African-American Visions: Catalog

Susan Rankaitis, Samella LewisSamella AP — Samella Lewis, Abstract Painter 2011
By Susan Rankaitis

Samella AP 2011 is a far different portrait of the artist than I had originally envisioned. Like Samella, I was a product of research university art training: Samella at Hampton Institute and Ohio State; I at the University of Illinois in Champaign and USC. We both studied drawing and painting, which meant taking a great many technically-oriented painting courses and spending long hours drawing figures from life. That Samella was gifted became clear at a very early age, but she also worked with an unremitting diligence that has not slackened over the years. Today, her work continues to evolve and influence other artists. She is held in high esteem for her figurative drawings, paintings and prints in particular. When I proposed making a small portrait of Samella for an exhibition in her honor, I was certain that it would be a drawing, probably based on memory: a small homage to this compelling visual artist, art historian, curator and teacher.

In planning the work, I remembered a visit to Samella’s studio with some of her other Scripps admirers, and how fascinated I was with her recent abstract paintings in progress. I recalled passages of color in the works, breathtaking in their simultaneous expression of light and darkness, softness and weight, motion and stillness. This type of exploration aligned with my own lifelong questions about borders and the exact apex between various “supposeds” contrasting: abstraction and realism; war and peace; art and science; absence and presence.

Thus, the idea of Samella AP or Abstract Painter emerged. My portrait would be a conversation, artist to artist, about painting, about abstraction and, from my end, an appreciation of her strength and wisdom as well. Planning this piece as a surprise to her, I didn’t want to photograph Samella, for she would clearly suspect something. So I contacted Judy Harvey Sahak, the Denison librarian, who rifled the Scripps archives for pictures of Samella that were part of her life as a professor at Scripps College. I manipulated and fused the images that hover amidst my organic passages, riffing on Samella’s use of form and color. The very young and iconic portrait of Samella circa 1944 had to be included in the work because of the strength and resolve of her gaze. Also looking out of the work is Professor Lewis, whose gaze is no less intense but also conveys her wisdom and kindness. These were characteristics that were impossible for me to draw.

I spent about three months making Samella AP last summer in our Upland studio. Veering from my usual palette of blacks, whites, grays, golds and silvers, I moved into the reds, yellows, oranges and greens that I remembered from the paintings in Samella’s LA studio. I thought a great deal about Samella’s transitions between colors in her work—something that was difficult for me to emulate. I used thin washes of color that referenced the way she smoothly negotiated passages within a primary or secondary color. Ultimately, I had to stop looking at Samella’s work and simply begin working with the memory of that day in her studio. I made visual reference to some of the high contrast structural devices that Samella often uses to frame figures, particularly in her drawings and prints.

It was then I connected with something that had linked us, something I had not anticipated would enter into my portrait: our love of Chinese art. My “period” is the Song Dynasty, an era when painters went out into the landscape, spending a great deal of time watching, looking closely and contemplating what they saw before returning to the studio to paint what they had sensed, absorbed, felt. This attitude toward working guided me through the process of making the piece, although I wished that Samella had been there so I could have queried her about what initially drew her to Chinese art.

I end in thanking Dr. Samella Lewis for the gift of her body of artwork and her art history books—in short, for everything that she stands for and believes in. I also thank Alison Saar, Mary MacNaughton, Linda Scott, Nancy Bekavac, Nancy Ambrose, Rita Roberts, Cecilia Conrad, Jacqueline Avant and our newer Samella Lewis Committee members for making certain that Samella Lewis, via the Samella Lewis Collection of Contemporary Art at Scripps, will now have even deeper roots at Scripps College and our larger academic and art communities.

— Susan Rankaitis, Scripps College, May 2012