Artist DAVID C. DRISKELL has gained nationwide prominence -- but his origins stem from right here in the Briar Patch.
I lingered in the checkout line at a national retail store. My eyes casually rested on a box of colorful notecards. Fancying the featured image, I inspected the package details. Artist name ... Sure. Date of birth 1931 … Okay. Works held in museum collections…. Of course. Born in Georgia... Huh? A quick Google search… What!?!? Born in Eatonton… Really??? A widely celebrated artist with nationally marketed images, conspicuously absent from common discourse in the artist’s birth town, my town residence at the time. Wow!
In that suspended moment, I contemplated the curious thread connecting the “here” of Eatonton to “there” where the artist resides in Maryland and Maine. Years earlier, sentimental curiosity inspired the artist to quietly journey from "there to
“here” in exploration of heritage roots. In 1989, a volunteer chauffeur on behalf of a British television crew discreetly guided the worldly artist through Eatonton before turning onto a dusty road at the edge of town. Childhood memories and family tales absorbed the artist’s attention as they approached road’s end. Flecks of white strobed through pine trees to reveal a modest white clapboard chapel in a remote clearing where the artist was born in the now-gone parsonage and baptized in the church by his pastor father. The pure rural essence of this spot contrasts the many urban awards routinely showered upon this artist, including honorary doctorates from prestigious institutions and an annual museum gala where world leaders in art, finance, and politics celebrate a coveted eponymous prize recognizing the artist’s dual career as visual artist and art scholar.
The Eatonton-born phenomenon is African American artist Dr. David Clyde Driskell. The atmospheric church, the Hunts African Methodist Episcopal Church on Hunts Chapel Road in Eatonton. The prestigious award, the David C. Driskell Prize in African American Art and Scholarship, presented annually at the Atlanta High Museum of Art.
Born in Eatonton on June 7, 1931, the future art connoisseur joined a sibling entourage of three older sisters and artistic adult relatives. His father, the Reverend G.W. Driskell, a skilled ironsmith and woodworker, of African and Creek ancestry from Jasper County, served as pastor at the Eatonton Hunts Chapel as well as Wards Chapel. David’s mother, Mary Lou Cloud Driskell, of African and Cherokee descent originally from Gray, Georgia, crafted herbal wellness recipes, baskets, quilts, and natural dyes. His multi-talented maternal grandfather, born into slavery and emancipated from the Georgia Sea Islands, taught himself to read and write, served as a minister and school teacher, fabricated wood furniture from poplar and willow, and braided horse collars and harnesses from poplar bark in the African tradition.
At age five, Driskell departed Eatonton with his parents who pursued economic opportunity in the Appalachia foothills of North Carolina. There, they engaged in sharecropping and ministry, purchased 13 acres, hand built a five-room stone house and elevated education as priority for their only son. Driskell later described his parents’ values in an artist interview. “The teachers and ministers were the role models and they would say, ‘you should want to be like Miss Gardiner, you should want to be like Mr. Freeman, or be like your dad. Shun the people who don't value education if you want something different from this.’” Driskell’s parents insisted their son bus four miles past white-only schools to reach the nearest one-room black elementary schoolhouse. By ninth grade, the young Driskell arose daily at 4:00 a.m. to walk one mile to catch the school bus and travel 35 miles for two hours to reach a four-room segregated high school in a distant farming community, then repeat the miles and hours home again.
From youth, Driskell drew artistic inspiration from his father’s sketches and skilled calligraphy and from his mother’s proficiency at crafting colorful pigments. He drafted images on blank pages in his dad’s theology books, modeled clay from local brooks, and mixed natural dyes from pokeberry and leaves. His tactile fascination with art still manifests in his rubbing a wooden spoon to impress woodblock prints, transforming pigment into paint, and crafting sepia ink by soaking black walnut hulls in water, adding pokeberry for red tones.
Driskell became the first in his family to attend college, and his impressive academic achievements include a BA from Howard University, MFA from Catholic University, and thirteen honorary doctorate degrees. He additionally studied at the Skowhegan School of Art in Maine, completed post-graduate studies at The Hague in The Netherlands, and conducted numerous international academic sojourns. Three-time winner of Rockefeller Foundation Fellowships, Driskell received the National Humanities Medal from President Bill Clinton and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has authored and co-authored eleven art books and published more than forty exhibition catalogs. He retired in 1998 as Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland that honored his academic contributions with the namesake David C. Driskell Center to collect, preserve, study, and exhibit African American art.
As practicing artist, Driskell creates vibrant images found in distinguished art collections, including the National Gallery and the Smithsonian. His semi-abstract aesthetic draws inspiration from African sculpture, masks, and textiles, as well as memories of his youth. In his artistic process, Driskell manipulates memory, imagination, and cultural associations conceived in the studio rather than from life models or site visits, working in his preferred media of painting, collage, and prints.
Early in his career, Driskell created a social statement with his moving painting “Behold Thy Son” in response to the 1955 Mississippi lynching of young Emmett Till. The painting is owned by the Smithsonian. The mature Driskell encourages emerging artists to master their craft before tackling socio-political subjects. He also advises young artists to avoid creating works ‘in the manner of’ an admired master as when he became enamored with collage. He treasures the moment when African-American collage master Romare Bearden challenged him to “find his own voice” in that media.
