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Howardena Pindell

Visual artist and curator Howardena Pindell was born on April 14, 1943, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Pindell became interested in art at an early age when she began taking art classes on Saturdays; she started out as a figurative painter. Pindell received her B.F.A. degree in painting from Boston University's School of Fine and Applied Arts in 1965, and her M.F.A. degree from Yale University's School of Art and Architecture in 1967. Pindell was also awarded two honorary doctorates: one from the Massachusetts College of Art, and one from Parson School of Design in New York.

Pindell began her career in the art world as the first African American Associate Curator of Prints and Illustrated Books at the New York Museum of Modern Art, a position she held for twelve years. Pindell rose from Curatorial Assistant to Associate Curator during her time at the New York Museum of Modern Art.. In 1979, Pindell began a new career as Associate Professor of Students at State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Pindell’s earliest drawings, composed of a patterned sequence of words and numbers on graph paper, suggest post minimalism as a major ingredient in her abstractions. In the 1970s, Pindell developed a collage technique using small circles hand punched from sheets of blank or printed paper. After numbering each one individually, she pasted them on sheets of punched and un-punched paper so that they floated on surfaces at once porous and solid. In the 1980s, she moved to photo-based collage, video, and relief paintings with intensely political subject matter. Pindell traveled extensively to Africa, Asia, Europe, Russia, Latin America, and the Caribbean, lived in Japan for seven months, and in India for four months. Pindell used these journeys and experiences as inspiration to integrate her own history as content for the autobiographies of her life. Between 1995 and 1999, Pindell taught at Yale University as a visiting professor; from 2003 to 2006, she served as Director of the MFA Program at Stony Brook University. Pindell also served as a full Professor of Art at Stony Brook University.

Pindell’s belief that the arts community should become more inclusive of women and minorities sparked a revolution in her work; she published groundbreaking studies that documented the lack of representation of artists of color through racism, censorship and violence.

Pindell works are in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Yale Art Museum, New Haven, the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, and the Rhode Island School of Art Museum. Pindell also became an accomplished writer; a book of her writings, The Heart of the Question, was published in 1997. In 2000 Pindell received the IAM Pioneer award.

Accession Number

A2007.002

Sex

Female

Interview Date

1/5/2007

Last Name

Pindell

Maker Category
Schools

Yale University

Boston University

Philadelphia High School for Girls

Jay Cook Junior High School

Pastorius Francis P Sch

The New School for Social Research

Search Occupation Category
First Name

Howardena

Birth City, State, Country

Philadelphia

HM ID

PIN04

Favorite Season

Spring

State

Pennsylvania

Favorite Vacation Destination

Egypt

Favorite Quote

Are You Kidding? Oh, God.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Interview Description
Birth Date

4/14/1943

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

New York

Country

USA

Favorite Food

Southern Food

Short Description

Visual artist and curator Howardena Pindell (1943 - ) began her career as the first African American Associate Curator of Prints and Illustrated Books at the New York Museum of Modern Art, and became a renowned abstract artist. Pindell also published groundbreaking studies that document the lack of representation of artists of color through racism, censorship, and violence.

Employment

New York Museum of Modern Art

Stony Brook University

Favorite Color

Blue

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Howardena Pindell's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Howardena Pindell lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Howardena Pindell describes her father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Howardena Pindell describes her father

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Howardena Pindell describes her father's childhood and personality

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Howardena Pindell talks about her father's activism

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Howardena Pindell describes how her parents met

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Howardena Pindell describes her parent's personalities

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Howardena Pindell describes her paternal grandmother

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Howardena Pindell describes her mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Howardena Pindell talks about her mother's family members who passed as white

Tape: 1 Story: 12 - Howardena Pindell describes her mother

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Howardena Pindell describes her parent's marriage

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Howardena Pindell describes her mother's education and temperament

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Howardena Pindell talks about her mother's childhood

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Howardena Pindell talks about being an only child

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Howardena Pindell describes her earliest childhood memory

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Howardena Pindell describes the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Howardena Pindell recalls her neighborhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Howardena Pindell recalls her experiences of racial discrimination in Philadelphia

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Howardena Pindell recalls her experiences of racial discrimination while travelling

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Howardena Pindell describes her early education in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tape: 2 Story: 11 - Howardena Pindell describes her early talent for art

Tape: 2 Story: 12 - Howardena Pindell describes her experiences in grade school

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Howardena Pindell remembers her high school education in Philadelphia

