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Tue, 02.27.1923

Samella Sanders Lewis, Visual Artist, Professor, and Art Historian born

Samella Sanders Lewis

*Samella Sanders Lewis was born on this date in 1923. She was a Black visual artist, professor, and art historian.

Samella Sanders was born to Samuel Sanders and Rachel Taylor Sanders in New Orleans, Louisiana, and raised in Ponchatoula, Louisiana. Her father was a farmer, and her mother was a domestic worker. Widely exhibited and collected as an artist herself, Lewis was better known as a historian, critic, and collector of art, especially African American art. Lewis completed four degrees, five films, seven books, and a substantial body of artworks that have received critical respect.

She pursued an art degree starting at Dillard University in 1941 but left Dillard for Hampton Institute in Virginia, earning her master's degree in 1947. Lewis began collecting art in 1942. She mostly collected art from W.P.A. and the Harlem Renaissance. She earned her B.A. degree at Hampton University, then completed her master's and a doctorate in art history and cultural anthropology at the Ohio State University in 1951. Lewis was the first female African American to earn a fine art and art history doctorate. While finishing her doctorate, Lewis taught art at Morgan State University. Lewis became the first Chair of the Fine Arts Department at Florida A&M University in 1953. She was a professor at the State University of New York, California State University, Long Beach, and Scripps College in Claremont, California.

In the 1960-the 70s, Samella Lewis belonged to a group of artists meeting every month. In the 1960s and 1970s, Lewis's work, which included lithographs, linocuts, and serigraphs, reflected humanity and freedom. Between 1969 and 1970, Lewis and E.J. Montgomery were consultants for a "groundbreaking" exhibition creating awareness of African American history and art history. She co-founded, with Bernie Casey, the Contemporary Crafts Gallery in Los Angeles in 1970. In 1973, Lewis served on the selection committee for the exhibition BLACKS: U.S.A.: 1973, held at the New York Cultural Center. She founded the International Review of African American Art in 1975. In 1976, she founded the Museum of African American Art with a group of artistic, academic, business, and community leaders in Los Angeles, California.

These founders had similar goals, including increasing the public's awareness of African American art. Many individuals and corporations, such as Macy's, donated generously to the museum. As the staff's senior curator in the museum, Lewis organized many exhibitions and developed diverse ways of educating the public on African American arts. In an article, she discussed the ideas of "art of tradition" and argued that museums were responsible for exploring the African roots of African American art. The museum operates on donations in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, with staff and volunteers dedicated to supporting the museum. Lewis once mentioned an "art of inspiration" based on the experiences of African Americans themselves. Lewis founded three other museums in Los Angeles, California.

Lewis was an N.A.A.C.P. member and a collector of art, including African, Chinese, Asian, South American, and other works. Some of the art that Lewis collected was transferred to the Hampton Institute University Museum. In 1984, she produced a monograph on the artist Elizabeth Catlett, one of Lewis's mentors at Dillard University. In 2012, works by Lewis were exhibited alongside selected artworks from her collection in Samella Lewis and the African American Experience at Louis Stern Fine Arts in West Hollywood, California. A full-color catalog accompanied the exhibition with text by art writer and critic Suzanne Muchnic.

In 2015, Unity Lewis and art entrepreneur Trevor Parham created The Legacy Exhibit, which featured three generations of black artists, including contemporary artists and some in the original "Black Artists on Art." The show launched its recruitment efforts for 500 black American artists to participate in the updated volumes. She worked primarily as a printmaker and painter. She has been called the "Godmother of African American Art." She received Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement from the College Art Association (C.A.A.) in 2021. She married mathematician Paul Gad Lewis in 1948, and they had two sons. He died in 2013. She died from renal failure in a hospice in Torrance, California, on May 27, 2022, at 99.

"Art is not a luxury as many people think – it is a necessity. It documents history – it helps educate people and stores knowledge for generations to come." – Dr. Samella Lewis.

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