David Driskell: African Inheritance

David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History is on view through January 9, 2022.

David Driskell was introduced to African art by pioneering artist and art historian James A. Porter at Howard University. Sojourns to Africa in 1969–70 and 1972 deepened his understanding and connection to West African art. In 1973 he addressed this influence directly: “I have turned my attention to images that reflect the exciting expression that is based in the iconography of African art. In so doing, I am not attempting to create African art, instead, I am interested in keeping alive some of the potent symbols that have significant meaning for me as a person of African descent.”

Driskell became a scholar of African art during his tenure at Fisk University in Nashville, where he oversaw an extensive African art collection. Integral to his life, African art graced the artist’s home and his studios. The role of African art in Driskell’s work is rarely one of direct quotation but rather a source of cultural memory and ancestral legacy.

David Driskell, Memories of a Distant Past, 1975, Egg tempera, gouache, and collage on paper, 21 1/2 x 16 in., Private collection © Estate of David C. Driskell

Memories of a Distant Past exemplifies the collage painting method Driskell favored in the late 1960s and 70s, achieving a harmonious orchestration of content and form, paint and collage. Pictorial collage fragments, deployed for pattern and shape, came from commercial print materials (Look magazine was a favorite), fabric, painted paper, and his own uneditioned prints. This painting repurposes material published in the January 7, 1969, edition of Look—a special issue: The Blacks and the Whites. Driskell used pictorial imagery from the essay titled “Black America’s African Heritage.”

David Driskell, Shango, 1972, Egg tempera and gouache on paper, 24 × 18 in., Collection of the Estate of David C. Driskell, Maryland © Estate of David C. Driskell. Photograph by Stephen Bates

Shango reimagines a Yoruba ritual object, specifically a carved dance wand (oshe shango), as a medieval or Byzantine icon. One of the principal Yoruba deities, Shango, who was known for a fiery temper, controlled thunder and lightning. The double-edged ax that appears above the figure’s head (and on carved dance wands) represents Shango’s lightning. Driskell was intimately familiar with Yoruba iconography from historical studies during his residency at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, in 1970.

Phillips-at-Home: Inspired by Nature with David Driskell and Alma W. Thomas

This Thanksgiving holiday, spend some time with art and nature with this family-friendly activity inspired by David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History and Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful.



Close your eyes and imagine your favorite place.

  • • How do you feel in that place?
  • • What colors would you use to describe it?



David Driskell was inspired by nature. Let your eyes wander over the two images.

  • • What do you notice?
  • • What are you curious about?
  • • How has the artist captured a sense of place?

David Driskell, Winter Tree, 1962, Encaustic on canvas, 52 1/4 x 42 3/8 in., James E. Lewis Museum of Art, Morgan State University, Baltimore; David Driskell, Pine and Moon, 1971, Oil on Masonite, 47 3/8 x 35 1/8 in., Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine, Museum purchase with support from the Friends of the Collection © Estate of David C. Driskell

Driskell grew up in rural Georgia and North Carolina. In his art, he turned to nature for inspiration. He recalls how his parents’ “great respect for nature” shaped his artistic practice. His father was a minister, farmer, and carpenter, who also kept a garden. His mother was a quilter and foraged for medicinal herbs in the nearby woods. When Driskell moved to the city, he brought this love of nature with him by growing gardens at his homes in Hyattsville, Maryland, and Falmouth, Maine. The “massive pines towering towards the sky” outside his studio window in Maine inspired his many paintings of pine trees.



David Driskell recorded his observations of the natural world in sketchbooks. On the page shown here, Driskell sketched a Magnolia tree, adding a description of its history and location.

David Driskell, pages from The Garden Book of Maryland and Maine, c. 1998, Bound journal, 10 × 8  ½ in., Photo: Gregory R. Staley. Courtesy of the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, College Park. Collection of the Estate of David C. Driskell, Maryland

By using our own paper or sketchbook, we can observe and record beauty in the world around us. Take a walk in your neighborhood. Find one thing that inspires you—a leaf, a rock, a crack in the sidewalk.

