Lewis, Samella 1924–
Samella Lewis 1924–
Artist, art historian, and educator
A creative and inspirational powerhouse who has touched the lives of countless African Americans involved with the visual arts, Samella Lewis has had a long and distinguished career. That career encompassed an astonishing range of creative activity: Lewis was an artist, an educator, a curator, a museum founder, an art historian, a textbook writer, an administrator, an editor, a filmmaker, and more. Overcoming pervasive racial discrimination in her earlier years, Lewis went on to become an extraordinarily influential figure in each of her many fields of endeavor.
Lewis was born Samella Sanders in New Orleans, Louisiana, on February 27, 1924. She was a high school honors student and entered Dillard University in New Orleans on a scholarship in 1941. Two years later she won another scholarship to the Hampton Institute in Virginia, this one in art. She graduated from Hampton with an art degree in 1945 and was immediately hired to teach there, which she did for two years. She decided to pursue advanced degrees in art history, receiving her M.A. from Ohio State University in 1948 and her Ph.D. three years later. During this busy time in her life, Lewis also married Paul Gad Lewis (a math and computer teacher), taught at Morgan State College, and began raising two children.
Becoming art department chair at historically black Florida A&M University, Lewis inherited a program in dire financial straits. She managed to squeeze more money out of the school’s president by promising to paint his portrait, and soon her department was flourishing, even attracting white students from nearby Florida State University. However, when Lewis emerged as a leader of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), she drew the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan, which fired shots through the windows of Lewis’s house. The local police were unsympathetic to her situation.
One of Lewis’s former teachers helped her find a teaching position in upstate New York, but these experiences deeply shaped her cultural attitudes. She became interested in art from outside the European sphere, and traveled to Taiwan and elsewhere in Asia during the early 1960s. Her study of Asian art drew her to California, where she became education coordinator of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1968. Lewis clashed with administrators there, however. At one point, they even hired a private investigator to try to impugn her credentials. The museum eventually apologized to Lewis, but it had become clear to her that African Americans needed new institutions, institutions where their art and its connections to their culture and history could be displayed in a way uniquely their own.
While teaching at Scripps College, a prestigious private school in suburban Los Angeles, Lewis and artist Bernie Casey spent several thousand dollars of their own money to create Contemporary Crafts Gallery, later renamed simply The Gallery. The gallery served as a point of direct connection between African American
At a Glance…
Born February 27, 1924, in New Orleans, LA; married Paul G. Lewis in 1948; children: two sons. Education: Hampton Institute, Hampton, Virginia, B.S., 1945; Ohio State University, M.A., 1948; Ohio State University, Ph.D., 1951.
Career: Artist, art educator, writer, and filmmaker. Instructor, Hampton lnstitute, 1946–47; associate professor, Morgan State University, 1948–53; professor and department chair, Florida A&M University, 1953–58; professor, State University of New York at Pittsburgh, 1958–68; education coordinator, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1968–69; professor, Scripps College, 1970–84; founded the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles, 1976; published textbook Art: African American, 1978.
Selected awards: Fulbright Fellowship, 1962; Ford Foundation Fellowship, 1965; Legend in Our Time Tribute, Essence Magazine, 1990; Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities Distinguished Scholar Award, 1996–97.
Addresses: Agent— Art Tradition, 5042 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 257, Los Angeles, CA 90036.
artists and the community, specializing in the distribution of inexpensive prints that would quickly bring art into the hands of ordinary people. The Gallery flourished, and Lewis remained there until 1979.
In 1976, Lewis founded the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles. As the staff’s senior curator there until 1986, she organized numerous exhibitions and developed new ways of thinking about the relationship between museums and African American art. In an influential article, Lewis discussed the ideas of an “art of tradition,” arguing that museums had a responsibility to explore the African and Afro-Caribbean roots of African American art, and an “art of inspiration” based upon the experiences of African Americans themselves.
Lewis also tried to document African American artists and their experiences in other ways. In the late 1960s, she began to make films about African American artists. Some of the films covered individual artists such as John Outterbridge, Bernie Casey, and Richmond Barthé. Her first film, The Black Artists, was a more general history of African American art. The Black Artists was followed by a two-volume print work that Lewis edited with Elizabeth Waddy, Black Artists on Art. In 1978, she published the textbook Art: African American. This work, which went into a revised second edition in 1990, is still widely used in art history courses. Lewis also founded a scholarly journal, the International Review of African American Art, now under the aegis of her alma mater, Hampton University.
Central to Lewis’s writings, and indeed to her educational efforts in general, was the idea that African American art should not strive toward a realm of refined expression separate from ordinary life, but rather should express the experiences of individuals and communities. As Lewis stated in Art: African American, “the artist is a community resource, valued and supported because he or she forsakes the ‘ivory tower’ and gets to the heart of community life.” She drew on African attitudes toward the arts, which were directed toward the making of objects with important roles in community life.
Even if she had never realized any of her goals as an educator, writer, curator, and museum builder, Lewis would still be respected as a talented artist. In the 1940s and 1950s, she was known for realistic works that explored the experiences of African Americans in the South. Some of Lewis’s earliest works were based on her own Louisiana childhood, and some of her works in the 1950s depicted the injustices routinely suffered by African Americans. Her later works were created in various media—drawings, sculptures, mixed-media works—and were often shaped by Lewis’s explorations of the artistic cultures of the African diaspora. Especially in the years since her retirement, her work has been the subject of numerous exhibitions.
A teacher and inspiration to many African American creative figures, including the mixed-media artist Alison Saar, Lewis hardly slowed down upon her retirement from Scripps College in 1984. “Black women are nurturers,” she told Essence in 1996. “We nurture our families by seriously listening to and seriously considering what they tell us. We also have an obligation to see that valuing and collecting our art is a significant aspect of nurturing. We must familiarize ourselves with our historical and contemporary art in order to understand and know ourselves.” The degree to which Lewis herself has nurtured the development of African American art is incalculable.
Art: African American. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.
The Art of Elizabeth Catlett Museum of African American Art and Hancraft Studios, 1984.
Heller, Jules, and Nancy G. Heller, North American Women Artists of the Twentieth Century. Garland, 1995.
Riggs, Thomas, ed., St. James Guide to Black Artists. St. James Press, 1997.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Women, Book I. Gale, 1992.
Scanlon, Jennifer, and Sharon Cosner, American Women Historians, 1700s-1990s: A Biographical Dictionary. Greenwood Pres;, 1996.
Essence, July 1996, p. 64.
—James M. Manheim
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