Smithsonian Community Museum of Anacostia: Art in Service to Others

In the face of recent widespread protests, many cities, including Washington, DC, have pledged to address systemic racial inequality. The work of governments and institutions is needed, and calls for personal introspection and action have also increased. It is increasingly recognized that the responsibility for equity rests with each of us individually, as well as collectively. This idea is borne out by the work of two artists from Washington, DC, who have used their creative endeavors to inspire, connect and uplift those around them.

In this month’s column, the Anacostia Community Museum honors local artists David C. Driskell (1931-2020) and Ira Blount (1918-2020), two notable African-American men who recently died of complications related to COVID-19. Both leave a strong legacy in the art they created and the people they connected. Although they had very different life experiences and careers, each was extremely proud and happy to share their passion and support the artistic pursuits of others.

David Driskell donated this set of watercolor paints used by artist Alma Thomas to the museum. (Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum)

David C. Driskell was a famous fine arts professor and the namesake of a center at the University of Maryland-College Park. He revolutionized the field of African American art history when, in the 1970s, he documented the consistent participation of black artists in American visual culture for more than 200 years. His 1987 exhibition at the Anacostia Community Museum, “Contemporary Visual Expressions,” explored the various expressions and traditions of the black experience in the work of Sam Gilliam, Martha Jackson-Jarvis, Keith Morrison, and William T. Williams. An accomplished artist and art collector himself, Driskell understood the importance of bringing attention to the work of African American artists and he worked tirelessly to promote contemporary talent. Over the years he has donated several items to the museum that belonged to other artists, and the collection also includes works by his mentors and friends, including James A. Porter and Alma Thomas. Through these gifts and the relationships he forged, Driskell’s strong sense of community lives on in greater Washington, D.C.

Ira Blount’s artistic philosophy is captured in this calligraphy work he created in 2009. (Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, gift of Ira Blount)

Ira Blount was a self-taught designer whose art ranged from basketry, quilting and carpentry to cross stitch, origami, beadwork and more. His works in the museum’s collection show a strong sense of color and texture, and an interest in experimenting with form. Beginning basketry in his 60s, he was intrigued by how flat reeds could be woven into distinctive three-dimensional shapes, accented with store-bought beads or formed around branches he collected outdoors. In quilting, he dabbled in traditional hand-sewn quilts as well as topical and autobiographical quilts. Freed from traditional styles or categories, Blount found joy in the creative process and inspiration in the world around him. He argued that art is for everyone and encouraged anyone who would listen to him to choose a profession and try to do something with their hands. He has shared his passion with many in his Ward 7 community, through teaching, coaching, and as an active member of local guilds including Basket Bunch and Daughter of Dorcas and Sons. Blount was thrilled to talk about his craft because, as he explained in a 2018 interview with the museum, “I love inspiring others to create. Anyone who looks at my work can be inspired in one way or another.

Check it out: Inspired? Try your hand at art. To look for Creativity district, a Smithsonian Learning Lab resource that offers suggestions and instructions (under Collection/Access Our Resources, on the museum’s website). In the words of Ira Blount, “Let yourself be open to any inspiration that arises.” To learn more about the work of Washington, D.C., artists in the museum’s collection, search for the link on the Collection page of the museum’s website. Even when the museum is closed to the public, staff continually add information about the collection.

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