At the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, art has a sacred space to call home. “Gettin’ It Done,” an art exhibit at Scripps College’s Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, running until Oct. 15, showcases work by Black artists from Scripps’ Samella Lewis Contemporary Art Collection, along with loaned pieces.
The exhibition serves as a tribute to the memory of Samella Lewis and showcases artists connected to her legacy, including Elizabeth Catlett, Samella Lewis, Betye Saar, Alison Saar, Emma Amos, Letitia Huckaby, LaToya Hobbs and Kenturah Davis.
Lewis was professor emerita of art history at Scripps College from 1969 to 1970 and passed away in May 2022. Lewis was the first Black woman to earn a doctorate in fine art and art history at Ohio State University and the first tenured Black professor at Scripps. She was the first person to assemble a textbook on African American art and the first person to found an African American Art Museum in Los Angeles.
Erin M. Curtis, Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler director of the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, described the significance behind the exhibit.
“This exhibition not only celebrates her accomplishments, but explores the themes that animated her work, particularly the realities of Black life in the United States during the 20th century,” Curtis said.
According to exhibit curator Margalit Monroe, the Samella Lewis Contemporary Art Collection was founded in 2007 in Lewis’s honor to highlight artists from a number of backgrounds.
“[The collection] was founded to acquire and steward primarily works by women, Black artists, contemporary artists, studio art faculty members from the 5Cs, so those are the parameters for acquiring pieces for the collection,” Monroe said.
The different stylistic influences form an exhibit that explores historical issues, personal histories and social justice through mediums such as paint, linocut, quilting and intaglio.
A featured artist of the exhibit, the work done by Catlett is mainly black-and-white (B&W) linocut images tracing relations between the United States and Mexico as geographic neighbors. Amos, on the other hand, experiments with colorful, multimedia painting and textile work to explore the role of art as a tool for activism.
Through layered, quilt-like textile collages of printed photography on fabric, Huckaby explores the history of the Deep South and the connection between enslavement and present-day politics.
Kirk Delman, the gallery’s Collections Manager & Registrar and curator of the exhibit, described his intention in bringing together these artists.
“It was my intention to feature several generations of African American women artists whose voices and advocacy has inspired subsequent generations and celebrated the significance of mentoring future generations of artists,” Delman said.
Mentorship is a thread that connects many of the featured artists throughout the exhibit. Monroe identified various works which explore themes rooted in personal cultural and spiritual identities.
“Elizabeth Catlett had mentored Samella Lewis and similarly, Lewis mentored Alison Saar, who is a Scripps alumna in the arts,” Monroe said.
Betye Saar, another artist in the show, is Alison Saar’s mother and Lewis gave her her first solo show. Betye Saar’s work in the exhibit is explorative, with layered materials of canvas, paper cutouts and fabric. Her art focuses on African spirituality, diaspora and symbolism.
“It was my intention to feature several generations of African American women artists whose voices and advocacy has inspired subsequent generations and celebrated the significance of mentoring future generations of artists.”
To Samella Lewis, her mentors and mentees were crucial to her work as an artist, educator and academic. The physical arrangement of the pieces in the exhibit reflects the centrality of intergenerational mentorship. Betye and Alison Saar’s collection of pieces were placed next to each other, reflecting their common themes of African spirituality. Alison Saar grew up with the influences of spiritualism and sharing ideas of the metaphysical was a crucial part of Batye Saar’s experience of motherhood.
Alison Saar follows a similar thematic exploration to that of her mother through surrealist works. All of her pieces feature women with whited-out eyes and branch-like hair that holds objects of bottles, cotton and pomegranates.
The artists’ personal histories coalesce with broader themes of Black history and African spiritualism.
Lewis’ own work is scattered throughout the exhibit. From B&W linocut to colorful portraits, Lewis’ art focuses on civil rights and Black liberation. A section of the exhibit also features old textbooks she had authored and photos of her throughout her life.
“Obeah Woman,” a color pencil portrait of Lewis’s Aunt Laura, is geometric and colorful, featuring a woman with a shining third eye. It is a display of the Yoruba religion and hoodoo spirituality that shaped Lewis’ upbringing and family life.
The gallery prides itself in being incredibly helpful for guests. Jan Blair, a staff member at the gallery, spoke on the gallery’s extensive collection and available public resources.
“If someone comes in and they’re more interested in seeing more of what we have, or even something completely different … I can put them in touch with our collections manager,” Blair said. “They can come in with a few people … Kirk will … show you [the collection] firsthand.”
For guests who come to the exhibit, Blair promises a personal welcome.
“What I strive to do is to make everybody who comes in the door feel really welcome,” Blair said. “I get up from my seat. I come around, I greet them. I say, ‘Are you familiar with what we have?’”
Guests can visit the exhibition at 251 E. 11th St, Claremont, CA 91711.