- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 6, 2001

David Driskell paints, he sculpts, he does collage. He's a teacher and mentor to many a budding artist. He maintains homes in New York; Falmouth, Maine; and Hyattsville. He also just went to the White House to receive the 2000 National Humanities Medal for his pre-eminent work both as an artist and as an expert on African-American art, a storyteller if you will.
"The interesting thing about African culture is there's the mystery of all of this that makes it sound like you're something very special," says Mr. Driskell, fingering the beads that hang down from an oni's crown from the Yoruba people in southwestern Nigeria. The beads "shield" a ruler's humanity from his subjects.
Mr. Driskell pauses as he thinks about the subject some more.
"I had a professor at Catholic University and she would say, 'You know, one of the things that's kind of unfortunate about our becoming so involved in the industrialization is that we lose the joy of being children and keeping that imagination going the way they do in so many of the ancient societies,'" Mr. Driskell says. "Just the notion that you see him and yet you don't see him is so important in the sense of storytelling."
As a professor, Mr. Driskell has told stories at the University of Maryland — where he remains a distinguished university professor of art, emeritus; Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.; Howard University in the District; and Talladega College in Talladega, Ala. This quintessential, active Renaissance man never seems to stop.
"I've just finished a book on Bill and Camille Cosby's collection of African-American art," says the youthful 69-year-old artist. "It will be out in March 2001."
His own exhibit, "Narrative of African American Art and Identity: The David C. Driskell Collection," runs through February at the Newark Museum of Art in Newark, N.J. The traveling exhibit has been so successful that its run has been extended to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond and the Naples Museum in Naples, Fla. When it ends, the 100-piece exhibit will have been on the road for three years, having originated in the Art Gallery at the University of Maryland in December 1998. Mr. Driskell laughs, knowing that the exhibit is only one-quarter of his entire collection.
The pieces from the exhibit are evocative of the talent and range of black American artists. The show spans a wide canvas of mediums: lithographs, paintings, photographs and sculptures by 60 artists, from 1870 to today.
Jacob Lawrence's "General Toussaint," is a silk screen on paper that seems to explode with rich color and simplicity: The rust-colored hat and uniform and green background surround Toussaint L'Ouverture's face, two-toned with black, catlike eyes.
A harrowing sculpture by Elizabeth Catlett, "The Black Woman Speaks," is another smoothly simple masterpiece. The work shows a wide-eyed woman whose mouth at first seems agape, but from the side, the jaw juts forward as if she is speaking with passion.
On the surreal side, "I Love You Forever," a 1993 Robert Colescott woodblock engraving, shows a black man facing a white woman, separated by a black abyss that perhaps defines their relationship. They look to each other with intense but jaded expressions.
Mr. Driskell casually leads a tour of his latest purchases in the living room of the Hyattsville home he shares with his wife of 48 years, Thelma. (They have two children and five grandchildren.) As he points out his collection in this three-story yellow frame house set back from the road, Mr. Driskell is polite and modest. Even when Mr. Driskell's book, "Two Centuries of Black American Art," fell into the hands of Bill Cosby, the artist did not believe the comedian-actor was really interested in his opinion.
"He just kind of called me one day," Mr. Driskell says. "I didn't realize it was he. I have a brother-in-law, we kid each other pretending we're different personalities.
"So when Bill called, I thought, 'Oh, stop.' Then he mentioned my book, and I said, 'No, my brother-in-law does not know anything about my book. It's got to be real.'"
Mr. Driskell has been curator of the Cosbys' art for 24 years. The collection has expanded beyond the work of black Americans, since Mr. Driskell at auction has picked up a Thomas Hart Benton or Georgia O'Keeffe for Mr. Cosby as well.
Behind the house is his studio, a wooden two-floor affair filled with his own prolific, expressive works.
"I can really tell the influences he has gone through," says Kim Kindelsperger of the Art Gallery at the University of Maryland. "When he has visited Africa, he has brought African symbolism into his work. And his inspiration from jazz you can really see. And also the places he has taught and lived come through in his artwork."
Ms. Kindelsperger says this "sensual" style appeals to even younger visitors.
"They enjoyed discovering the symbolism and reading his biography and looking at how his art really reflected his life," Ms. Kindelsperger says. "It goes along with how he's been a teacher and a mentor for most of his life."
Mr. Driskell's next exhibit will be with a former student, Washington artist Jerome Meadows. Mr. Driskell will show 12 of his vibrantly colored, abstract canvases and collages at Harmony Hall Regional Arts Center in Fort Washington, beginning Feb. 8.
A native of Eatonton, Ga., Mr. Driskell grew up in the Appalachian region of North Carolina. His paternal grandfather came from Sea Island, at the southeastern coast of Georgia.
Mr. Driskell learned early to use his hands, since his father was a blacksmith and furniture maker (as well as a Baptist minister) and his mother made quilts and wove baskets.
At the encouragement of his professors, Mr. Driskell started collecting on his own when he was an undergraduate at Howard University. "I started saving my little pennies," he says, "also exchanging works with my colleagues. I also bought a few works by some of my teachers, Lois Jones and James Wells, who were my teachers at Howard at that time.
"They kind of emphasized the importance of collecting," he says. "If you don't patronize other artists, well, maybe you're not worthy of being supported."
Collecting has been a passion that he can't let go, Mr. Driskell says. He points to a sculpture of a wailing woman surrounded by carnage. "Peace Halting the Ruthlessness of War" is by turn-of-the-century artist Meta Warrick Fuller, a Philadelphia-trained artist who studied with the legendary Auguste Rodin.
"You can see the Rodinesque character, the triumphant element of war and yet the horrors of war," says this quiet but formidable man.

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