Wishing A Very Happy Birthday to

Dr. Samella Lewis

Artist and art historian Samella Lewis is renowned for her contributions to African American art and art history. Born on February 27, 1924, in New Orleans, Louisiana, Lewis’s heritage led her to view art as an essential expression of the community and its struggles.

“Cleo” by Dr. Samella Lewis 27 1/2″ x 20 1/4″, lithograph edition of 100, 1996

Lewis began her art career as a student at Dillard University, where she was instructed by the African American sculptor Elizabeth Catlett. At one of her instructor’s suggestions, Lewis transferred to Hampton Institute, where she earned her B.A. degree in art history in 1945. Lewis completed her graduate studies at the Ohio State University, earning her M.A. degree in 1948, and in 1951 she became the first African American woman to receive her doctorate in fine arts and art history. In order to publish Black Artists on Art (1969), Lewis founded the first African American-owned art publishing house, Contemporary Crafts.

From 1969 to 1984, Lewis worked as professor of art history at Scripps College in Claremont, California, becoming the college’s first tenured African American professor. Lewis also helped to found the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles in 1976 and established the scholarly journal International Review of African-American Art that same year. The journal went on to become one of the leading forum for educating scholars and others about the many contributions African Americans have made to the visual arts. Lewis published African American Art and Artists in 1978, a history of African American art since the colonial era. Through the museum and journal she founded, Lewis created exhibition opportunities for African American artists which have bolstered their credibility.

“Diva” by Dr. Samella Lewis 19 1/2″ x 13 1/4″, lithograph, edition of 80, 2007

Lewis’s work was exhibited in many important galleries and museums. Lewis’s deeply-personal art embodies some experience from her own life in each piece. Lewis received several awards and distinctions; in 1995, she received the UNICEF Award for the Visual Arts, and from 1996 to 1997 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’s honor. Lewis and her husband, Paul G. Lewis, were married in 1948; the couple raised two children.






Film by Eric Minh Swenson. Samella Lewis says, “My inspiration as an artist and art historian comes from the need to bring greater attention to the accomplishments of African American Artists.” SAMELLA SANDERS LEWIS – The career of visionary teacher, scholar and artist Samella Lewis spans some fifty years and has taken her to many parts of the world. As an art historian and scholar, her knowledge is boundless and accessible. As an artist, Lewis remains at the forefront of her field. As a collector, she has amassed an impressive and diverse collection that includes African American, Asian, Caribbean, Native American, South American and African Arts. As a social and community activist, she will serve as a reference for generations to come. Her college education began in 1941 at Dillard University in her native New Orleans, where she studied with her mentor renowned artist Elizabeth Catlett. After two years at Dillard, she transferred to Hampton Institute (University) where she was a student of Viktor Lowenfeld, a Jewish refugee from Austria who taught his students not to feel they had to produce art to please anyone, but to produce it from the heart. This is an attitude Lewis still maintains and imparts to others. At The Ohio State University, Lewis received her Master of Arts degree in 1947 and her Ph.D in fine arts and art history in 1951. In 1952 she became chair of the fine arts department at Florida A&M University. Her next stop was a teaching position five years later at the State University of New York (Plattsburgh), where she developed an interest in Chinese language and Chinese art history. This soon led to a Fullbright Fellowship to study Chinese language and art history in Taiwan. On her return from Taiwan, Dr. Lewis was awarded a New York state grant to study Chinese language and art history at the Freer Gallery in Washington D.C.. with famed author and art historian Sherman Lee. Following this she resumed her studies at New York University and later at the University of Southern California with a three year course in Chinese language and history on a National Defense and Education grant. Currently Dr. Lewis is Professor Emerita of art history at Scripps College of the Claremont Colleges. Scripps was instrumental in two of Lewis’ career milestones. The school provided space and assistance in 1975 when she founded The International Review of African American Art. The school also lent support to The Museum of African American Art in 1976, of which Lewis was founder and director. During the course of her career, Lewis has received numerous awards and honors, including an appointment as a distinguished scholar at the Getty Museum and the Samella Lewis Scholarship and Contemporary Art Collection at Scripps College in Claremont, California. About: BAILA (Black Artists in Los Angeles) Film Series is a collaboration between Eric Minh Swenson and Lili Bernard.  The series celebrates the diversity found within the Black visual arts community of Los Angeles, featuring the voices of important artists and leaders therein. Lili Bernard is a Cuban-born, Los Angeles-based artist whose work explores the impact of trauma and the unconquerable nature of the human spirit.