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Howardena Pindell describes her social life and pastimes as a teenager

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Howardena Pindell recalls her difficulties at school in Philadelphia

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Howardena Pindell recalls her art teachers at Philadelphia High School for Girls

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Howardena Pindell remembers her early interest in reading

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Howardena Pindell remembers her high school prom

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Howardena Pindell describes her lack of interest in sports as a child

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Howardena Pindell recalls her parent's political involvement

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Howardena Pindell recalls her decision to attend Boston University

Tape: 3 Story: 10 - Howardena Pindell describes her experience of racial discrimination at Boston University

Tape: 3 Story: 11 - Howardena Pindell describes her early artwork

Tape: 3 Story: 12 - Howardena Pindell recalls being hired by New York City's Museum of Modern Art

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Howardena Pindell recalls how the Vietnam War influenced her artwork

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Howardena Pindell remembers the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Howardena Pindell recalls President John Fitzgerald Kennedy's assassination

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Howardena Pindell recalls protests against New York City's museums

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Howardena Pindell remembers being a black, female curator in late 1960s

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Howardena Pindell recalls the founding of Artists in Residence Inc.

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Howardena Pindell talks about discrimination in commercial art galleries

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Howardena Pindell talks about black artists' exclusion from galleries

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Howardena Pindell remembers her artistic breakthrough in the early 1970s

Tape: 4 Story: 10 - Howardena Pindell explains the use of number in her art

Tape: 4 Story: 11 - Howardena Pindell recalls her car accident

Tape: 4 Story: 12 - Howardena Pindell remembers teaching at Stony Brook University

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Howardena Pindell talks about making her artwork accessible to the black community

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Howardena Pindell describes the subjects of her artwork, pt. 1

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Howardena Pindell describes the subjects of her artwork, pt. 2

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Howardena Pindell describes her 'Autobiography' painting series

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Howardena Pindell describes the influence of astronomy upon her work

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Howardena Pindell recalls publishing a study of discrimination in the art world

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Howardena Pindell talks about artist Kara Walker

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Howardena Pindell talks about other artists she admires

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Howardena Pindell talks about her travels

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Howardena Pindell describes her experiences in Japan

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Howardena Pindell talks about her travels in India and Africa

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Howardena Pindell talks about the spiritual component of African American art

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Howardena Pindell talks about the representation of African Americans in art

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Howardena Pindell describes her plans for future artwork

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Howardena Pindell shares advice for aspiring artists

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Howardena Pindell reflects upon her life

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Howardena Pindell reflects upon the importance of history

Tape: 6 Story: 9 - Howardena Pindell describes her concerns for the African American community

Tape: 6 Story: 10 - Howardena Pindell shares a message for future generations

Tape: 6 Story: 11 - Howardena Pindell describes her legacy and how she would like to be remembered

