Honoring the Legacy of David Driskell

Parker is incredibly fortunate to have teachers that are not only masters in their fields, but also bring their individual passions and experiences to bear on their work with students. Because Parker teachers craft their own curriculums, our students get to benefit from the personally meaningful connections that each teacher brings to their work. This means that in addition to having their developmental and academic needs met, children also experience in real time what a life dedicated to service while following your own principles and passions looks like. This happens every year, and at every grade level, in Parker classrooms. 

This year, Parker art teacher Claire Sherwood experienced a close personal loss when her longtime mentor, David Driskell, died of coronavirus in April. Claire’s work has always been informed by her experiences working with Dr. Driskell. However, his death prompted a deep, personal reflection about his impact on her and others, and how she might celebrate and honor his life in her work this year with students. Please read on to hear more about Claire’s experience working with Dr. Driskell, and how he continues to inspire her work with Parker students.
How did you meet Dr. Driskell?

“I went to the University of Maryland for graduate school because I had a full fellowship that was supported by the David C. Driskell Center. I didn’t know much about him, other than his fellowship supported one female artist and one artist of color every year. I did make art that was feminist-based, so I figured I got the award because I am female sculptor, and I was working as a welder at the time. I went down to Maryland in 2001, just being thankful that I had a full ride, but not really thinking about the larger picture of what it would all eventually mean.”
Describe your experience working with Dr. Driskell through your fellowship?

“Well, I moved to Maryland, and my fellowship involved working at the Driskell Center, which at the time was in Dr. Driskell’s home. I had to go there two days a week and archive materials from his collection. I worked primarily with his daughter, Daphne Driskell Coles, who oversaw his legacy. I was working in his house though, so I also met and spent time with his whole family. Everyone was so welcoming and really sweet, and Dr. Driskell was wonderfully warm and polite.

In his house, Dr. Driskell had boxes upon boxes of letters, notes, history, and memorabilia — not to mention his art collection. My job was specifically to go through his letters, summarize them, and put them in a database. Most of these letters were from other African American artists that are really well-known. I started the archives in the 1960’s, so I ended up reading many firsthand accounts of the race riots, Dr. Driskell getting his first job, and people working through their thoughts on the civil rights movement. Dr. Driskell spoke very frankly in his letters, and so did the people who were writing to him — and it was all about race relations, their struggles, and questions about the art world. They were VERY personal letters, and they really opened my eyes to the importance of his legacy. At the same time, I lived in DC through 9/11, the DC sniper, and the arsenic poisoning in the US postal system. Similar to now, it felt like a very apocalyptic time, and woven into my processing of those events was all this new learning about racism, injustice, and equality. Through that experience, I got very ‘woke’, so to speak.”
What impact did your mentorship with Dr. Driskell have on you? 

“Working at the Driskell Center, I quickly saw that most of the artists I was being introduced to had never been covered in any of my art history lessons. It helped me realize that you always have to look outside the history books. That recognition formed the backbone of my resolve to focus on women and people of color through all of my teaching, and I have dedicated my career to highlighting those artists from that point on. That philosophy informs all of the work I do here at Parker. 

When Dr. Driskell passed away this year due to Covid, I started to think about how many lives he touched, how I would have never been able to afford graduate school without his legacy, and how important he was to the world. He changed so many people’s lives, and he was never given the chance to be celebrated.So I thought that this year, I had to do my own tribute to him and what I learned through him. That is why I decided to have the entirety of my curriculum this year focus on artists of color.”
Tell me about your curriculum this year at Parker?

“My middle school students started the year learning about Romare Bearden, who is most well-known for his collage artwork from the 1960’s. The kids learned how to collect visual materials that were interesting to them and how to organize such a wide array of ‘stuff’ into a cohesive composition. We then moved on to studying the portraiture of Kehinde Wiley, famously known for painting President Obama’s White House portrait. The kids researched Wiley’s artwork, created their own backgrounds by hand, and photographed themselves against a green-screen. Using technology, the students merged their two images together to create their own self-portrait. Following that, middle school students studied the sculpture work of Richard Hunt. Using wire, nylon, and paint, students created their own sculptures inspired by Hunt’s work. We then created cut paper art, inspired by the artist Kara Walker. Looking forward to spring, I plan to have my middle school students choose their own artist of color to research, ultimately creating a piece of art inspired by their artist’s work.”
“In the lower school, we started the year by studying artist Alma Thomas, who provided an excellent introduction to lines, color, and pointillism. From there, we moved on to studying art in picture books. The 3-4 class read Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin, which led us to study Chinese dragons. The kids learned why Chinese dragons are drawn differently from traditional dragons, how to draw them appropriately, and the importance of cultural symbols present in their representation. The 3-4s then illustrated their favorite passage from Lin’s book using print-making techniques. In the K and 1-2 classes, we read The Snowy Day, which was the first major children’s book to feature a non-caricatured black protagonist. We used this book to inspire creating accordion books and learning collage. The students are currently learning textural painting techniques, how to work with oil pastels, and how to cut paper to create 3D pop-ups. All of these skills will go into creating their final accordion book. Looking forward, I plan to have my K and 1-2 students study Karen Collins, an African American artist who creates pictorial views of black history through dioramas placed in shadow boxes. Using her techniques, they will create their own miniatures in shadow boxes to showcase projects they are currently working on in their classrooms.

School wide, I have also introduced artist Faith Ringgold, and we are using her concept of story quilts to inspire a whole-school project depicting our students’ experiences of school during the year of Covid. Our ‘quilt’ will be made from 4”x4” paper squares, each containing an individual illustration from each child in the school, reflecting on the past year and commemorating ways in which the pandemic has touched them on an individual level. This quilt will be on display, along with a collection of other Parker students’ artwork from this year, at the East Greenbush public library during the month of April.”