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Tennessee State Museum exhibits rarely seen African American art collection
R. Lafayette Mitchell, Boys on Books, oil on canvas, 1996.

NASHVILLE, TN.- An exhibit containing rarely seen works by nationally acclaimed African American artists has gone on view at the Tennessee State Museum February 11. The exhibit, entitled A Creative Legacy: African American Arts in Tennessee, contains 46 works created by 16 artists who were born and/or worked in Tennessee including Aaron Douglas, Joseph and Beauford Delaney, William Edmondson, Bessie Harvey, and Greg Ridley.

All of the works shown in the exhibit are part of the collection of the Tennessee State Museum and have been assembled over the past 40 years. Due to limited space, the museum cannot display more than five percent of the collection at any given time. This exhibition, which is free to the public, will be on view in the museum’s Changing Galleries through August 31, 2014.

African Americans have contributed to the art of Tennessee from the beginning of our state’s history to present day. They have crafted furniture, constructed buildings, sewn quilts, made pottery, and worked in all of the decorative and fine arts. Often in the past the contributions of African American artists were overlooked, but their vision and passion they paved the way for generations to follow.

William Edmondson became the first African American to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1937. He was born in Nashville around 1870, the son of former slaves. Edmondson held a variety of jobs including working for the Nashville, Chattanooga, St. Louis Railway, at a local hospital, and as a stonemason’s assistant. Edmondson began carving tombstones for members of the local African American community in the early 1930s and also made small sculptures. He often chose religious topics for his artwork and became known for his spare, minimalist style. Six examples of his work are on view.

Aaron Douglas was part of the Harlem Renaissance movement, an important movement of African American artistic spirit in music, dance, cinema, painting, sculpture, photography, and printmaking during the 1920s and 1930s. The museum’s collection includes several important pieces of his work, including God’s Trombones, which was a collaboration with James Weldon Johnson, another important contributor to the Harlem Renaissance movement.

Included in the exhibit is the easel that Douglas used when he painted and one of his last works of art, a portrait of Gloria Ridley. Gloria’s husband was Greg Ridley, one of Douglas’s students, and a friend and colleague. Douglas and Ridley had worked together at Fisk University in the art department, which Douglas chaired.

Greg Ridley enjoyed a long and distinguished career in the arts which earned him honors as a painter, sculptor, and teacher. But his highest acclaim came later in his career for his mastery of metal arts, especially copper friezes. Three of his copper repousses will be on exhibit along with his final work, Tuzar (The Pyramid), an acrylic on paper painted in 2003.

Bessie Harvey was born in 1929 in Georgia, and as a young adult moved to East Tennessee in 1950. She made her home in Alcoa and worked at Blount Memorial Hospital. Harvey began to create sculptures using materials such as tree branches, paint, shells, and human hair. Biblical themes often served as a source of inspiration. By the 1980s she had gained a reputation as a distinguished folk artist. Later in life she produced a series of works known as “Africa in America” intended as an educational piece and a chronicle of African American history. Harvey usually worked with found objects that “spoke” to her, and called out to her to make them into what she saw in them. Cat, included in the exhibit, is one such piece.

The exhibition includes several works by Joseph Delaney, who was born and raised in Knoxville and studied art under Lloyd Branson. In 1930 he went to New York City to study at the Art Students League, where his first teacher was Alexander Brook. He subsequently became a student of Thomas Hart Benton. Joseph Delaney lived and worked in New York until 1986, when he returned to Knoxville to become an artist-in-residence at the University of Tennessee, a position he held until his death in 1991.

Like his younger brother Joseph, Beauford Delaney also studied under Lloyd Branson in Knoxville. Beauford lived in New York City for a time, but due to the triple prejudice against him for being southern, black, and gay, he moved to Paris, France, where he became a respected artist. He is remembered for his work with the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as his later works in abstract expressionism following his move to Europe in the 1950s. A 1964 self-portrait of the artist is included in the exhibit.

The exhibition also includes important works by Barbara Bullock, David Driskell, Samuel Dunson, Alicia Henry, George Hunt, Simon Jackson, Ted Jones, Michael McBride, James Threalkill, and Vannoy Streeter.

A Creative Legacy: African American Arts in Tennessee will be on view through August 31, 2014.

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