Tape: 6 Story: 12 - Howardena Pindell narrates her photographs

DASession

1$1

DATape

2$5

DAStory

9$2

DATitle
Howardena Pindell recalls her experiences of racial discrimination while travelling
Howardena Pindell describes the subjects of her artwork, pt. 1
Transcript
Now, was there a time when you were traveling with your family, something about root beer mugs?$$Oh, gosh, oh yeah. It was the reason why I use circles. Yes, my father [Howard Pindell] and mother [Mildred Lewis Pindell] and I would periodically drive to Ohio, and in fact, that was always difficult because the, the motels would not allow black people to stay there so we had to like really drive fast (laughter), or drive you know like all night. In fact at one point they took a cook stove and we would cook out in the woods 'cause you couldn't, so in segregation you couldn't even get food. My father and I, my mother was busy with her mother [Loula Lewis] and her sisters, I think maybe Entellena [Entellena Lewis] was there, her youngest sister, and my father and I drove into Kentucky and my father loved root beer so we stopped at a root beer stand, I mean my father was someone say if it says, "You can't go there," you'd go there anyway, and they served us root beer you know in chilled mugs, but at the bottom of the mug was a big red circle, and apparently in the South what they would do if they were willing to serve people of color, they would mark the silverware and the glassware, so what they had I mean, if you, it was a circle about the size of the base of this glass you know on a root beer mug. And I asked my father, you know, "What is that?" And he explained that if you're colored, you're African American, then they will mark your silverware, your glassware, dishware with a red circle. So I always tell people you know I was scared by a red circle, by a circle, and so I was obsessing about circles ever since, but I remember being just genuinely shocked, you know, that we would, you know, that anyone would get you know silverware. I can remember when we had driven south, I think we were going to visit some of my parents' friends in the Carolinas in Durham [North Carolina], going to a filling station and the rudeness of these sort of redneck guys that ran the station, the way they talked to my father calling him Howard, and you know because I had the credit card, and then you were like terrorized, you know you didn't want to go to the bathroom anywhere, because if--you know you either run into that kind of you know hillbilly kind of offensive behavior or it could be dangerous. So I can remember traveling with them and my father wearily going into a motel and being told it's no vacancy and then when you leave it says vacancy sign is on that they don't want anyone black. I would say, yeah those are my memories from the '40s [1940s] maybe early '50s [1950s].$$How did those, well how did it make you feel though as a child?$$Upset, insecure, angry, but I think that the thing that really brought it home was the white teacher, inappropriately being furious at a student who followed her directions (laughter) you know like what is this? So ever since then I just--it's also I think given me a kind of uncomfortable feeling about white women, that I've always found when I've dealt with, like in current times that are not as segregated or not, it's more subtle that I find there's always this and I even get the phrase from an Asian friend, she said when you're around white women, the white women act like, I'm white and I'm in charge here. This particular individual was an Asian woman artist who was talking about the women's movement and how if you get involved in a women's group, the white women always assume that they're the authority, they're in charge. So, I've run into that umpteen times.$Tell me about some of the pieces that you have done that--?$$Oh, the big ones?$$Yeah, the ones that you have to do the research for that you enjoy doing now?$$Well, I did a piece that was in my last show, it was called 'In My Lifetime' and what I have is like a strip of I think red at the bottom representing blood in terms of slavery and wars and stuff and then I have a section of water which somehow the Middle Passage comes back into my work, a lot I want to keep referring to that. Then above that is another strip of, of water but it's all done in camouflage patterns you would have on a military uniform and then on this field you have two screaming heads, my head at maybe '40s [1940s] and the other maybe in the '50s [1950s], so it's like it represents a passage of time and the top there is a strip of images from bomb tests in the Pacific [Pacific Ocean] as well as Nagasaki [Japan], I don't remember if I included Hiroshima [Japan], but I wanted to refer to in my lifetime these wars have happened, these holocausts have happened. And then I use a photo transfer process to show various atrocities. I had to do the research to even find the images. I mean some I got through the library which were the bombs, bomb images and then, and then I just used the photo realistic process to translate, then the image is like I have an Angolan child with no limbs, with no legs from when we were the ones that sponsored the, putting landmines in Angola, we have to have the largest amputation rate in the world. Then there are images from Iraq because I was really against the Iraq War from the beginning and then the embargo which starved, you know millions to death. I mean we're doing we're killing, you know it's all killing, so I look at image, well I found images of children in bomb shelters where we in Iraq, we had bombed and killed women and children, so I have images. It's a hard thing to look at, and then at the bottom of the painting, the painting is about the size of that wall, maybe twelve feet by about I think this one is about eight feet high, or seven feet, and then at the front of the painting I have like a tree stump, like you know like a tree surgeon would have given me. It's literally the from here to here and maybe about that big and round, and on it is a Bible, a large print Bible. At the top of the various pages are stamped with rubber stamps, different holocausts, including not only the Holocaust that the Jews went through, although I find so often the Jewish people see it as the, the only holocaust, but Rwanda and Angola, you know just so when you flip the Bible you have these different holocausts; mainly to express in, well there are two things: one is my usual struggle about God whether he exists or not, and culpability or responsibility (laughter). Okay, one thing is the Bible says throughout it that God will protect you, the meek will inherit the earth, and I'm saying like, "So where, where, when does this start?" You know, it hasn't happened and there's been all these wars and the other that there are various religions that say you know, you know, they claim to be good and yet they will foment wars, like what's happening with the Evangelical Christians seeing that pushing war, pushes what they feel is like the end times; you know it's terrifying that Bush [President George Walker Bush] would start a war in order to fulfill prophecy, or fulfill his friend's prophecy and also line his friends' pockets with you know, a lot of money--so you know just war profiteering. So it was all that sort of in one piece.

Synthia Saint James

Visual artist Synthia Saint James was born in Los Angeles, California to Henrietta Ellastein Talbird and William Jasper James on February 11, 1949. James attended public school in both Los Angeles, California and New York City. During her senior year at Los Angeles High School, she was crowned as the first African American homecoming queen. After graduating high school, James briefly attended Los Angeles Valley College, worked as a writer for Shelter Records and later worked in the media department of Disney Studios.

