Dr. Samella Lewis: The Godmother of African American Art
By Shantay Robinson
We need to be made aware of Dr. Samella Lewis’ accomplishments as an institution builder for a better understanding of how to create generational progress in our communities. If you are at all interested in African American art, you need to know who she is. Although she is an artist in her own right, she sacrificed her career as an artist to educate other people about African American art. At 96 years-old, she still creates artworks, but her more prominent role for much of her life has been that of an institution builder. She has started galleries and a museum, wrote books and established an art magazine.
Dr. Lewis has seen this world change drastically, and she has played a pivotal role in its progress. While African Americans in contemporary times have a tremendous voice, in that we can let the world know where we stand on issues, Dr. Lewis, came of age in the Jim Crow South, a time when speaking up could result in dire situations. But she made her voice heard despite potential negative consequences. Born in New Orleans, Louisiana on February 27, 1923, Lewis came of age in the era of Jim Crow, a system she would later be reprimanded for fighting to abolish. In an interview with Baila EMS Films, she claims to have been run out of many places including Florida by its Governor due to her fight for desegregation.
“Art is not a luxury as many people think – it is a necessity. It documents history – it helps educate people and stores knowledge for generations to come.” – Dr. Samella Lewis
Society was not just or fair, but she defied the odds and became the first African American to receive doctorates in Fine Art and Art History. Dr. Lewis attended Dillard University, Hampton Institute, and Ohio State University. She taught as a full-time professor at Morgan State University, Florida A&M, State University New York Plattsburgh, California State Dominguez, California State Long Beach, and Scripps College. She founded International Review of African American Art and the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles. She has written several books about black art and artists. And she did all of this while being a wife and mother.
Although Lewis is an accomplished scholar, she was an artist first. As a young person, Lewis spent time in the French Quarter looking at art. During an outing with a friend, she came across a black woman whose lover was an Italian portrait painter. Lewis was able to take private lessons with him free of charge for two years. Later she would enroll at Dillard University in New Orleans where a young Elizabeth Catlett served as her professor. Lewis was impacted by the relationship she shared with Catlett, as it let her imagination run wild. Catlett wasn’t as demure as Lewis was taught to be. Catlett was bold, and that frightened Lewis. An instructor at Dillard suggested Lewis switch schools. And Catlett was able to obtain scholarships from University of Iowa and Hampton Institute for Lewis who was careful to choose Hampton for the support she might gain from an HBCU. She then went on to Ohio State to obtain her master’s and doctorate.
Dr. Lewis began working at a time before both the Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Rights Movement. Being a working mother was not new to black women at the time Dr. Lewis began her career. But she was able to accomplish so much professionally while raising two sons. While white women protested for equal opportunity to that of men under the law and to gain the right to upper-level work, black women never really had the choice as to whether they would stay at home to be full-time mothers or find work to support their families. Black women were forced to work as slaves performing work equal to men and later as sharecroppers in fields after emancipation to provide for their families. Their situations after slavery were not unlike that of enslavement. Post emancipation the majority of working black women found opportunities as domestic help in private homes. Prior to the Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Rights Movement black women had few choices for employment in order to care for their families. But Dr. Lewis did the unthinkable. She became a Doctor of Philosophy, an accomplishment that is still quite impressive for anyone of any race.
Raising a family while teaching and starting businesses is a challenging task for anyone, but Dr. Lewis made it work. With her husband and two sons, Dr. Lewis was able to accomplish so much through perseverance and determination. Her son Claude recalls, “A lot of times when she worked at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I was taking classes over there as a kid. So, wherever she was working it was kind of a family involvement…I think it was conscious. If [she has] to work how can [she] still be around [her] family? It was either conscious or that’s just how they moved. When you move in certain ways, your life plays out the way it should.” Claude remembers times when his family would prepare to ship the magazine, Black Art: An International Quarterly to subscribers. He also recalls working at the galleries they opened. His involvement in his family business seen by outsiders looks glamorous, but to him that’s just what life was like. He recalls:
“I knew what she was doing. I might not have known how important it was till maybe I got a little older like high school or something. I met all these great people and famous artists. But it was like regular life to me. They were just regular people. And all of them came through. And I think that’s why I make music and I do some photography and my son went to art school. I think that creativeness and just that freedom of expression stuck with me because that’s all the people that came around. They were all each individual fantastic people, but I just thought that it must be like that for everybody. I think when she did the magazine, I was older and when I was in high school they opened their first gallery. It was like, okay wow, we actually have a business. Before that I was just part of it I didn’t really think that much about it. I didn’t think it was anything special at the time. And they inspired a lot of people.”
While Dr. Lewis has accomplished a lot during her working years, the work she put in, is still making an impact on the African American art world. The publication she created, Black Art: An International Quarterly, which she personally financed in its first two years of existence was established in 1976, and was transferred to the care of Hampton University in 1992. The title of the publication was renamed, International Review of African American Art, and it still focuses on the artwork of African American artists. While some of her books are out of print, others such as African American Art and Artists, Samella Lewis and the African American Experience, and Art: African America are still available for sale. Although she opened three art galleries, which are no longer open, one of her major contributions to the African American artworld is the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles. The museum was founded in 1976 by Dr. Lewis and other scholars to increase public awareness of African American art. It is located on the third floor of the Macy’s department store at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall.
