David Driskell: Artist, educator, curator to the stars

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David Driskell is a painter, printmaker, collagist, professor emeritus, writer, collector, consultant, curator, art historian and nice guy. This polymath, originally from North Carolina, is a specialist in African-American art and also makes quite a bit of it himself. He is a pre-eminent voice in publicizing African-American artists through history, so much that he has a center named after him at the University of Maryland. He took a break from hanging out with friends Bill Cosby and Oprah to talk to WEEKEND about art and life.

Q: So, you’re in town for “Embodied” at the Yale University Art Gallery. How are you involved in that?

A: Well, actually I don’t have anything to do with the exhibition, but it does come from the Driskell Center at the University of Marlyand. And I understand there are several of my works in the exhibition — or at least one. There’s a second exhibition at the Divinity School. Unfortunately, I don’t know the title of it, but there are about three or four of my works in that one. It has to do with religious subjects. The piece in “Embodied” is called “Dancing Angel,” in which I have used a variety of materials. It’s a collage from 1973 or ’74. It was done right after I returned from a tour with the State Department when I was lecturing in Africa. I went to South Africa, Ethiopia, Tunisia and Sierra Leone. The work actually brings together the diverging elements of Africanity, what is used in African art (the mask, the amulet, things of that nature), as well as the certain elements from African-American art. So it’s actually a combination of the two cultures and trying to synthesize the African with the African-American.

Q: How did you first become interested in art, and especially African-American art?

A: I went to college as a history major but stumbled across the art department and knew that I wanted to take an art course or to minor in art. This was at Howard University in the early 1950s. I got there and saw that I really like art more than I liked history, even though I pursued art history as well. I knew all along, even as a kid, that I was interested in art, but growing up where I did, back in the Appalachian Mountains, there were no art facilities, no art in the schools at that time. It was a segregated school system, and my parents encouraged me, but they had very little to offer. By the time I arrived at college and saw that it was a possibility, everything opened up to me. That’s how I decided to pursue it.

Q: What draws you to African American Art specifically?

A: I was introduced to European art before I was anything else, and one of the notable things was the absence of people of color. When I arrived at Howard and found some of the people who were major artists, like James Porter, Lewis Jones, James Wells, etc., I realized that there was a good bit missing from that history. I pursued courses where people of color were a major part of the curriculum. I then decided that it would be a part of my life’s work, to help bring these artists who perhaps were not as well-known into the mainstream of American art. Even when I first started teaching in 1955, one of my aims was to make sure that art by African-Americans was included in the curricula. It’s been a passion for the last 50 or so years.

Q: How do we integrate African-American Art into the canon? Is it a matter of adding forgotten voices to the existing story? Or do we need to build a new narrative?

A: I don’t think it has to be a new narrative because the art has been there all along, and it hasn’t been too different from what has been done. There was a sense that art in America should be European-based; it was evident that if you weren’t white, you have little or no chance of being included in the canon. So even though there were artists of color as early as the 1700s doing portraits, the 1800s doing landscapes and the 20th century with the Harlem Renaissance, they were overlooked. It had to be re-examined, at least that’s my notion, and reconstituted, so there is knowledge of the field. The narrative didn’t need to change so much as the outlook, because the narrative had been there all along. These artists were doing much of the same things that other artists were doing, there was just little to no knowledge of it.

Q: You seem to have your hands in so many different aspects of the art world. How does art-making influence your scholarly activities and vice versa?

A: For me, all of these things go hand in hand, especially in the African-American community. The resources are very few, and as teacher, you couldn’t just focues on one medium. Here at a school like Yale, everyone specializes. At African-American institutions, you have to be able to teach everything, because they don’t have the resources. So I taught printmaking, I taught ceramics, I taught art history, I taught drawing and painting and sculpture. I taught everything. One almost had to do it. So I kept it up when I became a professional. I still do prints. I paint. I don’t do as much sculpture any longer. It’s a given in the community, you have to be able to do more than one thing to teach at the historically black colleges.

