Painting Black Women From History, From the Heart
Back in the early 80’s, I left Columbus Ohio to attend College in Pueblo, Colorado. For the first time in my life I was around another culture besides Black and White people. I was exposed to Mexican Americans and Latino artists for the first time. My second semester of college I had to go into the military to pay for college. I lived off campus near downtown when I returned from Basic Training. It was a very hard time. I finally got a job at night at the mall. To make some extra money I entered a mural contest with local Mexican artists. We had to paint a mural on the vacant windows in the Vail Hotel. I was so poor that I didn’t have enough money for paint. I brought some food colors, Comet, and paper cups. I mixed the food color with the Comet and water. I painted a mural on the glass window of a Black woman standing tall. It was how I felt even though I had not eaten for a few days, I was tall inside.
An older white lady noticed my attempts to paint and befriended me. She invited me over for lunch at her shop. We became friends. Her name was Vadna Pomeroy. She had lived with Salvador Dali in Spain for several years. She exposed me to his art and style. She told me wild stories about visiting his castle. It was fascinating to hear such personal accounts of a renowned artist. My brother Charles Dillard had painted an imitation of his Persistence of Memory many years ago. It look identical to the original. Vadna encouraged me to keep doing my art because my struggle would define my paintings.
I was beginning to become enriched with the appreciation of art from other cultures. As I said, in Columbus there were only two kinds of people: Black and White. My artistic world was beginning to take on color as an artist. From Vadna’s encouragement I began studying Salvador Dali. I fell in love with his art. I understood more about his political pieces he painted. I was inspired. I discovered Diego Riviera later. Matisse and Edward Hopper became my favorite artists also. But I was still painting Black women but why? Why was I so driven to paint Black women? Why didn’t I start painting Cubism or Surreal art? I was inspired.. right?
The fact is I am a Black woman. I realize that these artists are like me because they painted who they were, what they saw, and their culture around them. I grew up with a strong Black mother (Louise Dillard). I had strong Black sisters. (Pinky, Wanda, and Darcel). I had strong Black aunts. I was tall inside because they made me tall.
I grew up seeing strong Black women artists around me. I recall curating a show at the recreation center in Columbus Ohio. I had to pick up art from Aminah Robinson from her house. I had the several pieces of art already on display. She lived down the street from by brother on Nelson road in Columbus. I pulled up to her house and she opened the door. I had known her a for a while from Ace Gallery, but I had not had the time to just talk to her one on one. She always wore such a bright warm smile. I spent about an hour or so talking art with her. She showed me a chair she had been carving that had her family history on it. She pulled out a book that was a 6’ scrap book of felts and fabrics that told the story of her son and family’s history. Woven in the book were photos, beads, cut outs, and designs that told a beautiful, abstract story of family. She expressed how she admired my work and we agreed to exchange pieces. She inspired me to be who I am and to tell my story. As an Artist she touched my life deeply.
Over the years I have tried to do just that. I try to tell in my art the story of Black women on wood, paper, and canvas. Our history is wide, deep, loving, and strong. It is full of faith, fears, peace, joys, and resiliency. This past year I discovered photos of Black women on the beaches in Asbury, New Jersey in 1908. It was a beach resort in the 1900’s for Blacks to swim at. It was segregated. Many of the pictures showed the joy of loving the sun on our beautiful golden skin. I also found photos of White women on the beach in the 1900’s. I replaced them with Black women to fill in my imagination of what it must have been like for them to swim also in a different section of the segregated beach.
Over the years I have done many series of paintings. Black women will always be a centerpiece in that body of work I am committed to creating. We are full, tall, short, light brown, dark brown, golden, red bone, bronze, bright, and caramel. Every painting I paint of Black women, there is a piece of me in it. In every hue of brown and depth of movement I found I added my self. They are me and I am them. From Sunday Morning hats to small Black girls on steps, I paint Black women from the heart, soul ,and spirit of who we are. In every stroke I feel our survival and our faith to endure. Dali, Diego, Hopper, and Matisse encouraged me to use my voice to our tell story…our story in paint as they told theirs. I paint what I see and feel in each historical Black photo I discover. Every day I wake up and look in the mirror, the brown skin around me reminds me… paint that Black woman you see. I have never painted a self-portrait, then again maybe I have….