Look closely. Draw what you see.

  • • Why did you choose that object?
  • • What does your drawing make you think about?
  • • Write down your thoughts next to the drawing.

Check out these great sketches from a workshop at THEARC farm over the summer!



Alma Thomas was also inspired by nature. She loved to look out her windows from her home in Washington, DC, to see the leaves change color in the fall, “tossing in the wind as though they were singing and dancing.” Thomas used color and abstraction to capture the sense of a place.

Ida Jervis, Alma Thomas’s front window, with holly tree, c. 1971, Gelatin silver print, 7 x 5 in., Alma W. Thomas Papers, The Columbus Museum; Alma Thomas, Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers, 1968, Acrylic on canvas, 57 7/8 x 50 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of Franz Bader, 1976

Let’s experiment with abstracting the object from nature you just sketched. Try one of these approaches to make your drawing more abstract.

  • • Focus in on one section of the drawing and enlarge and/or crop it
  • • Color your drawing with non-representational colors
  • • Imagine how your drawing/object might look from really far away, up close, or through a kaleidoscope

Visit David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History (through January 9, 2022) and Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful (through January 23, 2022) for more inspiration!

DC-area educators respond to Alma Thomas (Part II)

Alma Thomas taught art at Shaw Junior High School for 35 years. She said: “I devoted my life to children and they loved me.” To honor and connect to Thomas’s career as a teacher, we asked DC-area educators to respond to works of art in Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful . These educators participated in the Phillips’s 2021 Summer Teacher Institute, exploring ways to adapt arts-integrated lessons to their students. Read their perspectives on how they personally connected to Thomas’s artworks.

Read more responses in Part I

Alma W. Thomas, Three Wise Men, 1966, Acrylic on canvas, 36 1/2 x 23 1/2 in., The Harmon and Harriet Kelley Foundation for the Arts

Gratitude. Purpose. Learning. These are the three most valuable points that resonate in me when I look at this painting. The wise men are the carrier of three beautiful gifts.
Gratitude. As I wake up each day, there are so many things that I am thankful for. Foremost, is the gift of LIFE, especially during these tragic times when many people all over the world are dying.
Purpose. In 2015, I had a major car accident while I was seven weeks pregnant. Miraculously, I did not have a single bruise or cut. Since then my purpose of having a second life is making people know that there’s an omnipotent power above us. That experience led me to prioritize making great memories with my family and friends.
Learning. Knowing that this world is so vast and limitless gives us the chance to explore and learn. In this lifetime, it is important to embrace our own beauty, develop our courage, enhance our relationships, and live our life with passion.

What are you hoping to gain from the three wise men?

—Irene De Leon, Service Coordinator / Early Childhood Special Educator, Judy P. Hoyer Early Childhood Center


Alma W. Thomas, Wind Sparkling Dew and Green Grass, 1973, Acrylic on canvas, 69 x 50 in., Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Indiana, Gift of Vincent Melzac, 1976.04

This expressionist abstract painting about nature connects us to a feeling of calm and peacefulness. “Sparkling dew” recalls memories of walking across a dew-filled morning lawn, while “wind” associates memories of raindrops running down a window pane. Irregular dabs of blues and greens further add to the qualities of tranquility. An educator by profession, Alma Thomas developed her iconic style in the 1960s, at the age of 69. She was fascinated by her observations of shifting light in her garden. She was also influenced by Claude Monet’s paintings. In her own words, her artwork was meant to evoke “the heavens and stars.” Thomas serves as an inspiring role model, reminding us that educators who are also artists can do both, and thrive, in any stage of life.

—Eileen Cave, Grades PK-6, Visual Art & Arts Integration Lead Teacher, Rosa L. Parks Elementary School