“The art community in general and the African American community in particular are fortunate to have Dr. Samella Lewis, for she has developed an unusual authority in the area of African American art. I know that ‘African American Art and Artists’ will be of great value educationally and that it will offer a stimulating and rewarding experience to all who have the opportunity to share in its contents,” wrote the great artist Jacob Lawrence in a blurb jacket for Lewis’ canonical “African American Art and Artists” in 2003.
Such glowing testaments marked her productive path as an artist, printmaker, art historian, teacher, and author, and many of them will be renewed as we mourn the passing of Dr. Lewis on May 27 at a hospital in Torrance, Calif. According to her son, Claude, she was suffering from a kidney ailment. She was 99.
Born Samella Sanders in New Orleans on Feb. 27, 1923 or 1924, she was the daughter of a farmer and a seamstress. Her artistic journey began when as a high school student she met Alfredo Galli, an Italian portrait painter. He took an interest in her after seeing some of her draftsmanship and began teaching her and a classmate friend with no charge for two years. Samella disclosed this information in an oral history interview.
Galli, she related, “…really worked with us and warned us against the evils of modern art. But he taught us technique, and that was priceless.”
Some of those lessons were absorbed and refined in her work during her student years studying art at Dillard University in New Orleans. Her studies were vastly improved when she took classes from Elizabeth Catlett, who at that time wasn’t married to the artist Charles White. Catlett, Samella told HistoryMakers.com, “really changed the course of my life in terms of, of making decisions. When I left Dillard, she got me a scholarship to Iowa, University of Iowa. And I came to Chicago and made a decision that I was going to go on and I got one at Hampton also. She got me a full scholarship to Hampton and a full scholarship to Iowa. But I decided that I wasn’t going to go to Iowa because there might be too many people there who would impede my progress. And I think I was right. And I went to Hampton,” in effect following Catlett and White who had secured teaching jobs at the school.
Besides her study with Catlett, she was soon under the tutelage of Viktor Lowenfeld, an art educator, who she said “taught me to paint from the heart,” in an interview to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
In 1945, she received her bachelor’s degree and continued her studies in the fine arts at Ohio State University, later earning a master’s degree and a doctorate in fine arts in 1951, the first African American woman to achieve this distinction. With her impressive credentials to bolster her confidence, Samella began her involvement in organizations, helping to launch the National Conference of Artists, all the while heading the fine arts department at Florida A&M University.
Complementing her teaching and artwork, Samella began her pursuit as a curator and the founder of galleries, which by the mid-1960s in Los Angeles morphed into the creation of the city’s Museum of African American Art. Meanwhile, there ensued the publications, including her historical surveys of African American art and artists as well several textbooks. These endeavors as multifaceted as they did not keep her from the easel, and many of her works can be found in collections and museums across the country. She made short documentaries about sculptors, including one on the renowned Richmond Barthe.
“Thanks to Samella Lewis,” artist and art historian Floyd Coleman wrote in a preface to the 2003 edition of the book, “we gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of the richness and diversity that the African-American art adds to American civilization.”
In the early ’60s, Samella began her study of East Asian art and traveled to Taiwan on a Fulbright scholarship. And in 1970, at Claremont College she was the school’s first tenured African American professor and taught art history there for 15 years.
Her scholarly activities never ceased and no better testament of that is her establishment of the International Review of African-American Art in 1976. Two years later she published what may be her crowning achievement “African Art and Artists” that has been viewed as a continuation of the groundbreaking research of James Porter.
The awards and commendations she received are much too extensive to list here, but Scripps College named an academic scholarship in her honor. Much of this was accomplished in partnership with her husband, Paul Lewis. They were married in 1948 and raised two children. He died in 2013.
Right to the end of her life, Samella was active and she viewed her life as inextricably linked to her art.