Q: Have historically black colleges changed since you went to Howard?

A: Not drastically, because it’s still a matter of resources. These schools do a wonderful, excellent job. You know, a kid going to a school like Talladega or Fisk, nine times out of 10, they wouldn’t be admitted to, say, Yale. So there have to be these tiers, because they can go out and become useful citizens, but they have to have training at their level. Once they do their undergraduate work, a lot of them go to Yale, go to Harvard, but they don’t have the background to compete at the undergraduate level. They’re still doing what we call remedial work. It’s hard to get that at a school like University of Maryland or Yale, but we lose so many students because that’s not available. They just fall through the cracks. They’re still doing a very fine job.

Q: Who are some of your favorite young African-American artists?

A: Some of them aren’t as well known. There’s a young man who teaches at the University of Maryland named Jefferson Pinder; Iona [Rozeal] Brown, she’s a Washington artist. They’re what I call revisionist artists, because they take what has been done ahead of them and they recycle it, deconstruct it and make it their own. Iona, she does that with Asian art, she spent time in Japan, so she draws on that, so a 19th-century Japanese print will become African-American. Jeff works with video, but he also is a traditional collagist. They combine the iconography of other cultures to end some of the isolation of African-Amercan art. Kerry James Marshall — though he’s not young, he’s arrived — has made quite an impact. There’s a painting of his in “Embodied.”

Q: I’ve read that you have helped some celebrities choose art for their collections. What does a process like that entail?

A: It’s basically curatorial and consulting. As a curator, I would find out what their desires and tastes would be, and then I would advise them about certain artists, where their works are found, how much they might cost. In addition to that, the consultant part, would see what they have already collected and hopefully tell them how they can add to it as their taste grows.

Q: Do you have any interesting anecdotes?

A: When I first started working with Camille and Bill Cosby, one of the things that Bill said to me was, “You’re the expert on the art. And I’m the expert on entertainment, theater, activism, etc. You’re going to want to buy things for me, and I’m going to want to say no.” He said, “Do you want to know why?” I said, “Yes?” And he said, “Because it’s my money.” My retort was, “That’s fine, but don’t pass up something you’re going to want later, when it’s too late to get it.”

I did some consulting work for Oprah, and money was never a problem for her. She always wanted to pay whatever the people would ask. I would say, “No, don’t pay that! It’s not worth it.” But you know, people with money usually do what they want to anyway. She thought about it, and she usually went along with me in the end. People without money are the hardest to work with.

Q: Speaking of Oprah, what’s your favorite dessert?

A: My favorite dessert is my wife’s sweet potato pie. It not standard sweet potato pie, it’s a very special Southern dish, in which she puts her whole philosophy of cooking. It was passed down from her mother and others in her family. I brought a piece with me to New Haven, actually. Some people eat it with ice cream, but I like it on its own. I live in New England in the summer, I live in Maine. People up there often confuse it with pumpkin pie. Altogether different. Texture. Flavor. Everything is so different. And of course, Southerners put more cholesterol in their foods. More butter. And the nutmeg. That’s my favorite.

Q: And what kind of recent music do you listen to?

A: [leans over to his nephew] What kind of music do I like? [laughs]

There are a few artists that I like … I like Alicia Keyes, John Legend, Yolanda Adams … and Wynton Marsalis. I’ve known him since he was a little boy, I knew his father… but those are some of my favorites.

Q: So what advice do you have for aspiring artists?

A: Discipline, discipline, discipline. Work, work, work. Practice. Read, read, read. Look, look, look. Go to museums, go to galleries, go to as many shows as you can. Accost as many artists as you can. Talk to them. Insist that they spend some time with you if they have it. Be patient with your career. Being patient means disciplining yourself.

But most importantly, read, read, read, read. Look, look, look, look.

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