James' career as an artist began in 1969 when she sold a painting in New York City to one of her co-workers. She continued to work in corporate America in the accounting department, only painting in her spare time. In 1984, she developed her unique style of painting human figures without facial features. She has completed more than forty commissioned works for individuals and organizations such as Mridgitte Matteuzzi’s School of Modern Jazz Ballet, The Los Angeles Women’s Foundation, Essence Magazine and attorney Johnnie Cochran. In addition, her artwork has appeared on the covers of numerous books, including works by Alice Walker, Terry McMillan and Julia Boyd. In 1997, James was chosen by the United States Postal Service to create the first Kwanzaa stamp.

James has written more than a dozen children’s books, she is the author of two books of poetry and prose, entitled Girlfriends and Can I Touch You: Love Poems and Affirmations and wrote a multi-cultural cookbook Creative Fixings From the Kitchen. James’ pieces have been featured in galleries around the globe, including exhibitions at the Musée Des Duncans, The Chicago Art Institute and Cosmopolitan Artists. She has received numerous awards, including a 1997 Coretta Scott King Honor and a Parent’s Choice Silver Honor for her children’s book Sunday.

Synthia Saint James was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on November 16, 2004.

Accession Number

A2004.234

Sex

Female

Interview Date

11/16/2004

Last Name

Saint James

Maker Category
Marital Status

Single

Occupation
Organizations
Schools

Los Angeles High School

Alta Loma Elementary School

Los Angeles Valley College

Duchess Community College

Search Occupation Category
Speakers Bureau

Yes

Speakers Bureau Availability

Any

First Name

Synthia

Birth City, State, Country

Los Angeles

HM ID

SAI01

Speakers Bureau Honorarium

Yes - $1,000 - $5,000

Favorite Season

Summer

State

California

Favorite Vacation Destination

Tahiti

Favorite Quote

See Ya, Wouldn't Want To Be Ya!

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

California

Birth Date

2/11/1949

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Los Angeles

Country

USA

Favorite Food

Chinese Food

Short Description

Visual artist Synthia Saint James (1949 - ) created the first Kwanzaa stamp for The United States Postal Service. Her artwork has also appeared on numerous book covers including the Terry McMillan title 'Waiting to Exhale'.

Employment

Atelier Saint James

Accounting Arts

Macy's Department Stores

Phoenix House

Shelter Records

Favorite Color

Cadmium Yellow

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Synthia Saint James's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Synthia Saint James lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Synthia Saint James talks about her maternal family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Synthia Saint James describes her mother's life in New York, New York

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Synthia Saint James describes her father's background

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Synthia Saint James recalls her early career aspirations

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Synthia Saint James describes her father's profession

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Synthia Saint James describes her experiences growing up in Los Angeles, California and New York, New York

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Synthia Saint James describes the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Synthia Saint James remembers being held back in kindergarten in the Bronx, New York, New York

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Synthia Saint James remembers moving to Los Angeles, California during first grade

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Synthia Saint James talks about her interest in horses as a girl

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Synthia Saint James remembers her mother's conversion to Jehovah's Witnesses

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Synthia Saint James talks about her parents' divorce and her stepmother

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Synthia Saint James remembers her art instruction in school

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Synthia Saint James describes teachers who influenced her

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Synthia Saint James recalls being crowned the first African American homecoming queen at Los Angeles High School in 1966

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Synthia Saint James remembers working at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, California

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Synthia Saint James talks about her theater training

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Synthia Saint James remembers living in New York, New York as a young adult

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Synthia Saint James recalls her roles in various blackploitation movies

Tape: 2 Story: 11 - Synthia Saint James talks about working at Shelter Records

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Synthia Saint James explains how her art career began

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Synthia Saint James describes the development of her artistic style

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Synthia Saint James talks about her associations with other African American artists

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Synthia Saint James remembers her big break

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Synthia Saint James describes her artistic style

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Synthia Saint James outlines her career

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Synthia Saint James describes her books

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Synthia Saint James explains how long it takes to make her paintings

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Synthia Saint James remembers being asked to design a Kwanzaa stamp for the United States postal service in 1997

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Synthia Saint James recalls the reception of her Kwanzaa stamp design

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Synthia Saint James describes her recent mosaic and stained glass pieces

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Synthia Saint James explains the frustrations of creating public art

