Riffs and Relations: Shaping the DC Landscape

During and after the Great Depression and World War II, when fewer museums dotted the local landscape, Duncan Phillips (1886–1966) joined forces with cultural leaders like James V. Herring (1887–1969) who opened the Howard University Gallery of Art in 1930, and Alonzo J. Aden (1906–1961), who with Herring in 1943 opened in their home the Barnett Aden Gallery, the first black-owned commercial art space in the US.

Herring and Aden championed Phillips’s efforts to bring modernism to a wider audience. They valued his emphasis on the innate visual relationships found in art, and his belief that works should be displayed in intimate settings, ideas they interpreted in their galleries. As they developed their collections, Phillips, Herring, and Aden supported many of the same artists and acquired examples of their work. They crossed racial boundaries, forged collaborations, exchanged art loans, and fortified a professional and collegial relationship. Together, they endorsed local artists and incorporated diverse voices, helping to make art more accessible and shaping the cultural landscape of this city.

Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition features several artists associated with these three cultural institutions:

David C. Driskell, Still Life with Sunset, 1966, Oil on canvas, 48 x 32 in., Collection of Joseph and Lynne Horning

David C. Driskell studied art at Howard University and Catholic University. While at Howard, he began visiting The Phillips Collection, where he enjoyed seeing in the galleries works by American and European modern painters. Driskell recalled his early visits: “I just felt a sense of welcome there . . . Washington was still a segregated city [but] . . . I felt accepted at the Phillips . . . [I would] walk down the hall and see a Cézanne, and a Rouault, and come down the steps, and there would be [a] Marjorie Phillips . . . and [a] Pippin . . . I could go there and see great art and feel I might become part of this.” Driskell would later bring his Howard art students through the galleries of the Phillips.

Alma Thomas, Watusi (Hard Edge), 1963, Acrylic on canvas, 47 5/8 x 44 1/4 in., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, Gift of Vincent Melzac, 1976

Alma Thomas, the first fine arts graduate of Howard University, accompanied Driskell on visits to the Phillips, especially on Sundays for the concerts. They became associated with a new generation of artists encouraged by the cooperative interactions of Washington’s cultural leaders. After graduating from Howard, Thomas began teaching art at Shaw Junior High School. She brought students to various cultural institutions, including the Central Public Library, the Smithsonian, the Corcoran, and the Phillips. In the 1950s and 60s, the large-scale abstractions by Washington Color School painters—Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, Morris Louis, and later Thomas and Sam Gilliam—permeated the local art scene. Phillips, Herring, and Aden promoted, collected, and exhibited works by these artists.

James Lesesne Wells, Primitive Girl, 1929, linoleum cut, 7 ½ x 7 in., David C. Driskell Collection, Permanent loan to the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, College Park

Renowned for his work during the Harlem Renaissance, James Lesesne Wells was also an educator, painter, printmaker, and designer who mentored many students during his 39-year tenure at Howard University in the art department. Primitive Girl shows the artist’s engagement with African art and expressionist printmaking techniques. Phillips acquired Wells’s Journey to Egypt in 1931, making it the first work by an African American artist to join the museum’s collection.

James Lesesne Wells, Journey to Egypt, 1931, Oil on canvas mounted on cardboard, 13 3/8 x 15 7/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1931


Loïs Mailou Jones, Place du Tertre, 1938, Oil on canvas, 18 1/4 x 22 5/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1944

In 1930, James V. Herring recruited Loïs Mailou Jones to teach at Howard University, where she would remain an art instructor for the next 47 years. In 1937, she received a yearlong fellowship that brought her to Paris, where she painted still lifes, portraits, and street scenes in an Impressionist style like this example. She began exhibiting her art at the Phillips in the 1940s during the Christmas Sales Exhibitions, which premiered the work of local artists, who received all proceeds from the sales. Jones, who was friendly with Phillips, felt that these shows provided “a wonderful opportunity for young artists to exhibit in a first-class gallery.”

In this spirit, we invite Howard University students and staff to visit Riffs and Relations for free on Saturdays and Sundays with Howard ID.

Prism.K12: We get to be the artist!

From October 2019 through February 2020, teachers from Maryland and DC participated in an arts integration course offered by the University of Maryland and The Phillips Collection. “Connecting to the Core Curriculum” provides PK-12 educators with the opportunity to blend the visual arts seamlessly into the core curriculum, using The Phillips’s Prism.K12 arts integration strategies and resources. The course culminated in an exhibition of student artwork Energizing Education: Teaching through the PRISM of Arts Integration, on view through April 5, 2020. Teacher Kory Sutherland shares her experience in the course.

