Pierce took her artistic skills and Howard University education back to the DC Public Schools that had groomed her, beginning a 27-year career teaching art to secondary students. During this term, she would add a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Teachers College, also working with friends and fellow DC-based artists, Alma Thomas and Lois Mailou Jones. Though raised and operating within an urban environment, Pierce’s subsequent paintings commonly portrayed a more simple existence replete with natural landscapes and the New England oceanside imagery she encountered upon trips to Martha’s Vineyard. Beginning in 1952—the year she became an art professor at DC Teachers College—Pierce embarked on the first of a series of study tours that would ultimately take her across Europe and Africa, as European landscapes would also appear in her work.
However, before and during her globetrotting, Pierce enthusiastically advocated for the arts on behalf of her students and her community. In a March 1952 contribution to The Negro History Bulletin, upon citing the “pitiful attention paid to the creative arts” in educational curricula, Pierce stressed how professionals in fields ranging from psychology to sociology clearly promoted the role of art in enabling productive citizens:
“All have had a strong feeling for the value of art experiences as vital factors in education from childhood throughout adulthood—for early development, for finding oneself, for release from tensions and inhibitions, for relaxation and providing for the creative urge,” penned Pierce. “Thinking persons feel that art experiences will become progressively more meaningful and significant as we come to know just how color, for instance, helps to release and direct the forces of feeling and imagination, and how pressing the child’s—and the adult’s—energies outward into clay directs and orders the forces of his “spirit” and strengthens him in his whole development and adjustment to life.”
Later in life, Pierce’s artwork and advocacy would be recognized by a variety of institutions ranging from universities to galleries to the United States Congress. Passing in 1992, Pierce’s work can be found among the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, University of District of Columbia, Howard University Gallery of Art, Evans Tibbs Collection, Barnett-Aden Collection, Smith-Mason Gallery of Art, and Bowie State College.
Perhaps the website devoted to her life’s work remembers her best:
“Delilah was an artist who captured her view of the natural world through the usage of vibrant colors and a keen sense of visual perspective. This was the world through the eyes of an African American urbanite who found freedom, comfort, and solace through rich exterior landscapes and coastal scenes, as well as the abstract images that lay within.”
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