Celebrating Black Artists

February is Black History Month. While we strive to celebrate diversity all year, I thought it was important to dedicate this month’s Artsy Crafty to a few of the black artists who have helped shape the American cultural experience.

Page from Freedom, A Fable by Kara Walker

Our library is a treasure trove of materials celebrating the lives and work of black artists. One of my personal favorites is a pop-up book housed exclusively in our art gallery. In Freedom, A Fable, Kara Walker uses cut paper silhouettes as the narrative to illustrate her own experience with racial identity in the American South. The Alice C. Sabatini Gallery regularly features paintings, sculptures and mixed media pieces created by diverse makers.

The gallery isn’t the only place to find information and works by notable artists at the library. Our nonfiction shelves offer an in-depth exploration of black American artists. Topeka’s own Aaron Douglas, a pioneer of the Harlem Renaissance, is a staple in both our Arts & Crafts and Biography wings. While I could devote a post a day to featuring different black artists to celebrate this for the sake of brevity here are three modern black American artists you can find on the shelves at the library.

Kerry James Marshall

A contemporary artist who works in paint, sculpture, collage, video and photography, Marshall uses his pieces to provide commentary on the history of the black identity both in the U.S. and in Western art. Marshall seamlessly melds traditional African artistic styles with modern techniques and subject matter. In 1997 Marshall received a MacArthur “genius grant.” In 2015’s Look See, readers are given a comprehensive glimpse into the ever evolving world of this dynamic artist.

School of Beauty, School of Culture: acrylic and glitter on unstretched canvas, 2012

Untitled 2009: acrylic on PVC panel

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Basquiat was only an active artist for eight years before his untimely death in 1988 at the age of 27. However, in that short time his powerful and controversial career made an unprecedented impact on the modern art world. Borrowing primarily from grafitti and cartoons, Basquiat translated relevant social issues into consumable art that could be accessed and appreciated by audiences of all social and financial backgrounds. Our collection offers both books and DVDs emphasizing why his paintings are still relevant today.

Untitled: oil stick, acrylic, and spray enamel on canvas, 1981

Untitled: mixed media on canvas, 1981

Thornton Dial

Lost Cows: cow bones and mixed media, 2001

Dial rose to prominence in the late 1980s through his unique exploration of topics like war, homelessness, poverty and racism. He mixed paint with found materials such as scrap metal, bones and garbage to create his art. Dial created large scale sculptural installations that forced his audience to reconsider the otherwise overlooked artifacts of blue collar American life. He differs from the other artists mentioned here in that he worked within the niche genre of “outsider art.” Outsider art is a form of expressionism that toes the line between the fine art of high end galleries and folk art found at local craft fairs. The featured image for this article includes a portion of his work “Stars of Everything.”

Everything is Under the Black Tree: paint on plywood, not dated

It is impossible to cover the breadth of impact black American artists have had on the art world in the United States in one article. While the booklist below is a great jumping-off point, it is only a small snapshot of what you can find at the library. Celebrate Black History Month with us by browsing our Arts & Crafts wing and taking in the rich, vibrant world of black American artists! As always, if you find your favorite artist or author is missing from our collections, let a staff member know so we can continue to help make everyone in our community feel represented.

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Emily Hopkins

Emily is a Public Service Specialist in the bookmobile dept. When not on a library vehicle, she can be found educating kids at local elementary schools. Known to many kids as, "The Bug Lady," Emily loves introducing children to her insect friends in the Going Buggy program. A Topeka native, Emily graduated from Washburn University with a bachelor's in Anthropology before completing her master's in Biological Anthropology at Portland State University. She has a deep love for both art and science, and tries to incorporate those interests into her work.