A Tribute to David C. Driskell (1931-2020)
April 1, 2020 – The country has lost an influential figure and the Institute has lost a wonderful friend. David C. Driskell died last week at age 88.
Dr. Driskell was born in Georgia, grew up in North Carolina, attended Howard University, and lived most of his life in the Washington D.C. suburbs with his wife of 68 years, Thelma. They spent summers at their home and art studio in Falmouth, Maine.
His career spanned nearly 70 years and his work was not limited in terms of artistic medium nor subject matter. He was an artist, curator, researcher, professor, and international lecturer. He was an extraordinary painter, printmaker, and collagist. And he wrestled with the subjects of history, spirituality, jazz, nature, and far more.
In recognition of his achievements, President Bill Clinton presented Driskell with the National Humanities Medal in 2000, and in 2005 the High Museum of Art in Atlanta established the David C. Driskell Prize, the first national award to recognize contributions to the field of African American art and art history. In 2018, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
He was a devoted Christian. He and his family were members of Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington. The sanctuary bears two large stained glass windows that he designed.
Driskell was a generous friend of the Institute. In 2010, he participated in an event at which one of his protégés, Dr. Adrienne Childs, interviewed him extensively about his life and work and then invited an audience of about fifty Institute donors to ask him questions. His generosity of spirit was on full display. In addition to the time his shared on that Saturday afternoon, he took the time to produce 32 copies of one of his recent works. Mask and Urban Man is a handcolored woodcut that he printed on rice paper. It had been featured earlier that year in an exhibition at the York College Art Galleries in York, Pa.
In 2012, several of Driskell’s pieces were made available for purchase at an event at the home of Ronald Gault and Charlayne Hunter-Gault on Martha’s Vineyard. Driskell dedicated some of the proceeds to the Institute.
On several occasions, he hosted Institute scholars at the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora at the University of Maryland College Park and spoke with them about a wide range of issues. Other notable figures who have engaged the scholars every year include General Colin Powell and Congressman John Lewis. Those conversations were important contributions to the scholars’ cultural and historical grounding.
Two Institute alumni were especially close to him. Because of his passion for matters of faith, history and art, Elijah Heyward ’04 became of friend and confident. Elijah has earned a PhD in American Studies and is the chief operating officer at the International African American Museum, currently under construction in Charleston, S.C. Brandon Harris ’13 is the senior minister at People’s Congregational United Church of Christ and pastor to the Driskell family. He will officiate Driskell’s funeral and memorial service.
A bio may be found at http://www.driskellcenter.umd.edu/about/dcd.php.