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Synthia Saint James explains her philosophy of art

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Synthia Saint James talks about her lack of formal training

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Synthia Saint James shares lessons she learned trying to exhibit her work at galleries as a self-taught artist

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Synthia Saint James talks about the false distinction between commercial art and fine art

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Synthia Saint James gives advice to aspiring artists

Tape: 4 Story: 10 - Synthia Saint James describes her hopes and concerns for the African American community

Tape: 4 Story: 11 - Synthia Saint James talks about the uplifting spirit of her art

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Synthia Saint James talks about comparisons between Haitian art and her own work

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Synthia Saint James reflects upon her life

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Synthia Saint James talks about her family's reactions to her success and their interest in art

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Synthia Saint James reflects upon her legacy

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Synthia Saint James talks about her plans for the future

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Synthia Saint James recalls her decision not to marry or have children

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Synthia Saint James talks about her daily walks on the beach

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Synthia Saint James describes how she would like to be remembered

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Synthia Saint James narrates her photographs

DASession

1$1

DATape

3$4

DAStory

4$1

DATitle
Synthia Saint James remembers her big break
Synthia Saint James remembers being asked to design a Kwanzaa stamp for the United States postal service in 1997
Transcript
When would you say that you got a chance to really do art full-time, or when did your big break come?$$Hm, let me think, I've had--you know you have those little peaks and then those little valleys and those little peaks. I think--$$When was the first peak?$$The first peak was mid-'80s [1980s], when Richard Pryor bought five paintings. It was redoing a home in--well, actually it was a new home in Bel Air [Los Angeles, California], and there was fifteen pieces taken there, and between the interior designer and himself, five were chosen. So that was a peak; prior to that, no, that would be about the first one. Because then the second peak was, 1989, being commissioned by the House of Seagrams Corporation to do something for black history month and then (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) What did you do for House of Seagrams?$$A piece called 'With Honors,' a graduation scene. It's in their collection and original lithographs were made of it and were donated to the National Urban League, and they sold them as fundraisers to bring money into their funds. So that was the first one that--and then, they kind of trickle, you know little trickle things happening. I did something for the Mark Taper Forum [Los Angeles, California] right after that. And around, I guess it was around '73 [1973], with [HistoryMaker] Terry McMillan's book, was that Ter (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) Ninety-three [1993], ninety--$$--ninety-three [1993]. That was a commercial success; that's something that put me into book covers, although I did a book cover for Alice Walker first--$$Okay.$$--but it was a book of the month club selection, so the world didn't see it, and that same cover is reissued now; it just came out again (laughter) of Alice's.$$Okay, what book was that of Alice Walker's?$$Well, it's a trilogy, it has 'Meridian' in it and '[The] Color Purple' and '[The Third Life of] Grange Copeland,' you know it's like--I don't have it here, 'cause I gave it--oh, I have of 'em here, yeah, I have one. And, but what Terry's book cover did is propelled me into another arena. Authors started feeling like if they had a book cover by [HistoryMaker] Synthia Saint James, they're gonna be a number one best seller (laughter). So now I have over sixty book covers.$$Okay.$$You know, but (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) So the book that you, that--$$'Waiting to Exhale.'$$'Waiting to Exhale,' all right--$$Right.$$--and that was a--now Terry McMillan's previous two books, 'Mama' and (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) 'Disappearing Acts'--$$'Disappearing Acts' sold well, increasingly well, but 'Waiting to Exhale' was a big huge hit (simultaneous).$$(Simultaneous) It was a big one, and then that's when they released the other two again, and I did covers for them when they re-released them and for Japan, I--they used a piece of mine for 'How Stella Got Her Groove Back.'$$Okay (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) Yeah.$$So I think that's probably, would you agree that's when your work got the most exposure, I guess (unclear)--$$Yeah, that's when I really became--not became, I've always been African American--but I mean, that's when I became more known as a black artist, you know. And they usually thought of me as a woman's artist, meaning that everything, a lot of it was female, women and sisterhood and--put me to that sisterhood kind of thing, which is fine, 'cause that is part of what I do. But with her book, Terry McMillan also did for me it had that same company ask me to do a children's book, and since that I've done thirteen children's books, picture books, and four activity books. But it was off of the bright colors, and off of seeing that first cover. That's how I got my other work.$I want to ask you about the big Kwanzaa stamp controversy (laughter).$$Oh, God (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) Not so much as a controversy--$$Right, yeah--$$--but as a tremendous opportunity, this is a--you designed the country's first Kwanzaa stamp--$$Right.$$--and, tell us about how you got a chance to do that, and?$$Well, I would say that it kind of is the wonders of the Internet and research. I began to really realize that a lot as things have come to me at different times. I know I've done a lot of work, but in researching Kwanzaa, the U.S. Postal Service came across a children's book author that I had done the cover of her Kwanzaa book ['The Seven Days of Kwanzaa,' Angela Shelf Medearis] (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) Okay, now, what--?$$--so I'd done a book cover, and I'm--$$Now, what's the author?$$Angela Shelf Medearis is her name, and I don't have in front of me the exact name of the Kwanzaa book, but that was the--they based it only on that; they didn't know anything else about my art. When they called me, 'cause they actually got my phone number and called me, 'cause later I asked how they got my phone number, because a good little New York [New York] girl keeps her phone number unlisted, so I don't understand how they got my number. But then I said it was the government, they can get your number. So, anyway, they called and asked me if I would and being the follow-up person that I am from the business of advertising promotion, I sent them a media kit, and then it was so sweet when the designer called me back, and she said, "Do you have time to, you know, to design a Kwanzaa stamp," and I just smiled and said, "I'd make time to do that." So we went through the process and the interesting part of the process is that I had to paint something really small, so it was like 4.5 by 5.5 inches of a painting, with detail to it, but still enough simplicity that the 32 cents can show clearly. So they--she sent me a couple a little formats, and I did two paintings, and the one that became the Kwanzaa stamp is based on a painting I did for my book that I wrote and illustrated called, 'The Gifts of Kwanzaa' [Synthia Saint James], so that's where that came from. And then, in that same week, I got a call from Girl Scouts of the USA to ask me to do their thirty-fifth anniversary image poster, so I called that my all-American week, you know, the Girl Scouts and the U.S. Postal Service. I'd have to say, I was so excited about the stamp--to even believe that you could pick up the phone and call somebody back and that you got this commission, you know, and the opportunity to do the first African American holiday stamp--it's really, you know, with that--it's the first, that, yeah.$$Artist normally compete to (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) Yes.$$--for a chance to do a postage stamp, is (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) Right.$$--there was a scene in 'Fargo' where the husband of the protagonist [Marge Gunderson], Frances McDormand's husband, Norman, Norm [Gunderson], he paints decoy ducks, and he's been submitting his ideas to the U.S. Postal Service, and they finally pick a three cent, and he's like halfway depressed and halfway excited, I mean--but it's competition, right?$$Well I, in this case, it must not have been. I mean, they must have done some research and decided--I don't know if it had to do with time, they were putting out a whole holiday series, and I didn't compete, and I never had submitted myself to them before. So that's where, let's say, that was the beauty of the Internet that they did research and they found Kwanzaa, and I happened to be the artist that they chose to call.

