Professor Scripps, ‘the godmother of African-American art’, dies at 99
Samella Lewis, a fierce pioneer in the art world who was renowned “godmother of african american artdied in Torrance, Calif., at the age of 99 last May. She taught at Scripps College from 1970 to 1984, influencing hundreds of students and leaving an indelible mark on Claremont.
She was there first black woman to earn a doctorate in fine arts and art history. She organized the first professional conference for black artists in the USA. She co-founded the first Black-Owned Art Book Publishing Company. And she was there first permanent black faculty member at Scripps College.
However, growing up in Louisiana in the 1920s, Lewis never expected to become a scholar of such legendary importance.
“When I was growing up in New Orleans, I didn’t even know what those degrees were,” she told The Scripps Report in 1974. But “there was always a wonderful teacher” who encouraged her to keep going. to study.
Lewis began her studies at Dillard University in New Orleans and transferred to Hampton University in Virginia, where she earned her bachelor’s degree. She went on to earn a master’s degree and two doctorates from The Ohio State University, launching her career as a sculptor, filmmaker, painter, printmaker, curator, author, scholar, mentor, and trailblazer.
“I was greatly influenced by her because the black community in Claremont at that time was very close,” Valerie Coachman-Moore told PO ’75. “We got together on campuses and there was always something going on.”
After graduating and moving to the East Coast, Coachman-Moore continued to read Lewis’s articles and books. When she returned to Los Angeles, she attended Lewis’ lectures and spent time with her occasionally.
Lewis “was quiet, but a force to be reckoned with,” Coachman-Moore said. “She was kind, she was patient, she took time with you – even though she was this huge person. You didn’t know she was a huge person until you stepped back and took another perspective. There was a softness and a fierceness that juxtaposed in her. She was amazing.
In 1950 Lewis began teaching at Morgan State University in Baltimore, followed by Florida A&M University and State University of New York, Plattsburg.
While in New York, Lewis developed an interest in Asian art and language and left for Taiwan in the early 1960s to work at Tunghai University and tour mainland China. Upon her return to the United States, Lewis and her family settled in Los Angeles, where she taught Chinese at the University of Southern California and held positions at Cal State Long Beach and Cal State Dominguez Hills.
By the time Lewis became a professor at Scripps College in 1970, she was fascinated by the interactions and overlaps between African, Asian and Caribbean art.
“I’ve never given a course where I closed the door: it’s African art and it’s Caribbean art. I tried to show the interrelationships,” Lewis said in an oral history in 1992. “I could bring the two together in Suriname, which is Caribbean in spirit but South American in location. So it’s a challenge. And I could call it African art, but I’m going a bit beyond that. I could call it the art of Nigeria or a certain period of Nigeria. And then I don’t treat art separately from people either, but I identify art almost through people,” Lewis said.
At Scripps, Lewis wasn’t just a teacher.
“She must have worn so many hats. Counselor, admissions counselor, student support — she couldn’t just be an art history teacher,” said Crystal Jones, who was a freshman at Scripps in Lewis’s final year teaching and was director of development at Scripps until this year.
Jones said the admissions department often involves Lewis in the admissions process for black students — while teaching classes, mentoring students, bringing artists to campus, and holding positions at galleries and museums in Los Angeles.
Lewis remembers helping students choose where to study abroad.
“Scripps [College] had a great junior year abroad. I was very lucky to work at Claremont Colleges. I sent students to the University of Ghana. I sent students to the University of Nigeria. I sent students to Ethiopia. I sent them to many European capitals,” Lewis said in recorded oral history in 1992, adding that she tried to get black college students to go to African countries.
Lewis also recalled an “exciting situation” she encountered at Scripps when one of the students wanted to study abroad at the University of Science and Technology of Ghana in Kumasi.
“They wouldn’t accept [the Scripps student] because they didn’t have the proper background. The University of Ghana was still on the English system,” Lewis said. “And I was happy about that, because you know how rich Claremont Colleges is,” Lewis said with a laugh.
Lewis became an influential force on the Los Angeles art scene during her time at Scripps. She has established three galleries in the region, founded the Museum of African American Art, and co-founded Concerned Citizens for Black Art to advise museums on educational programs.
At the same time, Lewis wrote and edited extensively on black art, establishing it as a historical genre of art. She co-edited two volumes of a contemporary guide to black artists entitled “Black Artists on Art”, co-founded a black art journal, and published the seminal manual “Art: African American”.
Lewis said she was not born a writer but became an author out of necessity.
“I didn’t see anyone collecting information on black artists, and I had had experience with black artists from my elementary school days, and I knew there were a lot of good ones,” Lewis told the Scripps Report in 1974. “So I decided that if nobody else was going to write it, then I was going to learn how to write it and put it in writing so people could read it.
Samella Lewis lives at Scripps in spirit and through a scholarship program and an art collection in her name.
“He was someone who raised Scripps’ level of consciousness around non-European artistic scholarship. She brought it and expanded the program to the rest of the world,” said Jones, who worked with Lewis in the early 2000s to set up the Samella Lewis Fellowship at Scripps. Each year, a black Scripps student receives the scholarship for academic achievement, character, leadership, and responsibility.
“We really wanted to highlight the fact that she was the first African-American tenured professor at Scripps and the first African-American woman in the country to earn a doctorate in art history,” Jones said. “We wanted it to be something for African-American students, to instill a sense of welcome and belonging [and a sense that] there are people who preceded you,” she said.
In 2007, the college also established the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery’s Samella Lewis Contemporary Art Collection in her honor with the aim of acquiring works by Lewis and other contemporary artists, focusing on women and men. black artists.
“I took away an understanding of the place of art in freedom struggles, for people making a statement and how art connects to justice,” Coachman-Moore said of what she learned from Lewis.
For Coachman-Moore, Lewis’ legacy is “dare to do it and do it. It’s about doing it. His museum, his books, his writings. She was not distracted. She kept bringing it.