Distinguished African [American] artist, lecturer, educator, archivist, philanthropist, curator and historian David C. Driskell makes it down to Atlanta to celebrate the eighth annual prize named in his honor: providing his insights on young artists, being a legend, creating history, measuring success and his relationship with the Cosbys.
David Clyde Driskell pours his heart into all that he does. An assembly line of Creative Spirits catalogues – a collection synonymous with his exhibit at New York City’s DC Moore Gallery to commemorate his 80th birthday – sits before him horizontally across a conference room table in the High Museum of Art’s Margaret Boyd Perdue Board Room. As the binds all slide, he signs them one by one. It’s a pretty, seventy-some-odd degree day outside; the room’s all-white walls bring about an angelic aura at that moment…and with good reason, too.
As with many great college professors young scholars come across, Driskell periodically takes his glasses off his nose. He sits comfortably and barely reclines in his seat: delving into each response conjoined with engaging eye contact as if he’s your grandfather or a reincarnated African griot. The astute arbiter does not mince words; he’s real quick to tell that in the art community, museum personnel often overlooks African American art thinking there was and is only African cultural production. “We being the most visible Americans, they very often don’t see us, which is ironic,” he says. He praises and commends the High Museum – a relationship dating back to 2000 with his exhibit, To Conserve A Legacy: Narratives of African American Art and Identity – for being “one of the greatest institutions for art and culture.” Not to mention, the conference room has some damn good acoustics that rivals any lecture hall as his eloquent, dignified and soft-spoken diction spills out. For over six decades, Driskell has been the world’s premier pundit of African and African American art and art history. What else can you expect from an avid collector of artifacts and works (a great deal by Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence and Romare Beardon) dating back to slavery who in fact also holds nine Honorary Degrees and has a Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora Center named in his honor at the University of Maryland, College Park (which nonetheless celebrates its first decade this year)?
This particular Fri., May 4, 2012 afternoon is the eve of another high honor – the eighth annual David C. Driskell Prize Dinner – the first and only accolade of its kind that specifically honors and celebrates a mid-career voice and talent within African American art and art history. No stranger to mass cultural acclaim, Driskell considers the prize “an inspiring, uplifting creative moment.” He wears humility as well as his khaki-colored double-breasted safari shirt and onyx ring on his right hand: running down quite a list of those instrumental in making the Driskell Prize the success that it is and knows he’s had some great teachers and mentors over the course of his fourscore vitality. Wilmington Trust Southeastern President D. Jack Sawyer, Jr., also a Driskell Prize Advisory Committee member, reiterated during our initial phone conversation (see “All ‘A’ Board”) how big of a supporter he is: calling the Driskell Prize Dinner his favorite night at the High Museum. Honorary Chair, journalist Monica Pearson, concurs. As with previous recipients, this year’s Driskell Prize honoree, Chicago-turned-New York artist Rashid Johnson – who scored a full-page review in the New York Times following an impressive gallery showing — received $25,000 and a limited edition linocut of Driskell’s African Saint. In his acceptance speech in the High Museum’s Margaretta Taylor Lobby, Johnson – emphasizing mixed media depictions of black identity — calls his award “quite an honor:” fulfilling Driskell’s legacy for creative license and artistic integrity.
“A great teacher learns from the students,” Driskell believes. “Do they have the ingredients to sustain something like this? It’s definitely commitment and dedication to the field with the notion that you are informing the public and doing a service…a much needed service…how they handle themselves. Are they still learning? Is that person showing signs of growth? That comes with exploration and being able to listen in attempting to further one’s own career.”
Driskell dialogues from across the table and flashbacks to about almost anything that comes to his mind – the differences in major institutions’ versus HBCU curriculum, cultural disparities, an experience involving him giving a NPR journalist a hard lesson in recognizing his own miseducation on race relations in 2002, Eurocentrism and his invitation to speak to the Clinton First Family’s (handpicked by Hillary) staff at the White House in 1995 on African American art (confessing he didn’t know the staff was that big). Coincidentally, a great deal of the conversation evolved into his ties to my hometown, Spartanburg, SC. Driskell reveals that his father’s church was in Gaffney, a small town outside of Spartanburg County, and that he once hosted an exhibit at the Greenville County Museum (joking that he didn’t go there until adulthood). In between, Driskell drops science about how certain museums, as with many public spaces and businesses at the height of Jim Crow, were so segregated, one day was allotted for people of color to visit. From time to time, he makes it back to North Carolina: acknowledging that the African American community is still underrepresented, underprivileged and un(der)educated. “Life is so intriguing. The older I get, the more inclined I am to understand the mystery. If you do something important, people will claim you. If you do nothing, nobody wants to know you.”
Driskell – illuminating in the face — remembers earning his National Humanities Medal in 2000: running down an impressive roster in his class including poet Maya Angelou, producer/guitarist Chet Atkins, violinist Itzahk Perlman, singer/actress Barbra Streisand, music legend Quincy Jones, authors Toni Morrison and Ernest J. Gaines. “I was in high cotton then. I think that was one of the most illustrious groups that ever received such an honor.”