For Driskell, a discerning eye will value a unique style in defining extra-ordinary. To illustrate, he points to a favorite motif, the evergreen pine.
“We can do several things with that pine tree,” he explained in print. “We can make an image that is permanent as we see it. We can see it as it exists in the natural world but also in the spiritual world. We can think of the many uses for the tree… (to) make turpentine, tar and dammar. We can see it as a source for lumber. But, we can also see it as a spiritual revelation – as a symbol for something else. And that was what I was seeking to find out – what is this something else that I want to see the pine tree as?”
Christian images also appear in Driskell’s works, signifying his experience of the Southern fundamentalist Black Christian church and its spiritual and folk traditions. Eatonton’s Uncle Remus Museum hostess Georgia Smith and Hunt Chapel parishioners Gloria Nelson and Mozelle Dennis McKay recall Driskell’s second Eatonton visit on March 26, 2006. Accompanied by members of his family, the winner of the 2005 Driskell Prize, Willie Cole, and several members of the Atlanta High Museum of Art, Driskell toured the site. Gloria recalls Driskell’s demeanor as alert, distinguished, and curious about childhood memories. Notes Georgia, “He has a vivid imagination and has not forgotten his roots. And he has a great memory.” She fondly remembers that he inquired after and visited with local residents Fannie Jones in Pleasant Hill and bail bondsman and undertaker, Sam Reid.
Founded in 1878, Hunts Chapel was originally named Reid Chapel. The founding congregation met in a log cabin less than a quarter mile from the current location. When the cabin burned in 1918, dedicated parishioners rebuilt the church in 1922 on land gifted by Eatonton scientist Dr. Benjamin Weeks Hunt and his poet wife, Louise Reid Prudden Hunt. Named in their honor, the charming historic chapel has maintained an active membership for nearly 150 years, including the years that Driskell’s father served as pastor at the current church.
Apart from studio art, Driskell’s scholarship permanently reframed the narrative of American art history to include the influential role of black art masters, creating a paradigm shift in the landscape of American art history. As art historian, Driskell views his calling to tell the story of African American art “a priestly mission,” and maintains that African American art is American art.
Co-owners Kelley Lehr and John Danos, of Greenhut Galleries in Portland, Maine, stand in awe. Says Kelley, “No one has worked harder or been more effective in promoting the careers of African American artists, in establishing and promoting the canon, or in documenting and preserving African American history and culture.” He produced decades of innovative exhibitions, enlightening seminars, and absorbing publications that systematically dispel false assumptions that black art always depicts African imagery or social issues. Driskell notes “black artists make art in the same manner as others do, but somehow some people, art critics in particular, often expect special racial content to be the determining factor as to whether or not an artist is black enough and worthy of being included in the compendium.” He encourages audiences to value the aesthetic variety in the United States compared to what he calls “mono culture” nations.
Driskell married college sweetheart Thelma Deloach with whom he raised two daughters and enthusiastically nurtures grandchildren. Their culinary gardens in Hyattsville, Maryland, and Falmouth, Maine, supply ingredients for homemade gumbo and sweet potato pie. Kelley Lehr chuckles when she says, “I am always amazed that he can even get peaches to grow in Maine!” The artist’s home garden art reflects Driskell’s Eatonton heritage, including a traditional Southern bottle tree as homage to his parents, who buried bottles beneath a tree to ward off evil spirits. Recalls Driskell, “I saw many such ‘assemblages’ made by artists when I was a child growing up in Eatonton, Georgia, and later in the Appalachia in western North Carolina.” He found particular inspiration in his father, who artfully assembled objects nailed to their Eatonton barn walls and family smokehouse.
Several years following my serendipitous introduction to Driskell’s art in a retail setting, I had the pleasure of chatting with him following an enlightening art history lecture he delivered at the University of Georgia Museum of Art and, most recently, as he was boarding a plane with New York art dealer Rodney Moore, of DC Moore Gallery, to attend a prestigious art event. When I inquired what he would like to tell young people in Eatonton, he focused on heritage. He wants them to know the Eatonton African American community he remembers had many points of pride, including two black doctors serving the town in the 1930s, the community’s consistent financial fundraising support of the private Christian historically black liberal arts Morris Brown College in Atlanta, and the community’s Southern traditions in general.
From modest beginnings in rural Eatonton, David C. Driskell committed to education in relentless pursuit of a personal vision. He pressed past real and perceived limitations to forge a signature visual artistic expression, reshape the storytelling of American art history to include black artists, and demonstrate how cultural change agents can positively influence humanity. Perhaps Driskell’s most potent legacy is his call to each of us to examine our individual life story, choose a passion, strive for mastery, and fearlessly experiment with something as simple as an evergreen tree to discover our unique voice in response to the life-enriching question: “What is this something else that I want to see?”
This article by Michele Bechtell appeared in the Jan-Feb 2020 edition of Lakelife Magazine.