I found out about The Phillips Collection’s Arts Integration class through an email that I almost didn’t open. I’m so glad I did because “Connecting to the Core Curriculum: Building Teacher Capacity for Arts Integration with Prism K-12” is a gem of a class that I can’t speak highly enough about. Co-taught by Hilary Katz of the Phillips and Kenna Hernly of the University of Maryland, the class is designed to support teachers in teaching with and through the arts. The group of teachers in this year’s cohort represented a wide range of subjects, grades, and abilities, from PreK through high school. Together we learned how to use art as an entry to other subjects by exploring the Phillips’s galleries, reading articles, and creating lessons. We practiced slow looking techniques, made blackout poetry, tried blind contour drawing, and, my favorite, we created stop-motion animation videos. With this time and guidance we were able to better understand what arts integration is, what resources are available, and how we can best bring these exciting techniques to our own classrooms.

Kory Sutherland (right) with other UMD-Phillips Prism.K12 participants learn how to use stop-motion animation. Photo: Travis Houze

I’m a teacher at Temple Emanuel’s Early Childhood Center in Kensington, Maryland, so I don’t fit into the target demographic for the class. For my students the languages of painting, building, and sculpting often come more easily than spoken language. We are a Reggio Emilia-inspired school, so my students have a lot of practice representing their thoughts visually. Incorporating art into an early childhood setting is a natural fit but this class helped me to elevate our learning to another level. When I showed my three-year-old students the work of contemporary artist John Grade, they were eager for more. Looking at Grade’s work Middle Fork, a 150-foot replica of a Western Hemlock tree, we found the values of collaboration, teamwork, and care of the natural environment. After learning about how Grade and his team worked together, we used Prism.K12 strategies Connect and Express to create our own large-scale sculpture of wooden blocks, “A Gathering Place for Foxes.” Through the process of building we measured tree stumps, wondered if wood is alive or had blood, learned about foxes, and imagined what animals would need to feel comfortable and happy in an environment designed for them. The children ended up expressing their ideas by adding snacks, internet, and plumbing to the structure, as well as places “for animals to play and be cozy.” My students envisioned the structure, problem-solved, and then brought it to life, inviting other children, teachers, and parents to help along the way. A students said, “We’re working like the artist! We get to be the artist!” This is the kind of connection that I’m looking forward to seeing more of as I continue my arts integration path. I can hardly wait to continue my class’s study of trees and forests by introducing them to other artists.

A Gathering Place for Foxes created by Temple Emanuel’s Early Childhood Center students

For my colleagues with older students, an interdisciplinary approach to teaching is less common. Throughout the 12-week class I loved hearing about the range of projects they came up with. To name a few examples, students learned about dance, math, architecture, fashion, heroes, and family history. At one point, a classmate remarked that using art to teach AP World History changed the entire mood of his class, taking pressure off of his students while not sacrificing any of the rigor of the lesson. Another classmate described the pure delight of her students as they worked together to build robots and write code to make them draw in novel ways. Giving students an opportunity to work collaboratively was a benefit that many of the teachers described as an unexpected bonus to their projects, encouraging communication and mutual respect. To me, the examples of my colleagues show the promise of what art can do to spark teaching that is dynamic, engaging, and inclusive. I’m proud of what we achieved together and I hope you enjoy the richness of our community exhibition. 

A Gathering Place for Foxes created by Temple Emanuel’s Early Childhood Center students

A Gathering Place for Foxes created by Temple Emanuel’s Early Childhood Center students

Migration, Identity, and #Panel61

Kelly O’Brien teaches African American History at The Milton Hersey School in Hershey, Pennsylvania. This year, her class once again studied the Great Migration and used the Phillips’s Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series website as a resource, including imagining what Panel 61 of the series would look like. Explore their artworks and read about how Ms. O’Brien’s class learned from Lawrence’s artwork.

Three photographs of high school students creating #Panel61

Students creating #Panel61

As in recent years, we spent time in a unit in our African American history class on “Migration and Identity” examining the impact of era after Reconstruction where people of color fled the South in search of lives elsewhere. In this particular lesson, we study Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and the story that the panels tell about the causes and effects of the migration, the hardships, and the resiliency of those who travelled. After our lesson, students are prompted to create the #Panel61 as described on the Phillips’s website. They are given prompts to push them to consider the effects of the Migration including:

• How has the Great Migration had a lasting effect on Americans today?
• How has the Great Migration affected American communities in the present?
• What has been the impact of the Great Migration on race relations in the United States?
• What were/are the positive or negative impacts of the migration on African Americans from the South?

Two photos of high school students creating #Panel61

Students creating #Panel61

It’s always fascinating to see the various student interpretations of these questions. Some take a more historical standpoint, exhibiting the factors from which migrants fled and the positives effects of their Northern move. Some look more into the modern day. Still even with this standpoint, students have both negative and positive views of what this movement has meant for people of color. For example, some of the Panel61s exhibit ideas of modern politics, some about socioeconomic standing, some regard culture or self-identity. All of the students’ views are valid because these are the experience of people of color across America. All have resulted because of a mass migration that occurred in our recent past. We must always acknowledge how our past shapes our present and the students are keen to do that in their work.

View the students’ artwork at the Phillips’s Migration Series website and read about their inspiration