David Driskell At Home in Maine

Setting down northern roots

By Carl Little

Photographs by Rodney D. Moore

Pine trees such as these depicted in Pines, a 1973 oil on canvas, have a spiritual aspect for Driskell as symbols of eternity. Maine is among the least diverse states in America—about 95 percent white according to the latest census data—and may not be, as Portland cultural writer Leigh Donaldson has observed, “the first place that comes to mind when thinking of African-American artists.” Yet a number of eminent black artists have found a home—and inspiration—here. Case in point: David Driskell.

I met with Driskell on an afternoon in mid-October as the 84-year-old was preparing to decamp from his home in Falmouth, Maine, for his home in Hyattsville, Maryland. The car was full; the caretaker consulted about battening down the hatches; and the brushes put away. The artist, educator, scholar, and authority on African-American art has made this transition nearly every year since he and his wife, Thelma, purchased the property in 1961.

Driskell’s introduction to Maine came in 1953, when he attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. The renowned summer art program had established scholarships at several schools, including Howard University, in Washington, D.C., where Driskell was a junior. One of his professors had convinced him that art was where he belonged (he had been leaning toward history) and subsequently nominated him for the spot at Skowhegan.

A master printmaker, Driskell often turns to African iconography, including masks, in his work. Mask and Shadow is a 2009 lithograph, 20″ x 15 ¾”. For the young painter—Driskell was 22 at the time—Skowhegan was an eye-opener, broadening his sense of the universe of American art.

There Driskell studied painting with the renowned social realist Jack Levine and with Sidney Simon, one of the school’s founders who would become a well-known sculptor. Marguerite and William Zorach were visiting artists. Classmates included a man named Robert Clark who would later change his last name to Indiana.

That summer, Driskell began painting pine trees, which have remained one of his major subjects. The Maine pines were different from the ones he had grown up with in the small town of Eaton, Georgia, or later in Ellenboro, North Carolina. He loved the way their boughs filtered sun and moonlight; they had a spiritual aspect and became for him symbols of eternity.

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