For six decades, David Driskell has been a vibrant and vital force in contemporary art. And through it all, Maine has been vital for him.
By Charlotte Wilder
Portrait by David Hills
From our March 2017 issue
[cs_drop_cap letter=”D” color=”#000000″ size=”10em” ]avid Driskell dreams about Maine. He’s been all over the world in his 85 years, but Maine is the only place that presents itself while he sleeps. In these dreams, he’s standing by the brook, the one that winds through the garden behind his house in Falmouth. Since 1961, when he and his wife, Thelma, bought their 6-acre parcel for $5,600, Driskell has fished there on summer evenings. He grills the trout in the waning light and serves it with vegetables from the garden he starts caring for as soon as he arrives each summer.
“Maine, even when I’m down here and in other parts of the world, is still on my mind in certain ways,” Driskell said. “It’s indelible. The stamp of the beauty — I’m talking about the summer. It’s beautiful in the winter, but I’m not a winter person.”
It was very much winter when I visited Driskell recently, at his home and studio in Hyattsville, Maryland. He’d just returned from speaking engagements in London and Johannesburg and had a few days before he was set to give a keynote speech at a conference in Paris. He pulled a rocking chair alongside a woodstove that radiated warmth into his uninsulated workspace, and he gestured for me to sit down.
Driskell is one of the world’s leading authorities on African American art. He’s a painter, printmaker, professor, speaker, author, curator, and trailblazer with more honorary degrees and awards than there are Crayola markers in a deluxe box — one of which sat on a cluttered desk near the entrance to his studio. Driskell’s accolades include three Rockefeller Foundation Fellowships, a National Humanities Medal, 13 honorary doctoral degrees, and more. His works hang in museum collections across the globe. In 2001, the University of Maryland established the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora.
Driskell — who’s 85, but looks closer to 65 — wore a collared shirt underneath a purple wool sweater and a newsboy cap as he settled himself onto a stool. Paintings, mostly landscapes, were everywhere. Some hung on the walls; others, half-finished, rested on easels. Unframed canvasses lay stacked up on a table. The top one was a neon abstraction of the ocean, seen through a tall set of pines with rhododendron leaves exploding in the foreground.
“I just showed up. They were like, ‘You don’t just go to college — you have to make an application.’ So I said, ‘Well, I’m here. Give me one.’ ”
The artist rested an elbow on the painting and picked up a homegrown sweet potato from a bin underneath, rolling it around in his hand. Next to him, on another table, were several prints he’s done in Maine over the past two or three years. Called the Maine Suite, they were wrapped in plastic, waiting to be shipped to the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland, where they’re now on exhibit for the first time.
Driskell’s deep ties to Maine go back to 1953, when he attended the then–seven-year-old Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture on a fellowship. He was one of two black students at the time; the other was his roommate, Walter Williams, who went on to become a well-known artist in his own right. There weren’t many black people in Maine in the 1950s, a fact that hasn’t changed much in the last 60-plus years: Today, 94.9 percent of the state’s residents are white, 1.4 percent African American. But Driskell was accustomed to being in places where people might not think he belonged: when he got to Howard University as an 18-year-old in 1949, no one was expecting his arrival.
“I didn’t have any money, and I hadn’t made an application to come,” he said, laughing. “I just showed up. They were like, ‘You don’t just go to college — you have to make an application.’ So I said, ‘Well, I’m here. Give me one.’ They were very shocked and surprised, but I guess they said, ‘This guy has guts.’ ”
Administrators didn’t believe Driskell when he told them he came from the hills of western North Carolina. Nobody comes from Appalachia, they said. Driskell’s parents were sharecroppers who grew cotton, but unlike many, Driskell’s father, G.W. Driskell (his full name was George Washington, but he refused to go by it, because President Washington never freed his slaves), knew how to read and write. G.W. stayed out of debt by keeping meticulous records, so no white, literate person could claim he owed them money. He was able to save and send Driskell to school.
“[My parents] said, well, the way out of this is through education,” Driskell said. “So they put up no hindrances to my going to school while other kids were picking cotton and chopping and hoeing the cotton. I never had to do any of that.”
It took two hours on a winding route to get to a school Driskell could attend, since, due to segregation, the four schools closest to him were whites only. He would wake up at 4 a.m., be at the bus stop (a mile down the road) by 5, go to class, then ride two hours back home every day.
“When the whole notion of bussing came along, I said, ‘Oh, come on! It’s not new! Look what I had to do!’ And yet, as Maya Angelou said, ‘And still I rise.’ ” Driskell laughed and put the sweet potato back in the bin. Then he sighed.
[cs_drop_cap letter=”A” color=”#000000″ size=”10em” ]T HOWARD, HE’D PLANNED TO MAJOR in history and minor in art, but professor James A. Porter, who would become his mentor, took notice of him. A founding figure in the field of African American art history, Porter told Driskell, “You belong here.”
