Audrey Florey is a Ph.D. candidate in Visual Studies at the University of Missouri with an emphasis in American art history. Her dissertation examines the work of women artist-educators who dedicated their life to establishing and cultivating a diverse array of art programs within numerous cultural institutions across the United States.
Beginning in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, American women pursued careers in the fine arts at unprecedented rates, entering art schools, and competing in market sales. Despite their growing involvement, women artists were increasingly overlooked as professionals, triggering their pursuit of alternative pathways, particularly through art education, to participate in the American modern art world. By 1930, women artists from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds comprised almost a third of all art professors or instructors in various institutional settings; however, little is known about these women artists and educators, or artist-educators (those who actively practice art and teach it) as I term them, or their monumental role in constructing modern American art’s infrastructure. My doctoral dissertation thus seeks to fill this historical gap by examining three women artist-educators from disparate identities, geographies, and artistries to exemplify this widespread phenomenon and to illuminate the critical part they have and continue to play in diversifying the American art canon. This research brought me to the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archive, and Rare Book Library for five days to examine the papers of Samella S. Lewis—the artist-educator who will compose the third and final chapter of my dissertation.
Samella S. Lewis lived a long (almost 100 years), prolific, and formidable life, working as an art historian, artist, educator, and institution builder who fundamentally altered the modern American art world by establishing a canon for African American art and artists. Her archive alone attests to this; over eighty boxes are filled with correspondence, resumes, honorary degrees, grant and exhibition proposals, photographs, newspaper clippings, written works, notes and lectures, and numerous artist biographies. Of particular note is the large number of marginalized artists who Lewis wrote about from America, Africa, the Caribbean, and Indigenous communities.
Lewis used several of these artist’s biographies in her publications, including Black Art: An International Quarterly—one of the first journals on African American art and artists––which she circulated through Hancraft Studios, the publishing company she founded. Much to my surprise, I found both a catalog produced by Hancraft Studios and some of the first copies of Black Art within Lewis’s archive. The Hancraft Studio brochure promotes a diverse range of African and African American art prints, from sculptures and masks to paintings and lithographs, that the public could purchase as greeting cards or posters, indicating Lewis’s efforts to promote and disseminate these art forms and artists on a mass scale. I also found several of these greeting cards throughout Lewis’s correspondence folders. Additionally, the Hancraft Studio pamphlet promotes several of Lewis’s art historical writings, including the Black Art periodical, which is not widely accessible today; but a 1979 publication is located within Lewis’s papers and provides a glimpse into the journal’s contents. Volume 3, number 2 is devoted to African art and its relationship to Black American art with essays such as “Africa in Antiquity: The Arts of Ancient Nubia and the Sudan go to New Orleans” that describe ties between Ancient Nubian and Sudan art to modern New Orleans artists. While the Black Art quarterly always promoted the work of African American artists, Lewis also incorporated several ancient and contemporary African art and artists to promote cultural understanding by highlighting Black Americans’ ancestral roots and their lived experiences—something she also worked towards in her own body of work.
Lewis’s body of artwork is exemplified throughout her archive with several photographs documenting her artworks during the artistic process as well as the final product. I discovered a black-and-white photograph showing an early rendition of Lewis’s 2004 painting, Barrier, for instance, that depicts a small figure who is partially blocked by a larger figure. Compared to the photograph, Lewis’s final work presents a large white figure in the foreground and a young Black girl in the background, whereas this dichotomy is not as observable in the black-and-white image. We may presume that this young girl is Lewis herself because I observed several interviews in her archive that frequently describe how her work illustrates her lived experiences as a Black woman. She says, “My art is my voice; it’s something that speaks for me. My voice is trying to tell my story; I speak in terms of my art.” Barrier not only symbolizes the systemic oppression and discrimination Lewis faced throughout her lifetime, but it also portrays her ability to work against them. While the young girl is challenged by this white figure, she confronts it with a direct fixated gaze, claiming her place within this space.
Much like the young Black girl in Barrier, Lewis asserted her position within the American art world by working against societal barriers that precluded her from participating in it. Although she came of age during the Jim Crow era that legally demanded separate spaces for Black and White Americans, she received art scholarships enabling her to obtain degrees in the arts and became the first African American women to receive a doctorate in art history from Ohio State University. Throughout her lifetime, Lewis was continuously observed for her notable achievements and devotion to the arts; she collected numerous honorary degrees and awards, and was even invited to the White House to have dinner with President Jimmy Carter and his wife. Although Lewis devoted the entirety of her life, energy, and resources to establishing a canon for African American art and artists and did much in the way of supporting this in numerous educational institutions, she is largely left out of art historical discussions and art education scholarship for her work as an artist-educator, which I find even more confounding after viewing her archival collection.
Lewis’s collection alone is a pedagogical tool, providing knowledge on our past that can be used in our present and future. Biographies on both well-established artists and those who are lesser known, handwritten notes and statements, and exhibition content and proposals challenge the idea of a “mainstream” art canon and suggest one that is far more diverse and complex. Lewis’s materials deconstruct traditional art hierarchies and linear narratives to reveal one that is multivocal by promoting traditionally marginalized groups and celebrating socially engaged practices and histories.
While Lewis’s archive includes a rich abundance of elements that lend themselves to understanding her and other artists’ lives, perhaps the most exciting finding for me was a 1983 exhibition brochure I came across on the final day of my research visit. Located deep within Lewis’s papers is a 1983 exhibition brochure titled, Artist-Teachers. The exhibition and brochure were both curated and written by Lewis, in which she highlights seven practicing artists who were also teachers in both California and across the South. Along with some brief biographies and small headshots, Lewis provides an exhibition description, writing:
“Those who can often also teach. They teach, not because they want to particularly disprove the old aphorism, but because teaching is necessary: it both feeds and refines their abilities. Good teachers, regardless of discipline, are creative individuals. Art, in particular ought not be made in isolation, for that denies the very nature of communication. And so the artist who also teaches has traded some of the private time in the studio for time shared with students. More is gained than lost: the students are a ferment of new techniques and forms, they are an ideal audience, and, even in the teaching of basic skills, the artist’s own concepts are constantly reevaluated. This present exhibition has brought together seven such teaching artists in whose work we may explore the product of the twin processes of creation and instruction.”
As Lewis notes, teaching is an important and significant aspect of both art making and art learning, and it is my hope that much like Lewis did here, I too can dispel the age-old infamous euphemism that all too often discredits America’s educators.
 Kirsten Swinth, Painting Professionals: Women Artists & the Development of Modern American Art, 1870-1930 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 3-4.
 “Hancraft Studios, Catalog,” no date, box 76, folder 5, Samella S. Lewis papers, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.
 Printed material by Lewis: periodicals, Black Art, 1979-1980, box 68, folder 2, Samella S. Lewis papers, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.
 Barrier, photograph of painting, no date, box 10, folder 2, Samella S. Lewis papers, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.
 Samella S. Lewis, “My Art is My Voice,” no date, video recording, Samella S. Lewis papers, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.
 White House Invitation from President Jimmy Carter, Correspondence, 1980-1981, box 1, folder 6, Samella S. Lewis papers, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.
 An Exhibition of Artist-Teachers, Museum of African American Art (Los Angeles, California), brochures, business plan, catalogs, flyers, invitations, 1982-1992, box 78, folder 15, Samella S. Lewis papers, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.
 In the early twentieth century, playwright George Shaw wrote, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” which Lewis refutes in her 1983 exhibition brochure.