Lilian Thomas Burwell

Visual artist Lilian Thomas Burwell was born in Washington, D.C. on June 7, 1927. After completing junior high school, Burwell attended the prestigious High School of Music and Art in New York City, but moved to Washington, D.C., before graduating. Burwell went on to earn her high school diploma from Dunbar High School in 1944.

Burwell had a strong desire to be an artist, however, society, and her family, felt that she would be unable to support herself. One of Burwell's aunts believed in her though, and together they reached a compromise with her family: she would become an art teacher. In 1946, Burwell completed her studies at the Pratt Institute; she would later earn her B.A. from the D.C. Teacher’s College. Burwell went on to earn her M.F.A. in 1975 from Catholic University.

Throughout her career, Burwell taught at the Pratt Institute; in the Washington, D.C. public schools; and at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Between 1964 and 1967, Burwell served as the publication and exhibits specialist for the Department of Commerce. In 1983, Burwell founded the Alma Thomas Memorial Gallery where she served as curatorial director for the next year. As an artist, Burwell's works have been included in public and private collections around the world; she was also invited to participate in numerous group and one-woman shows. Burwell went on to become the owner of Burwell Studios, which exhibited her works.

In addition to being an active lecturer in her field, Burwell also published articles on art, and served on the board of directors of the Smithsonian Institution Renwick Alliance and the Arlington Arts Centers. Burwell also served as the curatorial director of the Summer Museum Archives in Washington, D.C., and was the recipient of several awards, including the Excellence in Arts/D.C. Commission on the Arts Individual Artist Award in 1998.