So he went straight to the registrar and changed his major, which is how Driskell ended up at Skowhegan during his junior year. He loved it. He was struck by the Maine light, which he found almost Mediterranean in the way that it slanted over hills, water, and trees and filtered through the northern-facing windows of the school’s studios. Maine’s light seemed sharper than almost anywhere else, revealing the state’s wild landscapes with a clarity that pierces the heart, makes you want to wander outside of yourself and into the woods, or the water, or maybe even the sky.
Driskell was hooked. Thelma and the couple’s first child had stayed behind (the Driskells, approaching their 65th anniversary, now have two daughters and an adopted son). When he returned to DC, he told Thelma that someday they would buy a place up there, just as so many other artists — from Winslow Homer to Marsden Hartley to the Wyeths — had for centuries.
Then, in the early ’60s, Driskell saw an ad for a place in Falmouth in the Christian Science Monitor. It was a two-room shack that had been on the market a while because everyone in the area thought it was too expensive. After Driskell and his family bought it and showed up, a neighbor told him, “Welcome, but had I known you were going to buy the old Gooch farm, I would’ve.”
As a black man in a very white state, Driskell has had mixed experiences. “Kids would come up to me in Skowhegan, if I’d go to market or something, and want to touch my skin, ask why it was so brown and dark,” he said, rubbing his left hand with his right. “And would it rub off? I remember being in the supermarket and a little boy was inching closer and closer to me and finally he rubbed my hand, and his mother was so embarrassed.
“ ‘Oh, isn’t that beautiful?’ she said. And he said ‘No!’ And she was even more embarrassed afterwards. I guess he’d never seen a black person. I mean, Skowhegan in the ’50s was kind of isolated.”
Maine is, in many ways, still isolated. Even today, some of Driskell’s Falmouth neighbors will occasionally say something subtly racist or otherwise embarassing. But Driskell admires both the stubbornness and decency he sees in Yankees, and he’s made some of his closest, lifelong friends in Maine. He’s deeply entrenched in the state’s art community. He’s served on the boards of Colby and Bowdoin colleges, been involved with CMCA since the 1960s, and worked with the Portland Museum of Art. He’s also continued a close relationship with Skowhegan, returning for multiple stints as a resident faculty member and serving for years as a trustee. Friends have accused him of designing his garden in Falmouth to mimic the school’s grounds, a charge he doesn’t deny.
[cs_drop_cap letter=”E” color=”#000000″ size=”10em” ]ARLY in his career, Driskell often painted and printed figures. One of his most famous pieces, Behold Thy Son, which hangs in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, was his response to the 1955 murder of Emmett Till. “But I did that work, and it was almost like it was catharsis for me,” Driskell said, “cleansing me of my notion of being a social commentary artist, commenting on the cruelty of hate, unkindness, inhumanity. I kind of got it out of my system.”
After that, Driskell turned to nature, and Maine provided inspiration. In homage to his Southern roots and the layout of his Maryland studio, he bucked painterly tradition and built his studio in Falmouth so that the windows face south. He likes to think the angle of the light makes it warmer, though he isn’t sure.
Many of the new prints in Renewal and Form, Driskell’s CMCA show, feature the landscape, though some incorporate figures as well. Driskell’s work marries the natural with the spiritual, and he’s known for incorporating the iconography of Christianity and of various African and Afro-Atlantic traditions. Many pieces weave in images of the traditional masks that first captured his interest during two teaching and research trips across Africa in 1969 and 1972. Images of the Biblical fall recur as well. One of his new prints shows an abstraction of Eve holding the apple; in it, the woman stares out at the world, a snake wrapped around her feet, her calm power expressed with bold and striking lines.
And then there are the leaves. Many of Driskell’s best-known works are of trees or other greenery, visual interpretations of the pines behind his house or sprigs from his garden. Driskell’s mother was an herbalist, and he incorporates specific plants into his work (and lovingly tends his own gardens) in homage to her. The written portion of his 1962 MFA thesis reflected on evergreen trees as symbols of eternity; on his property in Falmouth, he has planted trees to memorialize family, friends, colleagues, and mentors.
“The prints mostly deal with themes that have threaded throughout his work,” CMCA director Suzette McAvoy told me. “The landscape, Afro-American folktales, portraits of friends and family. He has such a deep affinity with the Maine landscape, and his work has been responding to it.”
To me, Driskell’s prints and paintings look like what missing Maine feels like. His pieces are hopeful, electric, tinged with longing and light. The rough-hewn lines of the lithographs mimic the beams of barns you might pass driving up Route 1 towards his house. The works are reflections of the place where the brook, always running, waits for him each summer.
“I attribute part of the longevity that I have to the fact that Maine has played a very significant role in the delivery of that,” Driskell said. “It gives me consolation that I can always go back.”
He put the rocking chair back in its corner and shut off the light before opening the door for me.
“And I look forward to it,” he went on. “Like I said, I dream about it when I’m not there, and I can’t wait to get up there and get my hands in the dirt. When I’m in the studio, it starts all over again. The cycle. It’s a very interesting place. A very interesting place.”
David Driskell passed away on April 1, 2020, at the age of 88.