Dr. Lewis thought it was necessary to start somewhere people could exhibit their work and start something that would document what African American artist were doing. She told Baila EMS Films, “I thought it was necessary to at least start something so that people would have a place to exhibit their works and to house their works.” While at the time she was writing books, she started a magazine because they are essentially more affordable than books. Eugene Foney, longtime friend of Dr. Lewis met her in the 1990s at John Biggers’ home whom she attended Hampton Institute with. He says her dedication to the culture is most striking, as she created materials about African American artists at a time when there weren’t a lot of materials that showcased these artists. Although Foney describes Dr. Lewis as lighthearted, warm and caring, it is obvious that when it comes to taking care of business, she definitely gets the job done.
While she never stopped creating art, at 96 years-old, she is more focused on her art these days. Dr. Lewis doesn’t sketch. She employs an intuitive practice where the marks she makes on the canvas tell her where the artwork is going. She doesn’t paint portraits. Her figures are shaped by her imagination. Dr. Lewis’s work was featured in the 2011 Hammer Museum exhibition, Now Dig This: Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980. And in 2016, Dr. Lewis had a show at Stella Jones Gallery in her hometown New Orleans, Louisiana.
According to her son, Claude, Dr. Lewis’ birthday has been misreported because when she was born, society didn’t provide birth certificates to African American people. Dr. Lewis was actually born in 1923. There’s something so amazing about the fortitude of freedom fighters like Dr. Samella Lewis. Although she came of age at a time when under the law African Americans didn’t have equal rights, she fought for what she believed in and made no apology about it. While she was taught to be demure for her personal safety in the time of Jim Crow, she, like so many others, knew she had to be strong. Because of her we can understand how progress is made. It is made through a continual struggle for change and the building of community that can be passed down through generations of people.
START COLLECTING ART
SHANTAY ROBINSON was a participant in the inaugural class of Burnaway Magazine’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, a fellow in Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies Digital Publishing Project Editorial Fellowship and was chosen for the CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring program. In addition to writing for Black Art in America, she has written for Washington City Paper, Arts ATL, Nashville Scene, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Sugarcane Magazine, Number, Inc., and International Review of African American Art. She also published a scholarly article in Teaching Artist Journal. She presented papers about art and education at SCAD’s (Savannah College of Art and Design) Symposium on Art and Fashion, Georgia State University’s New Voices Graduate Student Conference, Georgia State University’s Glorious Hair and Academic Identities Conference, Northeast Modern Languages Association Conference, Mason Graduate Interdisciplinary Conference, and New York African Studies Association Conference. In 2019, she sat on a panel at Prizm Art Fair during Miami Art Week. In 2020, she served as visual arts judge in Shreveport Regional Council’s Critical Mass 8 Art Competition.
Would you buy stock in BAIA if you could? Well we invite you to join us in becoming a monthly supporter, starting at just $3 a month YOU become a stakeholder and begin to help us transform lives through art. We are growing the BAIA team and will use your contributions to hire more team members for the purpose of creating more educational and marketing resources for schools and universities about african american artists both past and present. Such art initiatives and educational programming like Blacklite with Steve Prince, Relating to Art with Dr. Kelli Morgan, and BAIA BITS would not be possible without the ongoing support of our Patreon members. Please consider becoming a monthly Patreon member today!
Review our list of rewards for becoming a BAIA Patreon / patron supporter. Your monthly contribution has lasting benefits. — “What will your legacy be” – Dr. Margaret Burroughs
Thank you new and recurring monthly Patrons
