Tanksley, Ann Graves 1934–
Ann Graves Tanksley 1934–
“Drawn from the black experience in America,” wrote Art Times critic Raymond J. Steiner, artist Ann Tanksley’s work, “embraces a nearly universal view of the human condition: isolation, alienation, love, spirituality, joy, fear, sorrow, and the mundane business of day-to-day living…. This is strong stuff.” Tanksley is most known for her works inspired by Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston though, according to Steiner, Tanksley “deserves to be better known.” Her work hangs in the permanent collections of the Hewitt Collection, the Studio Museum in Harlem, Medgar Evers College, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts. It has been shown across the United States and in Kenya, and featured in the New Yorker, and in an Absolut vodka ad titled Absolut Tanksley. Private collectors include Oprah Winfrey. “Working through what she experiences, her reflections, her awareness, and contemplation,” wrote Patricia Kelley in SunStorm/FineArt, “she gives us a body of work that transcends the ordinary. Tanksley’s work brings the soul of the characters to life in a pictoral sermon of African-American history.”
Tanksley was born Ann Graves and raised in Home-wood, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh in 1934. She also lived in nearby Knoxville, Pennsylvania. In her artist’s statement, Tanksley recalled her first day of kindergarten—her mother left her at school, and the crayons and beads her teacher gave her served to comfort her. “This was the beginning of my artistic expression,” she wrote in a press statement she provided to Contemporary Black Biography. She graduated South Hills High School, earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in 1956, and moved to New York City. She later studied there at the Art Students League, Parsons School of Design, and the New School for Social Research. She has also studied under such masters as Robert Blackburn, Paulette Singer, Norman Lewis, Balcom Green, Sam Rosenberg, and Robert Conover. Tanksley earned a grant from the Harlem Cultural Council in 1981. The artist put her family life first, and married John Tanksley, also a Homewood native and a self-employed retoucher who attended the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. She raised their two daughters rather than pursue her art career. “I started painting in the 1960s little by little, but not a lot till the girls went to college,” she said in an interview with Donald Miller of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. She turned 40 during the civil rights movement, and came to the realization that she had a
Born in 1934 in Homewood, PA; married John B. Tanksley; two daughters. Education: Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, BFA, 1956. Studied at Art Students League, New York City; Parsons School of Design, New York, NY; Robert Blackburn’s Print-making Workshop, New York, NY; New School for Social Research, New York, NY; Paulette Singer Print-making Workshop, Great Neck, NY.
Career: Artist. Suffolk County Community College, adjunct art instructor, 1973-75.
Awards: Harlem Cultural Council grant, 1981.
Address: 18 Carlton Rd, Great Neck, NY 11021.
responsibility to her family, herself, and others to develop her artistic talent.
Tanksley depicted everyday people in familiar situations in representational oils, watercolor, and with various printmaking techniques. Her style is simplistic, but effective. New York Times art critic D. Dominick Lombardi likened her work to that of William H. Johnson and Archibald J. Motley Jr. Tanksley has said that she began by painting social commentary. One 1979 painting, Harvest of Shame, was inspired by migrant workers she saw years before on Long Island, where she lived. She had been struck by the difficult life and low wages these people were forced to endure. “I was very angry and said angry things in my work,” she told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “It was warping and I stopped it.” She studied various religions and traveled to Senegal, the Caribbean, and Haiti during the reign of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. “Traveling changed my palette,” she said in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Tanksley’s images evolved to reflect nature and the human spirit, painted in rich colors, save for her black-and-white monoprints. “Often people’s mode of dress or surroundings are more important than their individuality,” wrote one New York Times critic in a 1995 review of Tanksley’s exhibition at Shelter Rock Gallery in New York. “… although they seldom come across as individuals, Ms. Tanksley’s figures establish themselves as members of a community by interacting with one another, working and playing together, in the environment that belongs to them.” Her nudes “show that, when well done, a so-called ’academic nude study’ is neither simple nor dry.” The artist explained in a release for her 1997 exhibition, Ann Tanksley: Paint to Print: “My works derive from my own genetic and cognitive memories and that of others that reflect on who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going.”
Tanksley’s creative process was unique; she often wrote poetry before she painted. She’ll write poetry—which she has said she sees in colors as well as words—and then transfer those thoughts and feelings to her canvas. Like so many female artists, she divided her time between being a mother to her two children, a wife, and an artist. “Tanksley’s work is embodied with the point of view of the women,” wrote Patricia Kelley in SunStorm/FineArt, “who are torn between their past and future, and who express all of the emotions of families in reality—love, hate, anger, and forgiveness.”
The people in her work are usually women, and they dance with flowers, dressed as nuns or in native costumes. Hurricane Hugo inspired a theme in Tanksley’s work in 1989 that she would continue for some years. The artist witnessed the destruction the hurricane had caused on a trip to Jamaica that year, and so painted Hibiscus Pickers. Despite the homelessness and destruction on the island, the hibiscus plants had survived and were growing heartily. This theme worked its way into her 1993 show at New York City’s SOHO20 gallery. The exhibit was based on “my observations and reflections of the ongoing changes on our environment due to man’s inhumanities to man,” she told Black Arts New York.
