In 1920’s New Orleans a young Samella Lewis first picked up a paint brush and through it she found her voice in an environment that didn’t encourage speaking one’s mind. “It might get me in trouble”, Lewis explains in a 2006 interview, “and so I had to find a way to express my feelings.” What originally began as a private expression, Samella Lewis’ art practice evolved, leading her to a career in academic scholarship that took the artist from New Orleans to Hampton, VA, to the Ohio State University and Los Angeles. Through the guidance of friend and mentor Elizabeth Catlett who encouraged her to become a historian, Samella Lewis became the first African American woman to earn a PHD in Art History and Fine Art from Ohio State in 1951.
“The artist became the art historian because I was angry. Because when I studied art history I saw nothing of Africa, I saw nothing of African Americans and I saw nothing of Asians, nobody except westerners.”
With an eye toward the controlled, empowered preservation and documentation of black artists, Lewis published numerous books, monographs and catalogues including her popular collaboration with Ruth Waddy called Black Artists on Art. As a professor, Lewis broke new ground becoming the first black professor at the Claremont Colleges between 1969 and 1984. In the late 1970’s she published the first textbook on black artists called African American Art and Artists. In addition to multiple updated editions, her grandson Unity is working on a second installment of the text.
Lewis’ critical gaze is always forward looking; she does not believe in a static representation of black art or artists and recognizes the importance of its evolution as an essential element in survival. That evolution can also be found in her own artistic practice. Through her scholarship she has held onto the important objective of creating canon in an environment that continues to struggle with adequate representation . As an advocate for inclusion, mentorship and empowerment, Samella Lewis has inspired future generations of artist- scholars who are making inroads in academic and curatorial circles today.
Local Heroes, KCET https://www.kcet.org/local-heroes/local-hero-dr-samella-lewis-0
CAAM, Lifetime Achievement Award Video, 2006 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2jl8xy5Iq5I
Now Dig This! Digital Archive https://hammer.ucla.edu/now-dig-this/artists/samella-lewis/