The Making of An Artist
Published on Black Art in America May 2019
By Curlee Raven Holton
David M.and Linda Roth Professor Emeritus of Art
Director David C. Driskell Center
Founding Director Raven Fine Art Editions
What does it take to make an artist?
My own experience.
My parents were both born on a farm in southern Mississippi who came north for opportunity for themselves and their children. My father made the trip north first determined to find work and a new home for his wife and children. My father arrived in Cleveland, Ohio where other family members had settled and found factory jobs. My mother followed by train with me as a baby in her arms and my siblings by her side.
My family settled on the West Side of Cleveland, a neighborhood predominately white. Beginning in elementary school my classmates were predominately white. I recall even as a young child I was able to draw horses and Abraham Lincoln better than anyone else in my class. It was during junior high school I met my first black artist, Nelson Stevens who happen to be my track coach. I was not aware of the role of black artists in our cultural life but I did recognize his pride in his appearance. He wore hand made Italian shoes and starched shirts with a tweed jacket. He walked with a graceful glide, that some referred to as a pimp’s stroll.
Later, when it came time for High School, I was among a small group of black children who met many challenges in 1960s and 70s by white teachers and white students and their parents who did not want us in their neighborhood, schools or in their environment. We survived this situation that some times turned violent because we had each other. We pushed ourselves to achieve distinction in the classroom—not just on the athletic field. We had pride in our selves and achieved not just for our race, but for our own academic abilities. We had one black teacher who taught us about Black History and natured our sense of identity and cultural pride.
For me, it was always the arts. I was one out of a small group of students, both black and white, who demonstrated talent in drawing and painting. As time went on, the art teachers identified us as a group that deserved their attention beyond the classroom. We did art that was displayed in the school for plays and special events. We competed in the National Scholastic Arts Program and continually won top prizes. This was a turning point for us.
This attention for my creative gifts brought me recognition from our fellow students as well as the most popular and attractive female students who other wise paid no attention to me.
Two of my (White) teachers made a larger investment in our education by organizing field trips to the east side to visit the Cleveland Art Museum.
The first trip to the Museum was like going to another country. We had to cross the West Side Bridge, a structure that divided the predominantly white West side from the predominantly black East side. All the major cultural institutions were located in University Circle, like the Cleveland Museum of Art, Severance Music Hall, and the Cleveland Institute of Art.
Institutions like the Cleveland Museum is where I saw art from around the world and interacted with other students and artists from the community. Before and after classes, I would wonder the Museum and would discover something new each time: the armor gallery, the Renaissance, 19th Century Modernists, Surrealists, Contemporary, African Art and the Asian and East Indian displays.
After my service in the US Army I began to attend classes at the local community college on the far west side of the city. I was walking down the hallway from my business administration class one day and was approached by Edward Parker who invited me to take a class with him. He taught ceramics and sculpture and once again was the only black professor at the school. Later Parker invited me to join an artists gathering he held at his studio/home each weekend. This is where I met other local African American artists including Micheal Harris who later became a note artist and art historian. It is also where I first learned about African American art history with my introduction to publications like James A. Porter Modern Negro Art and Black Artists in America magazine. It is also where I met the famous Harlem photographer James Van Der Zee.
After studying a year at the local community college I was accepted into the Cleveland Institute of Art where both Huge Lee Smith and Charles Sallee had been students.
During this same period I frequented the local cultural center Karamu House Settlement House where I had opportunities the exhibit my work with other black artists and where I met legendary figures like Gordon Parks and Romare Bearden.
While at the Cleveland Institute of art I studied with Moe Booker who was the only professor of color at the institute. I also worked Saturday’s teaching art to children at the Cleveland Museum of Art like many art students from the institute. It is there that I reconnected with my junior high school coach Nelson Stevens who had become an artist of
I graduated from CIA after going part time and full time over an 8 years period while supporting family. I went on to attend Kent State University where I pursued a MFA in printmaking. While a student I exhibited my own work at local and regional venues.
After receiving some level of attention for my work, I was recommended for consideration in a major exhibition being planned by the Museum which included a selection of work from fifteen artists selected by the curator.
The exhibition was titled “The Invitational: Artists of Northeastern Ohio” and opened on February 27 and continued until April 21, 1991. The Museum published a full color catalog, including interviews and statements by the participating artists.
The opening night of the “The Invitational: Artists of Northeastern Ohio” changed everything. The Director of the Museum, Evan Turner, was truly impressed by the diverse audience. My reply to the director’s statement was that when you invite the community and have artists that speak to their experiences and realities, they will come.
Later that evening, Dr. Turner held a private reception at his residence for the participating artists. As I was preparing to leave the reception, Mrs.Turner expressed her attraction to my work and asked her husband to take another look when he returned to the museum. A few days later I received a call about purchasing one of my works in the show for the museum’s permanent collection.
Around the same time period, I participated in a national fellowship program in New York City at the famous Robert Blackburn Print Worksop. While at the Workshop, I became a candidate for a position as an Assistant Professor at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. He was correct-- months later, I left Cleveland, Ohio as an Assistant Professor of Art at Lafayette and to continue my work at the Blackburn Printmaking Workshop.
My education at Cleveland Institute of Art and later at Kent State University guided by professors like Noel Riefel, gave me the tools and knowledge to develop my studio skills. as an artist. However it was the mentorship of black artists like, Ed Parker,Nelson Stevens, and Moe Booker who contributed greatly to my development and identity as an Black artist.
All these ingredients help make me the artist that I am and affirm that art was more than pretty pictures and statues--art could profoundly change lives.