Maya Angelou Joins Our Samella Lewis Contemporary Art Collection

Chester Higgins Jr., Maya Angelou, 1970, Gelatin silver print, Purchase, Samella Lewis Contemporary Art Collection


In 2007, Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Director of the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, Mary MacNaughton ’70, artist Alison Saar ’78, and Professor Emerita Susan Rankaitis, created the Samella Lewis Contemporary Art Collection. The collection was formed in honor of Dr. Lewis’ seminal career as an esteemed artist, curator and art historian, visionary museum founder, and celebrated professor emerita. Dr. Lewis taught at Scripps from 1970 to 1984 and mentored such students as the late Polly Nooter Roberts, former curator of African Art at LACMA, and artist Alison Saar.

Dr. Lewis forged a path of many firsts in the United States: first Black woman to earn a doctorate in fine art and art history, first founder of an African American-owned publishing house, first author of a textbook on African American art, and first tenured Black professor at Scripps College. In honor of Dr. Lewis’ birth month which is also Black History Month, this February we’ve acquired a glowing portrait of Maya Angelou photographed by Chester Higgins Jr.

Maya Angelou (1928-2014) and Samella Lewis (b. 1924) knew each other well, with Dr. Lewis bringing Angelou to campus for lectures. 1970, when this photograph was taken, was a pivotal year for both women’s careers – Dr. Lewis began teaching at Scripps and Angelou’s first published memoir garnered global acclaim.

“Maya Angelou had just completed her first memoir, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” notes photographer Chester Higgins Jr., “when I visited her in 1970. I was captivated by the calm confidence of this emotionally secure woman. In my work, I always seek out the expression of the spirit. And for portraits, questions help establish a bridge. On this day, the bridge turned out to be Maya’s experience living in Ghana. As she wove spell-binding tales, the joy brought on by her recollections disclosed a life lived fully. Her face and hands expressed it all.”

Williamson Gallery Director Mary MacNaughton shares that “it is a pleasure to honor Dr. Lewis’ rich teaching career at Scripps with the acquisition of Chester Higgins’ vibrant portrait of Maya Angelou. This work perfectly complements Dr. Lewis’ earlier gift to Scripps of a special artist’s book entitled Music Deep Rivers in My Soul, written by Maya Angelou, illustrated by Dean Mitchell, and with music composed by Wynton Marsalis. Higgins’ unforgettable image enhances the growing Scripps portrait collection of creative leaders.”

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill,

Of things unknown, but longed for still,

And his tune is heard on the distant hill,

For the caged bird sings of freedom.

-Maya Angelou, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

Art is not a luxury as many people think – it is a necessity. It documents history – it helps educate people and stores knowledge for generations to come.

-Dr. Samella Lewis