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Lilian Thomas Burwell

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

Birth Date

6/7/1927

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Baltimore

Country

United States

Favorite Food

All Food

Short Description

Painter and high school art teacher 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.