Deloris and Eddie Young, Esther Silver-Parker, Eugene Foney, Zadig & Voltaire, Petrucci Family Foundation Collection of African American Art, National Black Arts Festival, Dr. Leslie Fields, Jim Nixon, Dr. Michael Butler, Matthew Putman, Grant Hill, Frank Frazier, Houston Museum of African American Culture, Joan Crisler, Dee Greer, Sonia Deane, March on Washington Film Festival, Danny Jenkins, Deborah L. McCullough, Ashlee Jacob, John and Melanie Guess, Sonie Ruffin, Tricia Konan, Michael Brinson, Dr. A. Holloway, Rosie Gordon-Wallace, Jeanette D Adeshote, Ja-Na Bordes, Rev. Anita Marshall, Tricia Konan, Robin King, Kerri L. Forrest, Nan, Thomas E. Rodgers, D. Lacy, Jeffery Washington, Brenda Larnell, Helen Oyekan, Jeffery Washington, Letashia Mosbey, Marian Darlington, Roslyn Valentine, Vyonne Diva, Ednarina Blake, Phyllis Stephens, Devera Redmond, Reginald Browne, Carla West, Beatrice, Longshore, Abimbola Thompson, Barbara Johnson, Beverly C Smith, Deborah R. Moore, Dr. Skyller Walkes, Ednarina BLAKE, Garr Parks, Gerald Carrington, Jae M, James B Wingo, Jocelyne Lamour, Kevin Smokler, Marion Zweig, Mary Ali-Masai, Michael J. Todd, Nan, Reg Pugh, Shannon DeVaney, Thomas E. Rogers, Tonya Pendleton, D Lacy, Noreen Winningham, Mason Archie, Jill Scott, Cari Jackson Lewis, Patrick Stewart, Rachel Corbray, Cecilia Winters-Morris, Chris Van Loan Sr., Romaine Roberts, Michael Jacobs, K.L. Martin, Gale Ross, Manuelita Brown, Annette, Jamal Love, Glenn Isaac Sr, M. Rasheed, Angela Williams, Dana Todd Pope, Terese L Hawkins, Mark Everett Sanders, Dr. Carolyn L. Mazloomi, Kirby L. Coleman, Harold Moore, Fredric Isler, Dr. R. Locke, Queen Brooks, Charles Bibbs, Diana Shannon Young, Dr. Yonette Thomas, M Belinda Tucker, Karen Y House, Runez M Bender, Duke Windsor, Cheryl Odeleye, Stephen Bennett, Shawn Rhea, Ethnie Weekes, Paul Robinson, Janice Orr, Patricia D Dungy, Jocelyn Benita Smith, Joan L. Ward, Garr Parks, Pamela Carter, Carlton Cotton, Diane R Miles, Jean Ann Durades, Luthetis Carey, Susan Ross, Jea Delsarte, Harry F Banks, Shelia McNair, Lorna Conley, Shelley Byrd, DeLores M Dyer, Stefanie Fe Steele, Marjorie Hammock, Celestine Hinnant, ALKEBU LAN IMAGES Bookstore, Deborah Paige-Jackson, Desiree Dansan, Karen Pinzolo, Sonia Spencer, James Whitten, Shelley Danzy, Linda Eaddy, Wilhelmina Barker, Dorothy Massey, Annie Cheffers, Maddy Markland, Kaileigh Nelson, Kellyn Maguire, Cory Huff, keishua, Megan LaCroix, Sara Friesen, Desirée Stroud, Madison Taylor, Nina Marie, Mina Silva, Whitney, Toni Wendel, S F, Claire Sig, Isabel Engel, Sarah Drury, Elizabeth DeBunce, Hannah Diener, Diane Hughes, Petrina Burkard, Laura Di Piazza, Lisa Dunford Dickman, Jocelyn Greene, Cheryl B Blankman, Nicole Farley, Mitchell Shohet, Samiur Rashid, Sarah Rooney, Marina Kovic, Lloyd Goode, Sara, Pearlie Taylor, Lorna Doone, Ashley Littlefield, Monika Pi, Alison Deas, Carla Sonheim, Nicole Bruce, Brenda Keith, Louise berner-holmberg, Ted Ellis, Pamela Hart, Kim Walker, Jessica Beckstrom, Franklin Jackson, Christina Levine, Curtis Morrow, jacki rust, Sarah Caputo, Freda Davis, cdixon06, Hollis Turner, Laura Pereira, Danni Cerezo, Cooky Goldblatt, Claudia Bell, Gwen Ruff, Teri L Lewis, Emily Hegeman Cavanagh, Judith Bergeron, Suzette Renwick, Beverly Grant, Kathleen Turner, Linda B. Smith, Joy Peters, Jea Delsarte, Reginald Laurent, Rita Crittenden, Michele C. Mayes, Dr. Sandra Boyce Broomes, Dr. Darlene White, Caitlin Charles, Jean Gumpper, Sade Benjamin, Eddie Santosh, Patricia Hassell, Ayoka Chenzira, Marie L Johnson, Georgia F Lyles, Morris Howard, AnnaTheLoon, C Harris, Rachael horner, Emily M, Anneke Schwob, Timothy Gandley, Petrina Burkard, Wren Mckinley, Wanda Baker-Smith, Joyce A, Bill and Deborah Nix, Sharmon Jane Hilfinger, Caryliss R. Weaver, Francene Greene, Julia Turner Lowe, Judith Hamilton, Ebony English, Alisa R Elliot, Charlotte Bender, Edwina King Diva E, Kim Dubois, Raven Burnes, Kevin and Tracy Burton, Bridgette McCullough Alexander, Marnese Barksdale Elder, Luna Cascade, India Still, Patricia Andrews-Keenan, Jerome Moore, Shurvon Haynes, Jacqueline Konan, Jeanne H Chaney, Karen M Hirsch, Samori Augusto, Ann Tankersley, Elayne Gross, Camille Lafleur, Donna Thompson Ray, Richard MacMillan, Annette Groschke, Jim Alexander, Key Mosley, Terri Pease, Quinton Foreman, Ashley Littlefield, January Hoskin, Barbara Brown, Bronwen Hodgkinson, Sandra Sautner, Arbrie Griffin Bradley, Dianna A. Harris, Anne king, Zishan Evans, johnnie mae maberry, Gwen Meharg, Tracy Russ, Jacqueline Boggan, Kimberly Smith, Diane R Miles, Chey, Kanika Marshall
We Appreciate your support