At 94 years old, Dr. Samella Sanders Lewis’ long, rich life holds many accomplishments: four degrees, five films, seven books, and countless works of art in many mediums. She is the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate in fine art and art history, which was groundbreaking for many who aspired for higher education. She has taught in several universities, and her art has inspired generations.
Dr. Lewis was born February 27, 1924 in New Orleans, Louisiana, and grew up in a small town fifty miles outside the city center. Her mother left when Samella was 4 years old, and after observing artists in the French Quarter of New Orleans, she turned to art as an outlet for her difficult life. She was interested in subjects “as diverse as police brutality against African Americans, comic books, and characters from her older sister’s romance novels.”
Samella was a high school honors student, and attended college at Dillard University on a scholarship. There, she met graphic artist and sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, a professor who became Samella’s friend and mentor. “My imagination just went wild when I was with Elizabeth,” Samella said, “because she had such an imagination herself.”
After two years at Dillard, Samella transferred to Hampton Institute in Virginia, and in 1945, she earned her BA in art history. She went on to Ohio State University, first earning her MA in 1948, and then a double doctorate in art and art history in 1951. She was the first African-American woman to receive those doctorate degrees.
In the 1960s, Samella became involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Once she was on a bus with Elizabeth Catlett, and during the ride, Elizabeth threw the “coloreds” sign off the bus. “I was in a lot of those situations,” Samella said.” The governor was after me in the state of Florida because I was preaching anti-segregation, and so I was a troublemaker they said.”
Samella created some art about the Civil Rights Movement, but most of her art came from her experiences and feelings about the world and people. She created deeply personal lithographs, screen prints, oil pastel drawings, and paintings. Her art is striking, with bold use of color or black and white. She never starts with sketches, either. “I put something on the canvas, and I move from that. I don’t pre-judge or pre-do anything.”
After earning her doctorate, Samella started teaching at Morgan College, during which time she married Paul Gad Lewis, a math and computer teacher, and had two children. She became the chair of the fine arts department at Florida A&M University, where she organized the National Conference of Artists, the first professional conference for African-American artists. Her career then took her to State University of New York Plattsburg, where she became interested in Chinese and Asian art, and won a fellowship to travel and study art history in Taiwan.
Upon Dr. Lewis’s return to the United States, she moved to Los Angeles and worked as a professor of art history at Scripps College. She was the first tenured African-American professor, and went on to help found the Museum of African-American Art in LA. She also published a textbook called Art: African American. She has won prestigious awards, including the Charles White Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993 and the UNICEF award for the Visual Arts in 1995. She also has a scholarship and art collection in her name at Scripps.
It is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to show the true beauty of such an incredible person or quantify her contributions and far-reaching influence in just one article. I wish I could have talked with Dr. Lewis personally, but this video was a close second.
She is gentle and humble, and it is obvious in her manner that everything she has done has been both deeply personal, and in the interest of making life better for the African-American community. She has a deep and quiet passion for art; her home is full of her large art collection, including her own and many pieces by other famous artists. She has a soft, happy laugh and fun sense of humor, and talks about her experiences with optimism and hope. Samella Lewis is a sweet example of what is possible through hard work, confidence in your abilities, and belief in a cause that is greater than yourself.