During President Clinton’s epic speech at the ceremony, he proclaims that Driskell “opens our eyes to beauty, poignancy and power of African American art, enriching cultural heritage and sparking worldwide interest of our nation.” In one respect, Driskell’s art has always blurred the lines between being a personal narrative and an exploration into the histories, pathologies and everyday experiences of blackness in America and abroad. Born Jun. 7, 1931 to sharecropping parents in Eatonton, GA (also birthplace of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Alice Walker) and raised in Rutherford County, NC, Driskell is never one to forget where he comes from. His parents were not educated beyond the sixth grade, didn’t own their own home, grew their own food and didn’t own their land but manage to still bless the family with great wisdom and creative vocation. His mother was a quilter who specialized in herbal medicines (the closest doctors were 20 to 30 miles away according to Driskell) while his father made furniture, was a skilled blacksmith and presided as a minister of his own church. Driskell believes watching his parents paved the way for his passion. “Art is always with us. All of those very levels we always overlook.”
On another note, Driskell could be considered a valid and vital textbook that chronicles a wealth of African American experiences. Driskell, by no means, would consider himself a child prodigy, instead, he credits having a good memory. He recalls being in a one-room school with seven other grades and being able to absorb information at a frequency well enough to help his older siblings with their schoolwork. Pattering his life in relation to his father’s biblical quotes and the refrains of Negro spirituals, Driskell – an avid reader as was his father – raves tremendously over receiving The Basic Teaching of Great Philosophers from his father and shares a few recurring memories associated with the text. In another surprising revelation, he remembers his father being the one of few in his neighborhood with a vehicle, and local whites borrowing the car on the weekends to run errands. “It’s that kind of mutuality that you don’t hear about in the South,” he says.
The consummate evolving life scholar, leader and featured artist at countless galleries worldwide, Driskell – elected National Academician by the National Academy in 2007 – completed an art program at Maine’s esteemed Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1953. He received his undergraduate degree from Howard University in 1955 and received his Master of Fine Arts from Catholic University in 1962. Along the way, Driskell took his mission global: studying art history at The Netherlands Institute, The Hague in 1964. A first lieutenant in the U.S. Army from 1957-1965, Driskell became a revered professor at Bowdoin College, Fisk University, Bates College and Nigeria’s Obafemi Abolowo University: eventually joining the The University of Maryland’s Department of Art in 1977 before assuming the role of Chairman from 1978 to 1983. To this day, Driskell is an Emeritus Professor at The University of Maryland – College Park. He’s lectured throughout Europe, Africa and South America and created seven films on black art. His landmark 1976 exhibition, Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750 – 1950, originally debuted at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and set the tone for distinguishing African American art history. To his credit, black art’s leading purveyor has written five exhibition books, co-authored four books and published 40 exhibition catalogues. In the process, he’s received numerous fellows: including the Danforth Foundation, the Harron Foundation and three times from the Rockefeller Foundation…but he does recognize where his work gets its greatest glory.
“Art is an expression – any creative expression — that the people invest in, which helps to define their culture, who they are, how they see the world, their aspirations. It isn’t just what is but its projections and what one wishes to see…how it informs the people.”
For 35 years, Driskell has worked closely with Bill and Camille Cosby as the couple’s cultural advisor. The Cosbys approached Driskell and enlisted his expertise, but they embrace each other’s families and have embarked on a landmark partnership beyond simply curating and consulting the Cosby Collection of Fine Arts: adding that they frequently travel to visit one another. Not only does Driskell sit on the board of the Cosby Foundation Scholarship, but he also selected the black art seen on the walls of the famous Huxtable brownstone on the highly successful The Cosby Show. He remembers walking and browsing down 5th Ave. with who was then America’s favorite television patriarch – who Driskell says is “always teaching even on television” – and a fan asks Cosby for an autograph. Immediately, Cosby suggests to the fan that he meets Driskell and ask for his autograph instead. It was a moment of truth: one that Driskell says was “a signal of their mutual respect for one another.”
It bothers the art virtuoso that many people don’t know how important the matriarch is in the Cosby dynasty. “Camille is the power behind the throne when it comes to buying the art,” he says. Even the Cosbys’ oldest daughter, Erica, teaches painting at New York University and cites Driskell as her mentor. Driskell shares fond memories of taking his children along with the Cosby kids to foreign nations to learn about other cultures and to see museums. He says their families have a wonderful relationship conjoined with friendship.
“We work together, but we work with each other. That’s a signal of respect. It wasn’t like I was under his domain. I learned so much about my own family relationship just in dealing with them. That signals a certain kind of interest, commitment to the culture and a person they could trust.”
By Driskell’s account, he has no magic words. He knows he’s a blessed man. He’s quite involved: assuming board and Advisory Committee spots with the American Federation of Arts, the Amistad Research Center and the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. He’s survived two types of cancer. He and his wife, Thelma, have been married for 60 years and enjoy two daughters as a reflection of their bond. He’s come a long way since his humble beginnings: declaring, “We didn’t know we were poor until the sociologists came and told us!” Black art’s leading man, whether he reflects on his life or sings the refrains of spirituals as a parallel line, knows his calling and still understands what made him into the icon he is today. “I didn’t just want to be an ordinary artist; I wanted to be the best,” he says. “I wanted to write about it, talk about it…do the art. There’s still a peak up there that I haven’t reached. I might not reach it, but I’m finding it. The keys to success: reading, listening and absorbing what is going on around you. Love what you do, do it well, share it, and it comes back to you.”
Words: Christopher Daniel
Photos: Cat Max Photography