Accession Number

A2004.118

Sex

Female

Interview Date

8/3/2004

Last Name

Burwell

Maker Category
Middle Name

Thomas

Schools

Paul Laurence Dunbar High School

Pratt Institute

University of the District of Columbia

Catholic University of America

Search Occupation Category
First Name

Lilian

Birth City, State, Country

Washington

HM ID

BUR11

Favorite Season

Fall, Spring

State

District of Columbia

Favorite Vacation Destination

None

Favorite Quote

Whatever You Can Dream You Can Do, You Can Begin It For Courage Has Power, Genius, And Power In It.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Maryland

Interview Description
Birth Date

6/7/1927

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Baltimore

Country

USA

Favorite Food

All Food

Short Description

Visual artist Lilian Thomas Burwell (1927 - ) was an acclaimed visual artist; her paintings were featured in public and private collections internationally, as well as in group and solo shows. Burwell was also the owner and operator of Burwell Studios.

Employment

Pratt Institute

District of Columbia Public Schools

Duke Ellington School of the Arts

United States Department of Commerce

Alma Thomas Memorial Gallery

Burwell Studios

Summer Museum Archives

Favorite Color

None

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Lilian Thomas Burwell's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Lilian Thomas Burwell lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Lilian Thomas Burwell describes her mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Lilian Thomas Burwell talks about her maternal grandparents

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Lilian Thomas Burwell describes her mother's work and personality

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Lilian Thomas Burwell describes her father's family background, pt. 1

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Lilian Thomas Burwell describes her father's family background, pt. 2

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Lilian Thomas Burwell describes her family's move to New York, New York in the late 1920s and her father's photography

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Lilian Thomas Burwell lists the places she lived in New York, New York during her childhood

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Lilian Thomas Burwell describes her earliest childhood memory

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Lilian Thomas Burwell describes the sights, sounds and smells of growing up in New York, New York

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Lilian Thomas Burwell describes the educational philosophy followed by the Little Red School House in New York, New York

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Lilian Thomas Burwell explains how her father taught her to question authority and talks about his education

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Lilian Thomas Burwell compares her personality to her mother's personality

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Lilian Thomas Burwell talks about the evolution of her spirituality

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Lilian Thomas Burwell lists the schools she attended in New York, New York

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Lilian Thomas Burwell talks about her father's employment

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Lilian Thomas Burwell describes her educational experiences and struggles with math

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Lilian Thomas Burwell explains why she completed high school in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Lilian Thomas Burwell talks about her early interest in art

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Lilian Thomas Burwell talks about her daughter's decision to attend Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Lilian Thomas Burwell talks about the social climate of Dunbar High School and Washington, D.C.

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Lilian Thomas Burwell describes her experience studying art in high school in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Lilian Thomas Burwell talks about her educational influences at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Lilian Thomas Burwell talks about her decision to attend Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, New York

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Lilian Thomas Burwell talks about dropping out of Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, New York to get married

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Lilian Thomas Burwell reflects upon her unsuccessful marriage and her philosophy on making mistakes

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Lilian Thomas Burwell talks about her teaching career and earning her B.A. and M.F.A. degrees

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Lilian Thomas Burwell talks about her foray into exhibition art

Tape: 3 Story: 10 - Lilian Thomas Burwell explains how she financially supported her career and began building furniture

Tape: 3 Story: 11 - Lilian Thomas Burwell talks about constructing a bed for her daughter

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Lilian Thomas Burwell talks about working with Benjamin Abramowitz

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Lilian Thomas Burwell talks about her painting process, pt. 1

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Lilian Thomas Burwell talks about her painting process, pt. 2

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Lilian Thomas Burwell describes constructing a mirror when her mother was ill with leukemia

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Lilian Thomas Burwell describes some of her art pieces, including her process for their construction

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Lilian Thomas Burwell describes one of her sculptures, 'Masai,' and her sculptural painting technique

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Lilian Thomas Burwell describes the type of paint she uses

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Lilian Thomas Burwell talks about her art philosophy

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Lilian Thomas Burwell shares people's responses to her art

Tape: 4 Story: 10 - Lilian Thomas Burwell explains how she names her pieces

Tape: 4 Story: 11 - Lilian Thomas Burwell talks about African American art collectives

Tape: 4 Story: 12 - Lilian Thomas Burwell talks about working on an art commission for Northern Trust in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Lilian Thomas Burwell talks about submitting her artwork to exhibitions as an African American artist

