Spelman Renaissance, the Birth of Artistic Brilliance

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Calida Rawles' "When I Ponder"

Harlem was not the only place to have a Renaissance.  Atlanta began having its own cultural revolution in the 1930s right in the basement of Laura Spelman Hall.  It was there that Hale Woodruff’s studio was the impetus of African-American art culture in Atlanta and that tradition of artistic rigor has never waned.

“When Blacks couldn’t go the High [Museum of Art] or other galleries and museums, Hale Woodruff brought in exhibitions from  the Harmon Foundation and people came in droves,” said Akua McDaniel, C’69, associate professor of art history and former chair of the Spelman College art department.  “I’ve seen photographs of people who were lined up from Laura Spelman all the way around to the front gate waiting to get into an art exhibition.”

Hale Woodruff

It was 1931 when Woodruff, an abstract painter, and Nancy Prophet, a painter and sculptor, established the art departments for the Atlanta University Center institutions.  During the establishment of Atlanta’s cultural explosion, Spelman served as the staging ground for some of the world’s most talented Black artists.  From H. Kofi Bailey to Varnette Honeywood, the College provided both a place to educate future artists as well as a haven for artist-educators to practice their craft.

No Place to Call Home

With such superstar talent, one would think the campus houses a state-of-the art facility that beckons the artistically brilliant.  Not so, since its 1931 inception, the department of art has existed as a rolling stone on campus.  Currently housed in the Albro Falconer Manley Science Center, Giles Hall, and the John D. Rockefeller Fine Arts Building, the department longs for a one-roof home.

"Laura Spelman RockefellerHall" by Johnnie Davis

“When I came to Spelman, the art department was in various places on campus,” said Johnnie Lumpkin Davis, C’50, who majored in art.  “The art department had no building, but we were educated by brilliant artists.”

Davis, who came to Spelman right after the Woodruff and Prophet era, established the art department of St. Augustine College in Raleigh, N.C.  At 82, Davis, continues to paint.  The vibrancy of color and Spelman endearment is reflected in all her works.  Proceeds from her art, which range in price from $150 to $5,000, benefit the Johnnie Lumpkin Davis Scholarship Fund for Spelman students who major in art and demonstrate a financial need.

Petty Cash for a Tube of Red Paint

Needing supplies in preparation for her senior art exhibit led Anita Atkinson Ragland, C’57, to set up her own “petty cash” fund for art students.I remember as a graduating art major, we sometimes needed to have a contribution if we wanted to have another tube of red paint,” said Ragland, who has taught art classes in Germany and Japan.  “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to give something to the art department in general where it would be like a petty cash fund so that if anybody needed a tube of red paint, they could just go in get it and pay it back or pay it forward when they get a job?’”

That pay-it-forward spirit led to the Anita Atkinson Ragland Prize of Excellence in the Visual Arts.  Annually awarded to two students who demonstrate excellence in the arts, the $500 prize allows students to spend the money however they choose.

“I was so honored when they named the gift after me,” said Ragland, who compares the honor to having a new grandchild.  “It encouraged me to make this a part of an ongoing effort that I would do for the rest of my life because it’s about encouraging young women to be all they can be.”

Rejecting Labels

Gwen Everett

 

In 1969, Gwendolyn H. Everett, C’73, came to Spelman to major in psychology; however, freshmen could not declare a major until their sophomore year.  In that year, Everett took a drawing class that changed her world.

Everett, an art historian who has written extensively on the subject of African-American art and folk art, said it was Spelman that helped her realized she could pursue a career in art but not just teaching elementary-age students.

“During the late 60s and early 70s, many people expected females to take traditional career paths, including classroom teaching,” said Everett, who is the current chair of the Howard University department of art and has worked at such places as the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  “University teaching was rarely discussed as an option. The strong role models on campus and those of the alumni helped me see that I could explore many options.”

Kindergarten Artist

Calida Rawles

It was kindergarten when Calida Garcia Rawles, C’98, realized she had artistic talent.  After a class assignment, her teacher went raving to another teacher about the wonderful work of her student.  From that day on, Rawles became interested in pursuing art as a career.

Driven to go into a profession where few become successful, Rawles’ passion became stronger once she came to Spelman, particularly following in the footsteps of greats like Honeywood. Although the department was not as large as other colleges, she felt the professors compensated in personalized attention and commitment.

“It is always important to witness successful people in your field that are like you,” said Rawles, who paints with a post-Civil Rights, post-feminism brush, evoking strength and fragility, beauty and power in her subject s.  “In my case, following in the footsteps of Varnette Honeywood has been a blessing.  She opened many doors of opportunities for African-American artists.”

Not for Women Only

Professor McDaniel, who would love to one day see the department in one location with an exhibition space, said today’s career opportunities for art students are limitless, and Spelman’s track record for producing a myriad of talented art professionals proves the point.

“While we don’t really tout our male successes, remember Morehouse does not have an art program, so its students got their start right downstairs,” said McDaniel, who has been at Spelman since 1980 and served as chair of the art department since 2005.

Richard Powell, a Morehouse graduate, is probably one of the best-known African-American art historians in the country got his start right here.  The legacy of this department is long and rich, and since its beginning in the 1930s its art legacy is and will continue to be part of the annals of history.” – Renita Mathis is director of Interactive Communications for the Office of Communications.

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