As an artist, David Driskell saw his expressive figurative paintings enter into prestigious museums and collections across the country. As a collector and curator, he helped to shape the story of African American art and carve out its central place in the telling of American history. Yet Driskell may have found his truest calling as a mentor.

Driskell, who died on April 1 at 88 due to complications caused by COVID-19, guided students and artists in the D.C. area for decades. The Hyattsville resident served for more than 20 years as a faculty member at the University of Maryland, where the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora was named in his honor in 2001.

His former students spoke in gratitude about their relationship with Driskell, whose work as a mentor often extended beyond the classroom.

“When people took art classes from David, even if they did not become art curators or scholars or artists themselves, they always kept an appreciation for art,” says Tuliza Fleming, interim chief curator of visual arts for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “I’ve run into a lot of people who have said, ‘Oh, yes, I took a class with David. I never forgot it.’”

Fleming grew up with Driskell’s work: Her parents bought one of his pieces, a painting of a Yoruba deity, the year before she was born. She says that she first met Driskell when he gave a lecture at Spelman College, when she was a student there. His door was always open, Fleming says, when she was a graduate student at the University of Maryland, College Park, and she even vacationed with Driskell’s family at his summer home in Falmouth, Maine.

Later in life, as a curator with the Smithsonian Institution, Fleming purchased “Behold Thy Son” (1956), perhaps Driskell’s best-known painting, a pietà scene that depicts the Virgin Mary cradling the mutilated body of a slain Emmett Till. It was her first acquisition for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where the painting is still on view.

While Driskell was a formidable presence as a scholar and curator—his name is attached to more than 40 museum catalogs—he conducted a lot of his work as a mentor in his garden. That’s where Jefferson Pinder, a performance artist and the interim dean of faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, says he got to know Driskell. While he’d taken classes with him as a young student at Maryland, he didn’t recognize the man for his accomplishments until later.

“When I got back to D.C., I said, ‘I want to be your guy.’ He said, ‘I’ve got some weeds that have grown really high in the backyard, and I could use some help cutting them down,’” Pinder says. “That pretty much was the start. I didn’t know any African American artists his age who had been doing it for that long. He lifted the hood for me. This is how it’s done.”

Driskell was famed for his work as a naturalist; spirituality and nature are persistent themes in his work. One of his most popular classes at Maryland involved making pigments from natural materials. Driskell’s personal botanical garden featured exotic flora from clippings he acquired all over the world. He liked to host, and his household was a refuge to many. Pinder says that Driskell approached the study of art as a priestlike calling, and that he was a source of stability for artists who thought they wanted to be the next Basquiat

“I was in his garden once and Questlove was just passing through,” Pinder says. “How the hell does Dr. Driskell know Questlove? Questlove came by for his gumbo.”

Renée Stout, a painter and sculptor based in D.C., says that she never studied with Driskell but nevertheless cherishes a handful of encounters with him as high points in her career. One time, in the early 1990s, Driskell visited her home as the companion of an art historian who was there to interview her. Stout says she had a Casio keyboard set up in her living room; Driskell sat down and played it throughout the meeting. Years later, in 2010, she received an award in his name: The David C. Driskell Prize, a prestigious honor bestowed by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

“I’m a believer that when people enter spaces, they leave a part of their essence that can remain forever, so afterward, I always remembered that day as a special day where my home had been imbued with the energy of Dr. Driskell’s music,” Stout says.

Driskell was deeply involved in the arts in D.C. even as a student, according to Dorothy Kosinski, the director and CEO of the Phillips Collection. She says that when she first started out at the museum, Driskell shared with her his memories of the museum’s founder and namesake, Duncan Phillips, whom Driskell came to know when he was an undergraduate at Howard University. (He earned a master’s degree from Catholic University in 1962.) Driskell advised the Phillips Collection on its presentation of Jacob Lawrence’s masterpiece, The Migration Series.

Next, the Phillips Collection will host a traveling retrospective of Driskell’s work. David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History will assemble more than 50 years of the artist’s prints, drawings, and paintings. The retrospective—which is being organized by the High Museum and Maine’s Portland Museum of Art—will survey his works on landscape, civil rights, the Southern black experience, and the black Christian church. High Museum curator Michael Rooks, noting Driskell’s distinguished historian career, says that “his work as an artist has been no less influential.”

Driskell cast a long shadow. Fleming says that he carried forward the work of James A. Porter, the legendary Howard scholar (and Driskell’s mentor) who founded the study of African American art with his book Modern Negro Art. Driskell’s landmark 1976 exhibition for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Two Centuries of Black American Art, further expanded the field. “He used to talk about how you could read all the books that had been written about African American artists on a Sunday afternoon,” Pinder says.

Driskell’s work was not received with universal praise. In 1977, when Two Centuries of Black American Art traveled to the Brooklyn Museum, the conservative essayist Hilton Kramer, then chief art critic for The New York Times, dismissed the show as “social history.” Driskell was invited on the Today show, where he outlined a progressive view of art as a document of social history. “Hilton Kramer?” Driskell said to host Tom Brokaw. “What does he know about black art?” 

“He could pilot the plane and fix the engine at the same time,” Pinder says. “He understood the mechanism of the field and he was also a participant.”

For all his towering achievements as a painter and historian, many will remember Driskell for his Southern manner, his generosity, and his touch as a gardener. Pinder calls him “a role model of all role models.”

“The Hank Willis Thomases, the Sanford Biggers, myself—all these young artists were looking to that next generation,” he says. “He was a paternal figure who was going to show you the way in this contemporary art world.”

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