The Bowdoin College Museum of Art held its first gallery opening of the academic year last night to celebrate two new exhibitions of the work of Romare Bearden, the celebrated 20th-century American artist. The exhibitions are part of "Bearden at Bowdoin," a series exploring Bearden and his enduring creative legacy through the opening night's events, museum exhibitions, and choreographer Garth Fagan's lecture demonstration.

The opening drew a variety of students, faculty and staff into the recently renovated lower level of the museum, where they enjoyed refreshments in the museum pavilion and conversed amidst a carefully selected collection of Bearden's colorful works.

Museum Director Kevin Salatino addressed the attendees briefly, thanking several groups and individuals who helped to make the exhibition possible.

Bearden's work at the museum is divided into two exhibitions. "From Process to Print: Graphic Works by Romare Bearden" is a national show of 75 prints, curated by Pamela Ford, former director of the Bearden Foundation in New York, and managed by Landau Traveling Exhbitions. The Bowdoin College Museum of Art is the show's first stop on its three-year nationwide tour.

The exhibit, held in the Osher, Halford and Center Galleries, focuses on Bearden's experimentation with the print medium during the latter part of his prolific career. The prints were selected to illuminate the evolution of Bearden's print work from the 1960s through the 1980s, and the different printing techniques he employed. The prints are hung in groups that include both final prints and preliminary studies.

Though the complexity of Bearden's process can be difficult to grasp, displaying the different evolutions and incarnations of each print side by side makes changes in technique, scale and color more easily visible.

Bearden considered the artist "to be something like a whale, swimming with his mouth wide open, absorbing everything until he has what he needs. When he finds that, he can start to make limitations. And then he really begins to grow," as cited in a National Gallery of the Arts education book.

Bearden drew inspiration from a variety of sources, including his personal memories of growing up in North Carolina and New York City, African-American cultural history, and his training in classical European art and literature.

The second exhibition, "Collages by Romare Bearden" in the Focus Gallery, illustrates the convergence of these influences in Bearden's signature medium of collage. Bearden's work in collage began in response to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and was influenced by his studies with George Grosz, a German artist and immigrant to the United States, whose politically charged collages revolutionized the medium.

In his collages, Bearden uses newspaper cuttings, painted papers, foil, posters and magazine clippings—pieces of daily life—to paint fractured pictures of American life. The majority of the works in "Collages" came to Bowdoin with the assistance of Halley Harrisburg '90 of the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York City, one of the nation's pre-eminent galleries of American art.

The museum has been actively committed to acquiring and exhibiting the work of African-American artists since the mid-1960s, when the Bowdoin College Museum of Art organized an exhibition titled "The Portrayal of the Negro in American Painting." The 1964 show brought Martin Luther King, Jr, who just eight months earlier had given his "I have a dream" speech, to campus to see the exhibit and speak. The Bearden exhibition at Bowdoin continues this legacy of displaying great African-American art, and gives the community a unique chance to see Bearden's creative process, rather than just the finished pieces of art.

"It's interesting to see an artist's process and the different phases of the creation of a work. Seeing the phases makes the final work more interesting," said Ryan Holmes '13, who attended the opening.

Bearden was born in 1911 in Charlotte, North Carolina. His experiences growing up as an African American in the early 20th-century American South and later in Harlem gave him inspiration for his later work. Bearden studied art while in college at Boston University and New York University; however, his first forays into art came as staff cartoonist for the school newspaper. He went on to study at the Art Students League in New York, where he was introduced to the classic Dutch, Flemish and French masters. For Bearden, what began as an extracurricular activity of cartooning evolved into a prolific career that continued until his death in 1988 at the age of 77.

Though Bearden is noted for his collages and prints, he was truly a Renaissance man of the 20th century, an artist of many talents who actively incorporated his personal history and commentary on society into his work. In addition to painting, print, mural, sculpture and collage, Bearden was a writer, authoring scholarly books on art, a children's book and poetry.

Bearden had an abiding love of jazz music, composed song lyrics and worked on the visual production end of several of Alvin Ailey's dance productions. In New York City, Bearden's home from his college years on, he participated in over 150 group shows, while still creating 10 solo shows including a blockbuster show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1971. A lifelong humanist, he advocated for the arts, civil rights and called intellectuals and artists such as Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison his close friends.

His legacy lives on through the Romare Bearden Foundation, a New York based non-profit which organized one of the exhibitions currently showing in the Museum. The Foundation's central mission is to make Bearden's work accessible to the public and continue Bearden's personal goal of fostering the creative development and education of youth and fledgling artists.

"Collages" will be on view until December 20, while "Process to Print" runs through January 3, 2010. The Bowdoin College Museum of Art is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursday until 8:30 p.m. and Sunday 1 p.m.-5 p.m.