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Senior Women Web Interviews: Sharon Patton

by Mary McHugh

How well versed are you about African-American art? Senior Women Web wanted to inform readers and Mary McHugh interviewed one of the best sources on the subject: Sharon Patton, Director of the Allen Memorial Art Museum of Oberlin College and the author of African-American Art, published by Oxford University Press.

Dr. Sharon Patton said her knowledge of African-American art was limited until she went to Mankato State College in Minnesota in 1968 to teach art history and drawing when she was 24 years old. Her arrival at the college brought the total population of African-Americans in Mankato to six. An artist on the faculty said, Why dont you teach a course in African-American art? Sharons reaction was a surprised, Why should I do that? Art is art.

Think about it, said the faculty member. What African-American artists do you know? Sharon could name only a few, and her colleague suggested she read James Porters Modern Negro Art, just republished as a paperback.

I discovered there were all of these black artists of whom Id never heard, Sharon says, who had been trained at the best academies, received awards, were living here or as expatriates in Paris, who did all kinds of art. This has been missing from my education. Im going to teach this course. She included artists like Joshua Johnson, the first major painter of the early 19th century; Robert Duncanson and Henry Ossawa Tanner of the late 19th century; Meta Warrick Fuller, Aaron Douglas, Augusta Savage and Archibald Motley, who represented the Harlem Renaissance and its legacy; Hale Woodruff and Jacob Lawrence who represented modernism.

All my students were white, she says. I also had to explain black culture for them to understand why we see people dressed in a certain way, or looking a certain way. This was the start of a conviction that it's difficult to separate art from the culture which produced it. Dr. Patton chose Italian Renaissance Art as her masters thesis at the University of Illinois, Urbana and earned a doctorate in African Art History at Northwestern University .

Along the way, she has taught at Lake Forest College in Illinois, Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, the University of Houston, the University of Maryland, and the University of Michigan. Between the academic positions, she was Director of Galleries at Montclair State College in New Jersey and the Chief Curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, where she developed a skill for organizing and setting up exhibitions. That led to the directorship of the Center for Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan because she knew from experience the importance of role models and mentors for minorities and women.

I wanted to ensure that there were succeeding generations of art historians in the field of African and African-American art, she says. Two and a half years later she moved to her present position as Director of the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College.

Sharon Patton was born in Chicago 57 years ago and as a child, discovered she had a talent for drawing. But I didnt have any role models, she says, and I didnt think there was much you could do with art in terms of a career. I knew I didnt want to teach art classes in high school, but at Roosevelt University in Chicago, I saw professors of art and realized that was a profession I respected.

She wasnt sure how her parents would react to a career in the arts, but she remembers telling her mother, Our family isnt rich and I dont know if I will marry at all. Since I will probably work for the rest of my life, I might as well work at something I enjoy.

Sharon gives her parents credit for not making her think she was deranged for choosing a career in art. Particularly as a black person, she adds. She went to Roosevelt and received a bachelors degree in humanities with a concentration in studio art. She expected to use the degree to aid in becoming an artist, but she found it wasnt easy.

I could not find a job in art, she relates. I went to graphic design firms and advertising agencies, but they were horrid places with low pay and groping managers. Part of the problem was that as a woman, I was offered clerical and secretarial jobs. I was really discouraged, and called up my mother, crying, I cant find a job -- no one will hire me. Her mother was encouraging. Its not the end of the world, she said. With your interest in art history, maybe you should get a masters degree. At Urbana, her masters thesis was on Giorgione, an Italian Renaissance painter of the 16th century.

Then came Mankato and with it an awakened interest in African-American art and her first opportunity to teach the subject. I liked Mankato, she says, but I realized I couldnt spend my life there. A lot of single women were marrying truckers, and I really didnt want to do that. I realized I needed more than a masters degree, and went to the University of Chicago for a year to continue my studies of the Renaissance.

That was 1970, the height of the politicization of American culture -- black nationalism, black power, feminism, civil rights, flower power, anti-Vietnam War. There was revived interest in Africa and African culture, Sharon recalls. I thought, this Renaissance is not invigorating me intellectually, and looked about for an alternative. That alternative turned out to be Lake Forest College in Illinois, where students were demanding that their college provide a course in African-American art, which they felt was more relevant to them than traditional art courses. Sharon was hired to teach it. She was 28 years old, in the middle of a sea change in American education, and ready for a change herself.

It was the best African-American art course I ever taught, she says. Both black and white students just absorbed all the material I could give them. I helped organize a community art exhibition and an artist panel representing black nationalist art, traditional figurative art and abstraction (Nelson Stevens, Reginald Gammon and Emilio Cruz). I had introduced my students to contemporary artists who lived in the area like Richard Hunt at the Southside Community Art Center in Chicago, and I encouraged them to interview artists in their own states. They discovered artists I didnt know.

After Lake Forest, she went to the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, where she again taught Renaissance art. There she became interested in African art and realized there was meaning to it. When I took a course in African art at Roosevelt University, the professor said, Theres nothing you can learn about African art. All the great African art is in the past and because there is no written record in Africa, it is impossible to retrieve any information about meaning and symbolism for very old African art objects, and so we should look at African art merely as aesthetic objects. I was really put off by that because I like to look at the way art represents culture.

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