Remembering Samella Lewis (1923–2022)
By Alison Saar
The last time I saw Samella Lewis, she was doing exactly what I had always seen her doing, for as long as I had known her: being present, showing up, supporting artists. It was at an exhibition of the work of my daughter, Maddy Inez Leeser, in 2021. I hadn’t seen Samella for almost two years, because of the pandemic, but there she was, out on the scene—at the age of ninety-eight!—talking to everyone, taking everything in, being her usual involved self. And I wondered how many people in that room had any idea what kind of powerful force this petite, unassuming-looking woman had represented for the West Coast art world and generations of American artists of color.
It was particularly striking that she was there for my daughter that evening, because I met Samella through my own mother, Betye Saar. Samella knew me first as one of Betye’s three daughters, always hanging at her heels at openings and art events. Samella gave my mother one of her first solo shows, in 1972, at the pioneering gallery she ran in Mid-Wilshire called Multi-Cul, at a time when most galleries and art institutions in Los Angeles were blind to women artists and particularly to Black women artists. But Samella—along with a few other pioneers, like Linda Goode Bryant in New York, and Suzanne Jackson and the Davis brothers, Alonzo and Dale, in Los Angeles—was determined to make her own institutions if those in existence wouldn’t pay attention. Besides Samella’s gallery, which was one of the few Black-owned galleries in the United States, she had already by that time founded her own publishing house as well as the National Conference of Artists, which is now the nation’s oldest African American visual-arts organization. Within a few years, by the mid-1970s, she had also founded the International Review of African American Art and the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles, both of which are still going strong.
If you met Samella back in those years, you never had any sense that she was such a mover and shaker. She was usually the quietest person in the room, very observant, watching everything. If you talked to her you knew that she had a wry, deadpan sense of humor and a kind of Zen calm, maybe developed over all her years of studying Chinese and Buddhist art. But she also had a way of getting things done that was absolutely unwavering. She took people’s measure, figuring out which ones were just paying her lip service, telling her what she wanted to hear, being polite. And if they were, then she politely moved on until she found someone who could really help her do what needed to be done. What she accomplished would be a huge undertaking for anyone, but particularly for a Black woman from a working-class Southern family in the years when she did it: a doctorate in fine art and art history, a Fulbright to study in Taiwan, postdoctoral studies in Chinese, the first tenured Black professor at Scripps College. I think she was one of those people who was never satisfied with the level of knowledge and experience she had reached—certainly not with the level of acceptance and recognition that she attained within academia and the art world—and so she just kept on pushing.
As I was heading to college, I didn’t have a strong sense of what I wanted to do. My mother got her first National Endowment fellowship while I was in high school, and of course all my art teacher wanted to talk about was my mother’s art, which I recall resenting. Samella was the one who mentioned to my mother and my father that I should go to Scripps, and when I went, I decided that instead of being an artist, like my mother, I was going to become an art historian. But I could never keep myself from making things, wanting to create instead of only studying how others created, and Samella helped me understand that, whether I planned to or not, I was going to be an artist. I was very much under her wing from the get-go, and as soon as I was allowed to take electives, I went straight to her. I basically took every class she offered, and I learned, to my surprise, that besides everything else she was a budding Chinese scholar, something that she almost kept under her hat.
When I think of Samella, of all her accomplishments in moving the needle substantially for Black artists, I still think of her first and foremost as an artist.
Scripps was a small school, and one of the things Samella did for students was give us the ability to work with the college’s art collection, to study and to curate it. She had an early understanding that, when looking at African art especially, so much knowledge about artwork comes from the textures and the patinas and the overall feel, that objects should not be stagnant and sealed off. Being able to see the pieces close-up—not just as an image on a slide—and even sometimes to handle them, was a formative experience for me and for many other young artists at the school.
A big part of teaching African art in the 1970s was countering all the misinformation out there: a lot of very colonial ideas, linear thinking that had come from white scholars looking at African art through a distorted Eurocentric lens. Samella encouraged us to broaden our conceptions of the function of art, even to respond to certain things intuitively, to realize that work could have many different layers of meaning—aesthetically, culturally, religiously, historically. I think people are still in the process of understanding that so much of African art, and art from a host of cultures around the world, is a living thing. It’s worth noting that in addition to the aspiring artists in Samella’s classes, quite a few of her students went on to become African art scholars, which is a testament to her methods and encouragement.
The biggest influence for me at that time, one that continues to resonate in my work and my life, was her love of self-taught African American artists. These were artists who were largely ignored by scholars and curators and dealers—even those who were paying attention to folk artists like Grandma Moses and Morris Hirshfield. But Samella recognized the value of the best work and the best artists and she was an early supporter of people like David Butler and Elijah Pierce—and Nellie Mae Rowe, whose work is now the subject of a big show at the Brooklyn Museum. Samella went out and met all these artists and helped support them and encouraged them to do their work, in the process expanding what became recognized as quote-unquote fine American art.
Getting to know work by some of those artists blew me away—artists who didn’t have access to high-quality materials and/or formal education, who didn’t have encouragement or blessing from anyone, in fact sometimes exactly the opposite, but they were compelled to make work and believed in it and never stopped. I ended up wanting to make art like that, very truthful and visceral, art not made with a specific market or audience in mind. Samella’s interest set me off on a path. Self-taught artists were the subject of my senior thesis at Scripps, in fact, and the DNA of that art still informs what I do every day. When Samella was young, she studied under Elizabeth Catlett at Dillard University in Louisiana. Catlett became her mentor and lit Samella’s fire for art, and I see myself, in a sense, as one of the next artists in that beautiful line of influence.
After Samella finally retired, I visited her from time to time. Throughout her life, when she was busy teaching, curating, writing and raising a family, she was making her own work, paintings and prints, although she often tended to promote the work of other artists over her own. And then, later in life, she finally had the time and freedom to focus solely on her art. Her son Claude had helped her turn a little space behind her house into a studio, where she worked every day. In 2022, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where she had once worked, finally acquired some of her prints and a great painting, Bag Man (1996), which it showed in its exhibition “Black American Portraits.”
When I think of Samella, of all her accomplishments in moving the needle substantially for Black artists, I still think of her first and foremost as an artist. And now that she has left us, I think that the greatest tribute to this great woman would be for her own art to become better known, for generations after us to walk into a museum and see a Samella Lewis painting hanging on the wall in a room filled with the art of all the others she helped to get in there.
Alison Saar’s sculptures, prints and paintings address issues of race, gender and spirit. She studied art and art history at Scripps College in Claremont, LA, and received an MFA from the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. Her awards include a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, National Endowment Fellowships and the United States Artists Fellowship. Saar has exhibited at many museums including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. She lives in Los Angeles and is represented by L.A. Louver gallery. In this issue, she writes about her former teacher, Samella Lewis (1923–2022).