Champion of African American art

Bill Cosby to speak at UM dedication of center named for David C. Driskell

Art

September 29, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | By Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Artist David C. Driskell had been painting and teaching college art courses for 20 years when he got a call one day in 1976 from television star Bill Cosby.

The celebrated actor and his wife, Camille, had recently read a book Driskell had written about African-American art, and Cosby wanted Driskell to help choose some artworks for the couple's collection.

At first, Driskell thought it was someone's idea of a joke.

"I had a brother-in-law and we used to call each other up and pretend we were celebrities in different voices," Driskell recalled.

"So when Cosby called, I said, 'What do you want, Scott?' And he said, 'Who is Scott?' And I said, 'I know who you are.' And he said, 'This is Bill Cosby. I have your book here, and we'd like for you and your wife to come visit us Thanksgiving.' "

From that initial encounter grew a friendship that has lasted more than 25 years. Today, Driskell, 71, is a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Maryland College Park and a nationally renowned expert on African-American art. And the more than 300 paintings, prints, sculpture and drawings acquired by Bill and Camille Cosby over the last two decades, which Driskell helped select, has become one of the most important collections of African-American art in the world.

Today, the University of Maryland is honoring Driskell's accomplishments as teacher, artist, curator and historian with a grand, by-invitation-only celebration to mark the launch of its new David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the African Diaspora.

A highlight of today's event, to be held in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, will be a performance by Cosby himself as a personal tribute to his friend.

Like its namesake, the center and its staff will devote itself to examining the history, culture and experience of African peoples in the Americas and the far-reaching influence they have had on cultural and intellectual life in the New World.

Directed by Eileen Julien, a professor of French and comparative literature at the university, the center will call on graduate fellows and post-doctoral scholars from around the world to participate in residencies, research projects, workshops and collaborative partnerships with other institutions.

"The work is really interesting, and in most instances it actually bridges the arts and facets of social life in African-American culture," said Julien.

Author and collector

Driskell, a native of Eatonton, Ga., attended public schools in North Carolina as a child.

"I guess I was the only kid who showed any interest in art when I was in grade school, which was a one-room segregated schoolhouse," Driskell recalled during a recent interview at his home in Hyattsville. "So my teachers prevailed on me to do everything that looked like it was art."

In 1950, Driskell enrolled at Howard University in Washington, where he planned to become a history teacher. But there he met the painter Howard Porter, who convinced him that his true vocation lay in art. Porter became Driskell's teacher and mentor, and soon the possibility of a whole new career opened up to the budding artist.

"I became literally enthralled with African-American art at Howard," Driskell said. "Porter was the one who convinced me I didn't belong in history but in art. He was a terrific influence. I changed my major in 1952."

After graduating from Howard in 1955, Driskell taught art at Talladega College in Alabama for several years, then returned to Washington to earn a master of fine arts degree from Catholic University of America in 1962. For the next four years, he taught art at Howard, then spent a decade as chairman of the art department at Fisk University in Tennessee before coming to Maryland in 1977.

Over the course of his career, Driskell has authored five books on African-American art, co-authored four others and published more than 40 catalogs for exhibitions he has curated.

In addition, he has written dozens of articles and essays and lectured widely on the subject.

Throughout he has been an ardent champion of art created by African-Americans. The walls of his home are covered with the works of artists like Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden and Lois Mailou Jones.

Part of the culture

Today, when African-American art is finally beginning to win wider critical attention and respect, Driskell hopes the center named after him will help more people appreciate the work of these artists and the historical experience it reflects.

"Art is just one of the components," he said. "My interest is to bring in more young people to grow the field, with an emphasis on art but buttressed by other cultural components as well -- literature, drama, music -- so more people are looking at African-American art history."

Driskell thinks that popular culture can be a hook to grab young peoples' interest and says he hopes the center will attract a broad cross-section of the community.

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