David C. Driskell H’89 died on April 1, 2020 in Hyattsville, Maryland.
(The following appeared in the Portland Press Herald on April 2, 2020)
David C. Driskell, one of the country’s prominent African American artists and scholars, who came to Maine to study at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and lived part-time in Falmouth, died Wednesday at age 88.
The David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, announced his death on its website. A cause of death was not disclosed.
“During these challenges times, it is difficult to mourn one individual, but we at the David C. Driskell Center are here to honor his legacy and continue his work of supporting and promoting African American artists,” the statement said. “Once appropriate, we will ensure that our community has the chance to mourn and celebrate the life of a man who meant so much to so many of us.”
Driskell was a multimedia artist, best known for collage, mixed-media work, prints and paintings but versed in all manners of mark-making. The trees around his home in Falmouth became a recurring motif in his work. “I gravitated toward the pine tree because the pine trees don’t talk back,” he told the Press Herald in 2009. “They’re just trees waving in the wind.”
Driskell came to Maine in 1953 to study at Skowhegan, part of a wave of post-World War II artists who came from New York, including Ashley Bryan, Alex Katz, Lois Dodd and, later, Robert Indiana, to wrestle with the landscape in a Modernist way. Driskell’s artistic and professional center became the University of Maryland, where he joined the faculty and 1977 and served until his retirement in 1998. Three years later, the university established the David C. Driskell Center to support his work as an artist, historian, collector, curator and scholar.
Driskell is a leading authority on African-American art, the author of several books and more than 40 catalogs. In 1976, he curated the landmark exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750-1950” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. That show laid the groundwork for the study of African-American art history.
Driskell has chosen work for the White House art collection, and in 2000 received a National Humanities Medal from President Bill Clinton.
In Maine, he has taught at Bowdoin and Bates colleges and served on the boards at Maine College of Art, the Colby College Museum of Art and Skowhegan.
He is a graduate of Howard University, where he earned his undergraduate degree, and Catholic University, where he received his master’s. But the educational experience that might have made the biggest impact in his life came in 1953, when he enrolled for the summer at Skowhegan.
The Maine landscape opened up Driskell’s imagination and allowed him to look at nature differently. Georgia-born and Appalachian-raised, Driskell had strong ideas about color before coming here. But Skowhegan changed everything. “I came to the Maine scene with a sense of color already imbedded in my mind,” he said in 2008. “But when I got here, things were so different. The light was so different. I was just so taken by the greenery, I started painting pine trees. And I haven’t really stopped.”
Driskell’s spiritual home was a small cabin in Falmouth, where he purchased land in 1961 and established a studio and garden. He once said of Maine, “It’s like a refreshing tonic — I dream about it when I’m not there.”
The Maine art world reacted with sadness when the news of his death spread Thursday morning. Suzette McAvoy, executive director of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, said, “An inspiring artist, teacher, mentor and scholar, David was quite simply, a great man. … We will think of him forever being present among the trees in his beloved Maine.”
CMCA showed Driskell’s art many times since the early 1960s, including most recently in 2017 for a solo exhibition, “Renewal and Form.” Bruce Brown, curator emeritus at CMCA, called Driskell “the most remarkable man” and said it was a privilege to work with him.