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Lewis, Samella Sanders (1924–) - Art History

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Samella Sanders Lewis was born on February 27, 1924, in New Orleans, Louisiana, of African-American ancestry. Her father was a farmer, her mother a seamstress. She attended Thomy Lafon Elementary School, J. W. Hoffman Junior High School, and McDonogh #35 Senior High School, all in New Orleans. Among her early influences Lewis counts historian Benjamin Quarles and her art professor, Elizabeth Catlett. After meeting and getting to know people from different cultures, studying anthropology, and feeling a desire to include people from neglected cultures, Lewis decided to pursue a career as a historian.

She attended Hampton University, earning a bachelor’s degree in art in 1945. Lewis then pursued graduate work at Ohio State University, earning the master’s degree in art in 1948 and the Ph.D. in art history in 1951. She taught at Hampton University as an instructor from 1946 to 1947, then accepted a position as associate professor at Morgan State University, where she stayed until 1953, when she was appointed professor and chair of fine arts at Florida A & M University. While she lived in the Southeast, Lewis played an active role in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). When she designed a greeting card for the NAACP that emphasized “Peace on Earth, Good Will to All Men,” the state of Florida accused her of having communist sympathies. Lewis was pursued, as were many others during the McCarthy era, by the government and then by the Ku Klux Klan, who shot out the rear windows of her home.

In 1958 Lewis left the South and took a position at the State University of New York College at Plattsburgh, as professor of art history. She remained politically active, founding the Plattsburgh chapter of the NAACP. Before she officially left the State University of New York, in 1968, Lewis taught at California State University at Long Beach as associate professor of art from 1966 to 1967. From 1970 to 1984 she was professor of art history at Scripps College, one of the Claremont Colleges. During the early 1970s she and artist Bernie Casey established the Contemporary Crafts Gallery, which served primarily as a showcase for young black artists. “The Gallery,” as it came to be known, was headed by Lewis until 1979. In 1984 Lewis was named Professor of the Year and Professor Emerita at Scripps College.

Lewis has written five books and five scholarly articles, and she has written catalogues for or curated nine shows, including her most recent, Caribbean Visions: Contemporary Paintings and Drawings, a national and international traveling exhibition. She has written extensively on African-American art and artists, focusing in particular on the work of internationally renowned sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett, with whom Lewis studied. Lewis is known for bringing the work of African-American women artists to the foreground of discussion of visual art in the United States. Because she has studied Asian art as well, particularly Chinese and Japanese art, she also brings cross-cultural perspectives to her writings and curated shows.

Lewis has been the recipient of several postdoctoral fellowships, including those from the Fulbright Foundation, the National Research Council, and the Ford Foundation. She has received over a dozen honors and awards, including a UNICEF Award for the Visual Arts, a Women’s Caucus for the Arts Honor Award for Outstanding Achievement in Visual Arts, and honorary doctorates from the University of Cincinnati, Hampton University, and Chapman College. She has provided service to the profession through her leadership as project director for the National Endowment for the Arts, as editor of the International Review of African American Art , as founder of the Museum of African American Art, and as director of the Scripps College Clark Humanities Museum.

Samella Lewis is an accomplished artist as well as an accomplished art historian. Her own work is primarily figurative and concerns her African-American heritage. She has had solo exhibitions at many colleges and museums, including the Robert Joseph Gallery in Cincinnati, the University of California at San Diego, and the Junior Black Academy of Arts and Letters in Dallas. She has also been in twenty group exhibitions over the past fifteen years, including traveling exhibitions for the Smithsonian Institution and the Studio Museum of Harlem. Her work is represented in ten permanent collections, including those of the Baltimore Museum of Fine Arts, the High Museum of Atlanta, the Oakland Museum, and the museums of Hampton, Howard, and Ohio State universities. She has also produced five films on black artists in the United States. Samella Lewis has lived out the words she has written for others: “The Black artist should also establish a direct relationship with Black people at all socioeconomic and educational levels. In this role the artist is an interpreter, a voice that makes intelligible the deepest, most meaningful aspirations of the people.”

Lewis remains active professionally, and her current research focuses on lasting African influences on the contemporary world. Samella Lewis’s spouse is Paul Lewis. She is the mother of two sons, Alan and Claude Lewis, and the grandmother of Gabriella Giancarlo and Unity Lewis. Her main interest outside of her work and family is photography.

Lewis, Theophilus(1891–1974) - Drama critic, Uses the Messenger as a Voice, Family Life and Writings [next] [back] Lewis, Jenifer (1957–)

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