Remembering Dr. David C. Driskell, a pioneering artist and scholar


The Mint remembers Dr. David C. Driskell, a pioneering artist and scholar

We are losing many great minds and kind hearts in these spring months and while we may not be able to recognize all, we will try to celebrate the lives of artists, collectors and patrons who have had direct impact on the museum and our community. One such man of national and international acclaim is artist and scholar Dr. David C. Driskell, who passed away of coronavirus on April 1, 2020 in Washington D.C. at the age of 88. His touring exhibition Narratives of African American Art and Identity was on view at The Mint Museum in 2002.

Driskell was born on June 7, 1931 in Eatonton, Ga. His paternal Gullah lineage was from the Georgia Sea Islands. His family moved to Hollis in the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina when he was a child. His parents were both  “makers”—his father, a blacksmith and Baptist preacher; his mother, a basket weaver and quilter. Educated in a small segregated school house, his teachers recognized his intellect and passion for art and encouraged him to attend college.  He tells the story, with great humor, of traveling to Washington, D.C.,  enthusiastically arriving at Howard University totally unaware of admission procedures, determined to “attend” college.  He sat in on classes until someone helped him officially enroll. His passion, his determination to learn, create, and teach never faulted.

Like his parents, Dr. Driskell also remained a maker. A figurative painter, his work had the loose brushwork and bold colors of the abstract expressionist painters who dominated the galleries in his youth. He became nationally recognized and lauded as early as 1956 with his modern day Pietà, Behold Thy Son, a memorial for the brutally murdered Emmett Till. The painting now hangs near Dr. Driskell’s Washington D.C. home, at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Covid-19 virus abruptly ended his life; however, his legacy—his indelible contribution to the canon of American art history—will live on through his art and through his many publications, scholarly dissertations, lectures, and the generations of art historians that he spawned.

Driskell modeled himself after his mentor, Dr. James A. Porter, who established the art department at Howard University and pioneered the field of African American Art History. As heir to Porter’s groundbreaking work in the field, Driskell pursued his study, achieving his Bachelor of Arts from Howard University in 1955 and an MFA from Catholic University in 1962. He also studied at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine in 1953 and Art History at The Hague, Netherlands in 1964.

Driskell remained an important teacher as well as scholar. He taught at Talladega College in Alabama, Howard University, Fiske University in Tennessee, Bowdoin College in Maine, the University of Michigan, Queens College, and Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, before joining the faculty of the Department of Art at the University of Maryland, College Park in 1977. He remained affiliated with the school through his retirement in 1998. In 2001, the school established the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora. The school reflects its namesake: Terry Gips, Director of The Art Gallery University of Maryland, states, “Driskell evidences his commitment to enhancing the study of art by emphasizing the multicultural contributions made by Native Americans, Black, Asian and European artists.”

Rubie Britt-Height, Director of Community Relations at The Mint Museum, first met Driskell while on staff at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “Dr. Driskell was often involved with us—sharing, advising, and supporting,” says Britt-Height. “He would lend commentary on a work or an exhibition, and we’d inquisitively seek his wisdom. And of course, he had great ties to Loïs Mailou Jones, his Howard University art instructor.”

Driskell advised esteemed collections, and in 1996, he assisted President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton in their selection of the first work of art by an African-American for the White House permanent collection with the acquisition of Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City.

Driskell directly touched our Charlotte community when his chose to honor his North Carolina roots by ending his national touring exhibition, Narratives of African American Art and Identity at The Mint Museum in 2002. The museum exhibition, along with a solo exhibition of his paintings at Noel Gallery, was facilitated by former Mint Museum trustee B.E. Noel. “The best way we can honor Dr. Driskell is to enfold the work of African-American art into every aspect of the canon and celebrate our common humanity through art,” says Noel.

Todd Herman, the Board of Directors and our Mint staff extend our appreciation to Dr. Driskell and sincere condolences to the Driskell family.

This piece was written by B.E. Noel, a former trustee of The Mint Museum who knew Dr. David Driskell through her role as a gallerist, collector, and scholar.