David Driskell - artist, educator and collector of African-American art - grew up in Cleveland County where his father was a pastor at two rural Baptist churches and also farmed cotton and grew sweet corn and tomatoes.
His memory - and feeling - for that long-ago boyhood shines in "Echoes," one of more than 60 prints in an exhibit opening Friday at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Art + Culture uptown.
He depicts a winged black angel hovering over a modest wooden church with bell and steeple. Growing wildly around it are plants of every description in pinks, blues and orange - a riotous burst of life and spirit.
Such bits of biography run through "Evolution: Five Decades of Printmaking by David C. Driskell," as well as influences from African and 20th-century art. Put together by the Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, where he is art professor emeritus, the exhibit charts the artist's growth as a printmaker of still-lifes, portraits, figure studies and nature scenes.
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Considering himself primarily a painter, Driskell resisted the idea of a print show. But when curator Adrienne Childs talked about how he had made prints continuously for half a century, he gave in. "Printmaking has gotten a hold on me," he said in a telephone interview.
It began at Howard University in Washington, D.C., in the 1950s.
Accepted at Shaw University in Raleigh and given a $90 scholarship, he impulsively headed for Howard with $11 in his pocket, although he hadn't been accepted and the term had begun.
"If you did that today, they'd call security," he said.
They took him in, and in a class with James Wells, an innovative printmaker, he made his first print. In the exhibit, it shows him and his wife, Thelma, in an academic setting. Notice the books on a pedestal, a paean to learning. This piece has some awkward passages, but next to it are two self-portraits in woodcut from 2004 executed with confidence.
Here is an artist who evolved and grew.
Driskell, who will be 80 next year, has had a wide-ranging career in African-American art.
In 2002, the Mint Museum exhibited works from his collection, and he showed paintings at a local gallery. He also advised performer Bill Cosby and his wife, Camille, on art collecting.
As an artist, he came of age in the '50s, absorbing the trends of the times: a revived interest in African art, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism.
Although he developed his own vision, Driskell was touched by it all. The influence of African sculpture shows in "Bakota Girl" and "Benin Woman," two of several monumental portraits of women.
Africa and Cubism mix in "The Dancer," a bold figure study. "Reclining Nude" echoes Matisse. And the figures in "Figures in the Rain" are obscured by the kinds of gestural marks favored by abstract painters.
Another influence was renowned artist and Charlotte native Romare Bearden, who worked in collage and prints. Friends, he and Driskell swapped stories about growing up in North Carolina.
Driskell said he admired Bearden's touch, how he "tried to render something quickly and at the same time with a freshness of form. I learned so much from him."
A sure touch and a willingness to try things shows in Driskell's work - images in black and white and in color, lines both thick and fat, a rich painterly finish and the simplicity of a Japanese print.
Driskell likes the medium of prints, feeling "people can relate to it in a way they can't with painting."
They are, in short, accessible, a quality this exhibit clearly demonstrates.