Singular Vision, Duality of Spirit
PROFILE – JAN/FEB 2008
By Joshua Bodwell
Photography Darren Setlow
One Artist’s Compulsion for Both Art and History
In Maine, no matter what I’m doing, nature takes over,” says artist David Driskell as he looks out across the yard of his summer home in Falmouth. “The plants become intertwined in everything I do.” His eyes glint as they take in the scene— the garden of exotic greens, the southern peach trees and pokeberry bushes he transplanted here, and the small trout brook that winds by the house.
Such an expression of big-hearted tenderness might seem insincere coming from another man, but when David Driskell utters pronouncements of this sort his voice and disarming southern accent communicate only earnestness and warmth. As the son of a sharecropper, cotton farmer, and preacher who was born into a South ravaged by racism and segregation, when Driskell talks of having a connection to the land, you take it with all the weight it deserves
David Driskell defies simple description. He is not only a revered artist, but also an art educator, philanthropist, collector, and historian. He’s a complex man who came from humble roots.
Driskell was born in 1931 in Eatonton, Georgia, but resettled in western North Carolina during his early teens. “Appalachia,” he says with a wistful tone, “at the foot of the Blue Ridges.” After a public school education, Driskell traveled north to earn his bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Howard University in Washington, D.C. During his junior year at Howard, Driskell’s talents won him a scholarship to attend a nine-week course at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. It was the artist’s first trip to Maine. “I was reluctant to go at first,” Driskell says today, admitting that at that point in his life he had never been north of Maryland. “But I’m so glad I went…my spirit opened up while I was in Maine.”
At Skowhegan, the young artist mixed with as-yet-undiscovered but soon-to-be renowned painters such as Robert Indiana and Alex Katz. But more importantly, as an artist whose childhood memories include gathering plants and flowers so that his mother could make colorful dyes for her quilts, Maine spoke to Driskell’s lifelong connection to the natural world. From the moment he left Skowhegan he hoped to return. “Besides,” Driskell says with a chuckle, “I told my wife that all the famous artists go to Maine in the summer!” Eight years later, in 1961, after teaching stints at Alabama’s Talladega College and Tennessee’s Fisk University, Driskell and his wife, Thelma, purchased a modest cabin on a seven-acre lot in Falmouth. And he has spent part of every summer there since.
The master’s degree that Driskell earned in 1962 from Catholic University of America played a crucial role in shaping him into the complex artist and art scholar that he is today. “That program forced you to be well rounded,” he remembers, “whether you wanted to be or not.” The program required Driskell to master five disciplines: drawing, painting, sculpting, printmaking, and art history. This educational approach was so unique at the time that when Driskell began teaching at the University of Maryland in 1977, he was the only person on staff who taught both studio art and art history. “They thought I was odd,” he laughs, “but then it struck me as strange that everyone else didn’t do both!” By this time, Driskell had already made a name for himself when he curated the groundbreaking show, Two Centuries of Black American Art, 1750–1950, at the Los Angeles County Museum and published a book of the same title. After just one year at Maryland, he was named chairman of the school’s art department.
One of the first things Driskell did as chairman was introduce an undergraduate course in African American art. The class quickly became so popular that a graduate program in the subject was added and, eventually, a doctoral program. Driskell estimates that the University of Maryland now graduates more students with a PhD in African American art than any other school in the country. “Yes,” he says modestly, “it’s very gratifying.”
The next 22 years that Driskell spent at the University of Maryland were, to say the least, a busy time. During his first year at the school, he became the cultural advisor to Bill and Camille Cosby, and the curator of the Cosby Collection of Fine Arts, about which he authored the book, The Other Side of Color. All told, Driskell has written five books on African American art and co-authored four. He also wrote and narrated an award-winning television program, Hidden Heritage, for CBS. Driskell lectured and curated art shows all over the country, including the call he received in 1995 from President Bill Clinton asking him to help select a piece of African American art for the White House. Clinton later honored Driskell with a National Humanities Medal in 2000.
Throughout these busy years, Driskell drove to Maine each May to plant his extensive gardens and returned in June to spend the summer. Driskell has long used his time in Maine to focus on his own art. While his decades in academia were good, productive years, they were also years during which David Driskell the artist struggled for time and space with David Driskell the scholar and art historian. He laughs today when recounting a story of how his old Skowhegan classmate and longtime friend, Alex Katz, vehemently insisted to a mutual friend that there were in fact two David Driskells: the artist and the scholar. “And Alex was serious!” laughs Driskell, with incredulous good-humored affection.
Driskell says while he has always been an artist at his core, he felt compelled to become a scholar because of the inexcusably large gap he saw in the nation’s history books. “Sure, there were plenty of times when I would rather have been in the studio,” he admits. “But I spent so much time writing because I felt I needed to revise the history books.” Today, many believe Driskell to be one of the world’s leading authorities on African American art. Still, Driskell never gave up his identity as an artist: “I think I’ve always been an artist first,” he says, “and a scholar out of compulsion—or necessity.”
When Driskell retired from the University of Maryland in 1998, the dean asked him how the school could continue and expand the legacy he had created. Driskell challenged the dean to “grow the field” of African American art. The university responded in 2001 by opening the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora. This summer, the Center moved to newly renovated accommodations that include 4,500-square-feet of exhibition space, offices, and an archive and study room. It is an artistic hub that befits its namesake: part art gallery, part research center.
Today, David Driskell is in his mid-70s and life has taken him a long way. He has witnessed seismic changes sweep across the American landscape, and he has played his part in making them happen. For example, a museum in Charlotte, North Carolina that recently hosted an exhibit of his art was, during Driskell’s childhood, only open to African Americans one day each week.
Splitting his time between Maine, Maryland, and New York City, Driskell is enjoying the light-filled days of his retirement. He is now more engaged with his own art than that of others. Driskell’s paintings are bright and bold, they are tender, and they feel both rooted to and of the earth—they are honest art.