Bearing Witness: Contemporary Works by African American Women Artists

By Jontyle Theresa Robinson | Go to book overview
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Spelman College Museum of Fine Art

IT IS no mistake that the exhibition, "Bearing Witness: Contemporary Works by African American Women Artists," was conceived at Spelman College, for it is here that creative African American women have been nurtured for 115 years. From the beginning, the visual arts have played a significant role in the intellectual growth of Spelman students. As the institution developed, its educational emphasis shifted from missionary, nursing, and domestic training to teacher training, to industrial arts education (concentrating in home economics), to collegiate liberal arts education. Embedded in each of these paradigmatic shifts, however, were fine art courses designed to enhance these academic frameworks.

First graduating class of Spelman Seminary, 1887. Spelman College archival photograph.

During Spelman's formative years ( 1881-1892), drawing classes were offered in conjunction with penmanship lessons.) 1 Educators believed that the free movement associated with drawing improved gross and fine muscle coordination, thereby greatly enhancing handwriting. 2 After the turn of the century, penmanship-associated drawing was abandoned in favor of an introductory art course, offered by the home economics department, which concentrated on the study of form and color. 3 The academic year of 1899-1900 also witnessed the birth of Spelman's first museum. Reverend J. M. Lewis, an American missionary who worked with several college alumnae in West Africa, donated his collection of stuffed birds from the Americas and Africa, as well as a few art objects to Spelman. These items, along with artifacts from the Holy Land provided by the college's founding president, Sophia B. Packard, were placed in classroom cases across the campus to function as teaching aids. 4 As a result, the practice of using art and artifacts to augment learning became part of the teaching strategy at Spelman.

By 1916, the school's interest in missionary training was overshadowed by a rising interest in industrial arts education. This shift in the curriculum was encouraged by white philanthropic organizations that believed vocational training would best prepare African American women for family life, teaching, and domestic careers. 5 Among the new courses being offered in this industrial arts phase was bench work -- a class that taught wood- working skills. In addition to carpentry, the program offered an evening printing course to working women. 6 Although industrial arts education would continue to dominate the curriculum until the early 1930s, Spelman College hired its first professionally trained artist in


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