Selma Hortense Burke. Source: Smithsonian American Art Museum
The portrait of the artist in the studio is a meaningful image. In The New Yorker, Lilly Lampe articulates its power. “The studios of famous artists are fascinating for the double insight they provide us: on the one hand, a view of the creative process; on the other, a view of the creative life.” The artist in the studio also provides a view of what is possible.
Lampe’s idea that the artist in studio tells us something about the creative process and the creative life inspired me to find pictures of black women artists ensconced in their creative workplaces. In some of the photographs the artists are in the midst of creation; in others they are posed next to or in front of a completed piece. There is a sense of pride and accomplishment in the photos. Seeing those artists in the realms of their creation is a reminder of the audacious feat of black American women making art and claiming the professional title of ‘artist’.
In an interview with Charles H. Rowell of Callaloo, Lois Mailou Jones spoke about the struggles of being a black woman artist in the mid-20th century. “I owed very much to my white friend Céline who would take my paintings to the juries. They never knew that the artist was black. That was very much in my favor. It’s been a very unusual career. I would also send or ship my work to the Philadelphia Academy or to the National Academy of Design. Invariably, the works would be hung, and they would never know that the artist was black. I remember going to the Philadelphia Academy to see one of my paintings which had been accepted. While I stood there looking at it, the guard saw me looking at the painting and said, “I guess you like art, don’t you?” I said to myself that he doesn’t know that the painting is mine hanging there. [Much laughter.] And so that’s how it was way back in those early days; I was exhibiting at all of the big museums, but they never knew that I was black because I either shipped my works or had a white person deliver them. Now you see how difficult it was.”
Lois Mailou Jones. Source: loismailoujones.com
Lois Mailou Jones was not alone in being erased from her own work. Sister Rosetta, the mother of Rock and Roll is little known beyond music aficionados and students of African-American history. It is important for black women artists to be seen and acknowledged. Once they are seen, their creative output can be recognized as vital, skillful, and beautiful without qualification. The portrait of the black woman artist in her studio is a statement of being in a world comfortable erasing her from the historical record.
Augusta Savage. Source: Florida Department of State
Faith Rinngold. Source: Melanie Burford
Betye Saar. Source: Issue Magazine
Kara Walker. Source: MIT
Mickalene Thomas. Source: Vice