David Driskell’s “Self-Portrait,” a 1953 oil on board painting (15-1/4 inches by 11 inches) will be on view as part of a major David Driskell painting exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art beginning in June. Photograph by Luc Demers. © Estate of David C. Driskell, courtesy DC Moore Gallery, New York

Nobody knew how sick David Driskell was when he arrived at the hospital near his home in Maryland. He had been quietly fighting cancer, and took a turn in March a year ago.

Soon after Driskell was admitted, doctors told him he had COVID-19.

“He went to the emergency room and never came back,” said his widow, Thelma Driskell. “The doctor called from the hospital and said he had the virus and he was in bad condition. I called David after the doctor told me that. I said, ‘David, how do you feel about it?’ He said, ‘Thelma, it is what it is,’ and those are the last words we spoke. He left just like that. It still hurts. It’s just one of those things. That virus is a killer.”

Driskell, an artist and educator whose legacy is ensuring that the story of Black art is properly told in the larger story of North American art, died April 1, 2020, at age 88. He was among the early victims of the coronavirus and among the many who died alone in the hospital.

On June 19, the Portland Museum of Art opens an exhibition of his paintings, “David Driskell: Icons of History and Nature.” It includes about 60 works and focuses on his evolution as an artist and tells a story, in images, that includes his decision to study at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1953 and settle in Falmouth, where he spent every summer of his life after buying a home in 1961, building a studio and cultivating a garden.

“He loved Maine so,” said his widow, who is 90 and will return to Falmouth in June and attend the PMA exhibition soon after it opens. “Early on he said, ‘Thelma, if we ever get a summer place, I would like to live in Maine.’ Maine had been his dream place all those years.”

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David Driskell’s “Fisherman’s Pride,” an oil painting from 1956, 20 x 24 inches Photograph by Luc Demers. © Estate of David C. Driskell, courtesy DC Moore Gallery, New York

In planning long before he died, the exhibition honors Driskell’s life and puts his painting career in context with his times. Portland Museum of Art communications director Graeme Kennedy characterized “Icons of Nature and History” as a “landmark moment in American art” because it focuses on Driskell’s accomplishments as a painter. Much attention has been paid to Driskell as a curator, author and scholar. The recent HBO documentary “Black Art: In the Absence of Light” centered on Driskell’s scholarship and advocacy.

He taught at Talladega College, Howard University and Fisk University from 1955 to 1977, and then at the University of Maryland at College Park until 1997, now home of the David C. Driskell Center, which houses his archive and is a study center for African American art.

This exhibition gives people a chance to appreciate Driskell’s personal artistic expression, and comes at a time when the community, country and world reflect on equity, representation and race.

“Maine is the whitest and oldest state in America. It’s a terrible statistic and one the museum has worked to confront and change,” Kennedy said. “Our hope has long been to center Portland, Maine, and our region as a cultural center that brings new ideas, people and communities together, and that cannot happen if we remain provincial, closed off and homogenous. Although we’ve made a lot of progress, the events of this year have crystallized how much more we need to do and why it is critical for the future of our region.”

“Icons of History and Nature” opened last year at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Driskell was deeply involved in the development of the exhibition, beginning in 2018, said Shalini Le Gall, chief curator at the PMA. He worked closely with curators Julie McGee, an art historian and scholar who associated with Driskell for 20 years, and Jessica May, Le Gall’s predecessor at the Portland museum.

The exhibition encompasses Driskell’s seven-decade painting career, beginning in the 1950s. It accents his use of color, form and symbolism, which he expresses time and again in recurring subjects and motifs: pine trees, sunflowers, memories of his Southern Black experience and the people in his life. Other paintings reflect the national fight for civil rights. Driskell moves easily among styles, with influences of European modernism, cubism, expressionism and even collage.

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“The exhibition tracks his artistic narrative in a broad, holistic way,” Le Gall said. “I hope that is what inspires people to come in and gain a greater understanding of how, in David Driskell’s work, nature and history are intertwined. Those of us who live in Maine know that, but it’s a wonder to see what that artistic expression can look like.”

It begins with early figurative work, including a bold, self-confident “Self-Portrait” from 1953, his year at Skowhegan, and abstracted landscapes that prominently feature Maine pine trees. “Homage to Romare,” a collage and gouache from 1976 in honor of artist Romare Bearden, is an amalgamation of African masks, sunflowers, lush greenery. “Ghetto Wall # 2,” a dramatic painting from 1970, is shown in context with other paintings from the series, side by side.

David Driskell at his Falmouth studio in 2010. Photo by Jack Montgomery, courtesy of Portland Museum of Art

The exhibition also includes archival photos of Driskell at work throughout the years. Driskell was an exceptional record keeper. He tracked and traced his journeys. “He took a lot of photos and asked people to take photographs of him,” Le Gall said.

In Driskell’s hand, the pine tree symbolized strength, endurance and eternity and were common in both his native Georgia and adopted Maine. Driskell was often disappointed in people, and turned to nature for inspiration, said Pat Davidson Reef, a Portland-based author and art historian who wrote the biography “David C. Driskell: Artist, Educator, Author” for young readers. Published in 2020, the book is a nominee for this year’s Maine Literary Awards.

“He rose from very humble means,” she said. “He didn’t have art material to create with as a child, so he used the back of brown paper bags and charcoal and things like that to draw.”

Reef met Driskell in 1970 when she asked to use a print he made to advertise an exhibition in Portland that included his work. She was helping to promote the show. Bill Cummings, then the director at the Skowhegan School, invited Reef to dinner to meet Driskell. They remained friends for 50 years.

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She interviewed Driskell for the book during his last summer in Maine, in 2019. A retired school teacher, she had written biographies for young readers of Dahlov Ipcar and Bernard Langlais, and thought Driskell’s story and art should be introduced to young people. She shared proofs of the book with him last March, just before he went into the hospital. He never told her he was sick.

“He said, ‘I love the book. It’s going to be a great success, and thank you for doing it – and good luck.’ That was the last I heard from him.” A few weeks later, one of Driskell’s daughters called to tell Reef he had died.

Like so many others who knew Driskell, Reef is saddened that Driskell won’t be able to see this exhibition. But it serves as a stellar way to honor him, his art and his memory, she said.

“It’s too bad he isn’t here to receive recognition for it,” Reef said. “But I think he will always be remembered by the art community, because the art community here in Maine and across the country respected him so highly. He was a great human being. That is all I can say – forgiving, accepting. He had dignity.”


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