Invisible No More

A Morgan State exhibit brings the breadth of African-American art to light.

Completing The Picture

Collectors Robert and Jean Steele want to make the story of African American art less abstract.

Cover Story

August 01, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

If every collection tells a story, then every collector's home is like a book on whose pages the tale is written.

The College Park home of Jean and Robert Steele is just such a place.

The airy living room is chockablock with beautiful artworks -- colorful framed lithographs, drawings and other works on paper cover every available inch of open space. There's a trio of Jacob Lawrence prints on one wall, a sensuously reclining nude by James L. Wells peeking through the doorway to the next room, a Michael Platt charcoal drawing of a Bushman by the stairway and, occupying pride of place over the mantelpiece, a portrait of master printmaker Robert Blackburn at work in his Harlem studio.

The Steeles have been collecting prints by African-American artists for more than 30 years, and their home is a testament not only to their passion for art, but also their commitment to the story it tells.

"Most people are still amazed these artists even exist," says Robert Steele, 61, as he shows a visitor around his house. "Once you get past the Lawrences and Beardens and Catletts -- say, the top five names that might be familiar -- people don't have a clue who these artists are. So unless there are champions for them, people who will find ways to make sure [they] get some type of exposure, it won't happen."

Steele and his wife have been collecting prints by African-American artists since the late 1960s. About 50 of the more than 400 works they have acquired over that time are on display at Morgan State University's James E. Lewis Museum. (See accompanying story.)

Yvonne Hardy, director the African-American Cultural Center at Towson University, considers the Steeles' collection a model.

It represents "a stellar example of contemporary black art patronage," she says. "Knowledgeable and engaged, these collectors are willing to make the financial investment crucial to the support of the black artists' community.

"An educated collector is an avid buyer," adds Hardy, who runs a print workshop at Towson that produces works by African-American artists. "It stands to reason that the Steele collection is filled with some of the most luminous and sought-after names in the black art world."

Lifelong interest

Like the New York collectors Vivian and John Hewitt, whose historic collection of African-American paintings is currently on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Steeles are people of modest means. He's retiring this month as associate dean of the School of Behavioral and Social Sciences at the University of Maryland, College Park, and will immediately become director of UM's David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the African Diaspora; she's a retired executive for Freddie Mac, the congressionally chartered private mortgage lender with headquarters in McLean, Va.

Their passion for collecting began with the purchase of a small pastel of Malcolm X by a now forgotten artist. They found it in a gallery in Harlem while Robert was doing his hospital chaplaincy training after earning a master's degree from the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. (He would go on to earn both master's and doctoral degrees in psychology from Yale University before coming to Maryland in the mid-1970s.)

The young couple soon realized that even small paintings by artists like Romare Bearden and Elizabeth Catlett were beyond their reach. In prints, however, they discovered an affordable alternative that allowed them to build an aesthetically satisfying collection without breaking the bank.

As their knowledge -- and confidence -- grew, they began to develop long-term relationships with printmaking workshops founded by African-American artists, such as Blackwell's Printmaking Workshop in New York, Allan Edmunds' Brandywine Workshop in Philadelphia and Lou Stovall's Workshop Inc. in Washington.

"Historically, in the 1960s and '70s, there was a print revolution taking place throughout the art world," Steele recalls. "Later I began to realize that Blackburn was a chief player not only in the African-American community but with all the major abstract expressionists."

Eventually, Steele discovered other workshops around the country that printed work by African-American artists and began to make purchases from them as well. Most recently, he has begun to buy from artists directly after visiting their studios.

Steele grew up in Prichard, Ala., a town north of Mobile. After graduating from Morehouse College in Atlanta (where he says he discovered his love of art in the library museum), he attended seminary in Massachusetts, where he met Jean, who was a fellow student there (she also holds a divinity degree, though she is not ordained).

The collector's passion

The dining room of the Steeles' home picks up the story begun in the living room.

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