In a life dedicated to African American art and art history, Samella Lewis has worked for over seven decades to ensure that art is understood, and experienced, as an essential expression of our lives, communities, and struggles. The Samella Lewis tribute stamp features her 1996 oil painting, “Interior.” SCL extends its thanks to Samella for use of this image.
Artist and art historian Samella Lewis has touched the lives of artists, educators, students, and countless others; we love her for her commitment to African American art and art history. Born on February 27, 1924, in New Orleans, Lewis began her art career as a student at Dillard University, where she was instructed by the African American sculptor Elizabeth Catlett. She completed her graduate studies at the Ohio State University, and in 1951 became the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. in fine arts and art history.
She was hired as education coordinator of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1968, and was amazed to find Black and African art gathering dust in the museum’s basement. Administrators ignored her suggestions to display this art in the museum and attempted to discredit her in public after she hired Black art teachers to conduct workshops. The museum eventually apologized to Lewis, but it had become clear to her that African Americans needed institutions where they were making the decisions.
She left to establish the Contemporary Crafts Gallery in Los Angeles with artist Bernie Casey, and developed new ways of thinking about the relationship between museums and African American art. The gallery directly connected African American artists with community members, specializing in the distribution of inexpensive prints that would quickly bring art into the hands of ordinary people. In 1976, Lewis founded the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles, and organized numerous exhibitions as the staff’s senior curator there until 1986. Through these and other efforts, she played a critical role in fostering, supporting, and growing the creative community of African American artists in Los Angeles.
Central to Lewis’s writings, and her work in general, is the idea that African American art should explore an “art of inspiration” based upon the experiences of African Americans themselves, instead of striving for a refined expression separate from ordinary life. As she stated in her book 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.”
The Samella Lewis tribute stamp features her 1996 painting, “Interior,” SCL extends its thanks to Samella for use of this image.
- 1941: Samella Lewis enters Dillard University in New Orleans on a scholarship and studies with sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett.
- 1940s and 1950s: Lewis becomes known for her realistic artworks that explore the experiences of African Americans in the South.
- 1951: Lewis becomes the first African American women to earn a doctorate in fine arts and art history.
- 1953–58: While serving as art department chair at historically black Florida A&M University, Lewis emerges as a leader of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), drawing the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan, which fired shots through the windows of Lewis’s house.
- Early 1960s: Lewis travels to Asia to study Chinese and Japanese art.
- 1963–1964: Artists including Romare Bearden and Hale Woodruff form the group Spiral, dedicated to defining problems faced by artists linking art with social responsibility, heralding the beginning of the “Black Arts Movement.”
- 1968-69: The L.A. County Museum of Art hires Lewis as its education coordinator. The African Arts Magazine is established at the University of California at Los Angeles.
- Late 1960s: Lewis begins to make films about African American artists.
- 1970-84: Lewis serves an art history professor at Scripps College.
- 1970s: Lewis and artist Bernie Casey create the Contemporary Crafts Gallery in an old building in Los Angeles, and the gallery remains a leading showcase for African American artists throughout the 1970s.
- 1976: Lewis founds the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles and remains as its senior curator until 1986.
- 1976: Lewis founds Black Art: An International Quarterly (now The International Review of African American Art) to lend visibility to the work of African American visual artists.
- 1978: Lewis publishes a textbook Art: African American, which quickly becomes the standard college textbook on the subject, as Black Studies programs are being established on college and university campuses across the United States.
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