David C. Driskell H’89, artist, scholar, curator and titan figure in the field of African American art history, died on April 1 at 88 years old from complications related to the coronavirus (COVID-19).
His death was announced by the University of Maryland, which founded the David C. Driskell Center for the Study Of The Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora in his honor in 2001. Driskell received the Presidential Humanities Medal from President Bill Clinton, and his 1976 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” is considered a watershed study in the scholarship of African American art. He is the recipient of 13 honorary doctoral degrees in art, including one from Bowdoin in 1989.
As an artist, Driskell—the son of a minister, Georgia-born and Appalachia-raised—produced rich imagery rooted in nature, religion and Black American life. Maine became a constant element in Driskell’s oeuvre after he attended the Skowhegan School of Sculpture and Painting in 1953. He was a visiting professor at Bowdoin in the spring of 1973 and owned a summer home in Falmouth.
“Maine was an important part of the rhythm of his year. Maine, the state’s resilient people, trees and light were fodder and foils for his art,” noted Assistant Professor of Art History Dana Byrd in an email to the Orient.
Among his many accolades and accomplishments, Driskell’s role as an educator and advocate for the arts was central to his life’s work and still holds profound resonance in the Bowdoin community.
“Driskell was indefatigable in his educational mission that was both pastoral and creative. For him, being an educator equaled being an artist, professor, curator, historian, philanthropist and family man,” wrote Julie McGee ’82, associate professor of Africana studies and art history at the University of Delaware and a former visiting professor at Bowdoin, in an email to the Orient. McGee is lead curator of Driskell’s upcoming retrospective at the High Museum in Atlanta, the Portland Museum of Art and The Phillips Collection.
“David Driskell loved Bowdoin and we shared this passion,” she wrote. “He championed my endeavors to provide African American and African diasporic art history courses there … He did what few could, which was embody the humanistic study of art.”
Driskell’s colleagues, friends and students alike remember his deep kindness and his commitment and generosity to share his knowledge and cultivate the creative spark in whomever he came into contact with. Just last fall, Driskell and McGee came to campus and spoke on the importance of Africana Studies and the Visual Arts for AF/AM 50, a celebration of 50 years of Africana Studies at Bowdoin.
“David’s connection to the art world remained totally fresh and engaged,” said Anne Goodyear, co-director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, in a video interview with the Orient. “So even late in his career, he was continuing to travel extensively around the world, to support contemporary artists, contemporary scholars, and to continue to nurture the art historical community with his wisdom, his sense of humor and sharing his experiences with us.”
During his half-century-long sojourn in Maine, Driskell’s presence touched the lives of many in Bowdoin’s creative community. He has remained a mentor and friend to numerous alumni, both those just discovering their passions or advancing far into their careers.
Kinaya Hassane ’19 met Driskell three years ago while researching collectors of African American art, a topic that ultimately became the focus of her honors project.
“The afternoon that we spent at his home discussing his prolific career as an artist, scholar and collector not only shaped the trajectory of my project, but it also fueled my personal growth as a researcher,” wrote Hassane in a message to the Orient.
Ahead of his time in many ways, Driskell laid the foundation for the understanding and appreciation of African American art. His endeavor in promoting Black art as the backbone of American culture is not to be underestimated. Alvin Hall ’74, renowned financial educator and art collector, likewise credits his early encounters with Driskell for opening his artistic eye.
“David was the first African American art teacher and artist I had ever met,” Hall said in a phone interview with the Orient. “And we sat there and talked about artists like Alma Thomas. We talked about Jacob Lawrence. We talked about all of these artists I had never heard of. At the time, I did not know about Norman Lewis. I didn’t know about Jack Whitten, and all these other artists who today are huge people in the art world … and that was my really first introduction to the names. And it just stayed with me.”
For contemporary artist Shaun Leonardo ’01—who was introduced to Driskell’s work his senior year at Bowdoin by McGee and who befriended the artist while at Skowhegan—Driskell was not only a role model professionally, but also a guiding force personally, through his wisdom, humility and calm reassurance.
“There are many celebrated young and mid-career black artists, male black artists … But to this day, it’s not that easy to look out in the world and find a black male mentor,” Leonardo said in a phone interview with the Orient. “[Driskell] resembled the kind of person that I could look to, or attempt to be, in his composure, in his scholarliness and his kindness … To have someone like that in the art world is unmeasurable, and people don’t quite understand that type of mentorship, particularly when it comes to black male or black masculinity.”
While grieving this deep loss, among the many others that have been caused by the pandemic, the Goodyears are reminded that it is during these times that art matters even more as a form of cultural memory.
“Bowdoin is really proud to have collected David’s work,” Frank Goodyear said. “You know, why do we collect? Because David’s voice is in those works, his contributions to larger common global conversations are contained in those works. And I think having a really lovely collection of David’s work … keep[s] him at his own voice, close to us forever.”
Driskell’s lasting impact on the art world will be realized only with time’s passing, through the countless individuals he has guided in search of their paths. From one creative spirit to the next, Driskell’s legacy will continue to reverberate from the studio, to the classroom, to the museum walls and beyond.
“[His influence] wasn’t about the width. It wasn’t about the celebration. It wasn’t about even marking these moments of brilliance … it was about committing every single day of your life,” said Leonardo. “What David would want from me is what he did for me every single time we were together—to move it forward.”