In the mid-1980s, Tanksley was looking through a box of books her daughter had sent home from college when she came upon Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston, an anthropologist, playwright, poet, and novelist who was prominent during the Harlem Renaissance, died in poverty and relative obscurity in 1962. Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God after receiving a fellowship in 1927 to study the last boatload of slaves to arrive in the United States. Tanksley “immediately fell in love with her writing,” she said in a 1996 New York Times interview. “Her material is all so visual that I feel we have much in common in interests, as well as in being African-American artist.” Her interest in Hurston led to a collaboration on Zora: A Psychoanalytic and Artistic Interpretation of the Life and Works of Zora Neale Hurston, by psychoanalyst Dr. Hugh F. Butts. Tanksley created a sizable body of work using Hurston’s stories as inspiration.
The book was never published, but Tanksley showed the 60 monotype prints she produced for it in 1991 as Zora: A Visual Interpretation of Zora Neale Hurston: Prints by Ann Tanksley. The exhibition was “one of the most visually stimulating exhibitions I’ve seen for some time,” wrote Art Times critic Raymond J. Steiner. Tanksley’s “powerful imagery,” Steiner continued, stood quite well on its own—one need not be familiar with Hurston’s writings to appreciate the work it inspired. Images of Zora, a more expanded, 245-piece collection of these interpretations, toured the United States in the early 1990s. She attended Robert Blackburn’s Printmaking Workshop to learn the technique she used to create the monotype prints chosen for both shows. “In analyzing Hurston,” she told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “I analyzed myself.”
“Every now and then I am introduced to writers whose work is of impact that I am compelled to draw upon their imagery,” Tanksley was quoted as saying in a program for a 1992 show of her work at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. Hurston’s writing “has had such a profound influence on my work,” she continued. “She writes a script of boundless imagery, so alive and relevant that she feeds my imagination.” Tanksley has since been commissioned to illustrate several of Hurston’s children’s books. Zora Neale Hurston as Muse: The Art of Ann Tanksley, a two-part show comprised of 17 paintings and 40 monotypes, was featured at the 1994 annual Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities, held in the author’s hometown of Eatonville, Florida.
Black History Gallery, Hempstead, New York, 1972.
Acts of Art Gallery, New York, New York, 1973,1974.
Spectrum II, Mount Vernon, New York, 1982.
Dorsey Gallery, Brooklyn, New York, 1986.
Jamaica Art Center, Jamaica, New York, 1987.
Campbell Gallery, Swickley, Pennsylvania, 1987.
Spiral Gallery, Brooklyn, New York, 1988.
Barnes & Littles, Washington, D.C., 1989.
AC-BAW Gallery for the Arts, Mount Vernon, New York, 1991.
Berkeley Repertory Theater, Berkeley, California, 1991.
California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland, California, 1991.
Jamaica Art Center, Jamaica, New York, 1991.
Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1992.
SOHO20, New York, New York, 1993.
Eatonville Museum, Eatonville, Florida, 1994.
Maitland Center, Maitland, Florida, 1994.
Shelter Rock Gallery, Shelter Rock, New York, 1995.
Huntington Library, Huntington, New York, 1996.
Kenkellaba Gallery, New York, New York, 1997. Milton Rhodes Gallery, Winston Salem, North Carolina, 1999.
Counterpoints 23, New York, New York, 1969.
Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey, 1971.
Acts of Art, New York, New York, 1971.
New York State Office Building, New York, New York, 1975.
Queens Museum, Queens, New York, 1979.
University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, 1981.
American Women in Art, Nairobi, Kenya, 1985.
Medgar Evers College Art Collection, New York, New York, 1989.
Christie’s, New York, New York, 1989-90.
Kenkelaba Gallery, New York, New York, 1991.
Museum of African-American Art, Los Angeles, California, 1992.
National Arts Club, New York, New York, 1994.
Brooklyn Arts Council, New York, New York, 1996.
Hewitt Collection of African-American Art, Charlotte, North Carolina, 1999.
Stanford Center for the Arts, Stanford, Connecticut, 2000.
Connecticut Graphic Arts Center, Norwalk, Connecticut, 2001.
Art Times, March 1991.
Black Arts New York, May 1993, p. 6.
New Art Examiner, October 1999, p. 18.
New York Times, December 24, 1995; February 11, 1996, p. LI27; June 30, 2002, p. WE10.
Pittsburgh HB News, January 28, 1987, p. 3.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 14, 1992.
Pittsburgh Press, March 13, 1992, p. C3.
SunStorm/Fine Art, Summer 1993, p. 20.
Winston-Salem Journal, August 3, 1997, p. E2.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the Images of Zora, exhibition catalog, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, 1992; and through various materials provided by Ann Tanksley.
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