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Lilian Thomas Burwell talks about her aunt, Hilda Wilkinson Brown, including her influence as an artist, pt. 1

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Lilian Thomas Burwell talks about her aunt, Hilda Wilkinson Brown, including her influence as an artist, pt. 2

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Lilian Thomas Burwell reflects upon her life

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Lilian Thomas Burwell describes her hopes for the African American community

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Lilian Thomas Burwell reflects upon her legacy

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Lilian Thomas Burwell describes how she would like to be remembered

DASession

1$1

DATape

4$5

DAStory

2$2

DATitle
Lilian Thomas Burwell talks about her painting process, pt. 1
Lilian Thomas Burwell talks about her aunt, Hilda Wilkinson Brown, including her influence as an artist, pt. 1
Transcript
And I began to build a painting just like a conversation builds. I can say something to you and realize it's not quite clear, I can't take back the words I said but I can modify it, I can explain it further by what follows. And abstract expressionism works just like that. You put something down and it's like a conversation, you put, you act and you react and you build and you're really working almost from an unconscious thing because you're just working with form. Now what was very interesting to me is that I found in many later years that I was painting things because they came out of me. I didn't know why I was doing them but I was doing them, so that paint was representing something of me, I didn't find out that until years later, when somebody would come up and start telling me what a painting that I had done was. I didn't know that that's what it was, but I knew that there were things that were true of me. And this happened after a period in which I had decided--oh, I was dating this guy and he had a grown daughter who was very, very intelligent and very sensitive and she always had an opinion about something and I had this little open house--open studio show at my house and she came over and she looked on the walls, and she had no comment. I said, "Well what do you think?" And she said, "I don't know, I don't know anything about art." I said, "That's a cop out, you have an opinion about everything, I wanna know what you think of my work," and she said "well, it just, everything is on a surface," she said "I think that there's more to you than I see on that canvas." And it was kind of a backhanded compliment, but I made a decision that if there was something more, then maybe I should try to discover what it was. So I stopped going to galleries, I stopped looking at other people's work. I just said, I'm gonna just start working from something that's inside of me and see what happens.$Let's talk about your aunt and you had--your aunt was an artist and--$$Right, I owe everything to her I think, because of the time that--$$And what's her name?$$Hilda Wilkinson Brown, or Hilda Rue Wilkinson, before she was married. If it hadn't been for her, I probably would not have certainly gone along this particular route to my art. At the time, halfway through [Paul Laurence Dunbar] High School [Paul Laurence Dunbar Senior High School, Washington, D.C.] when I informed my parents [Margaret Wilkinson Thomas and James Burchett Thomas] that I wanted to be an artist they thought I had lost my mind, certainly in the '40s [1940s], an African American woman wasn't going to be able to make a living as an artist unless you were in commercial art or design and even then, you know jobs were, did not, you know, did not welcome you in period, you had to sort of you know, burst into doors if you were black. So my Aunt Hilda said, "Let her teach it," and that was it so, when to Pratt [Institute, New York, New York], I went into art education because of her and she and her husband supported me, they even supplied the part of my tuition that was not scholarship and they paid for my books and they paid for my art materials. Later in life she told me I was the artist in the family and there was no way on earth that I compared my work with hers, I thought she was just absolutely fantastic, she had been a teacher, but she knew the, how prolific I was, I really devoted a lot of my time and my heart to the art and maybe that's the way in which she looked at it, I don't know, I didn't, I couldn't compare the quality of my work with hers at that time and I never pushed her to ask her why she said that, I just told her that it wasn't so, as far as I could see. But she did not work a lot, but she worked extremely well, what she did was masterful because I was executor for her, for her estate, I found work behind an old furnace in her basement done on a piece of canvas board and things that she never even signed, she didn't even put her paintings in her will, but she said because I was her executor, she had told me, "Well, I put certain things in my will because I want to be even handed about everything, but anything else you want", you know, "just anything else to say, just ask the people in the family what they want and let 'em have it." So I, you know, we had that, that personal understanding outside of the written will and I asked, "Did anybody want the paintings?" Nobody wanted the paintings, nobody wanted the drawings or the prints, it was like, well I don't know where I would put them on my wall, was one of those things. One cousin wanted a portrait that she had done of her and her sister when they were children, one of them wanted a screen, my uncle asked for a print, other than that nobody spoke up for anything, so I spent a good deal of time promoting her work and she's gotten an awful lot of attention lately.