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'Instill & Inspire': African-American artists of the 20th century in the spotlight

The exhibit "Instill & Inspire," currently on display at the August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh, contains works by some of the most highly regarded African-American artists of the 20th century.

They range from an original painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), one of the first African-American artists to achieve acclaim in both America and Europe, to works by famed collage artist Romare Bearden (1911-1988), regarded as one of the greatest American artists of his generation.

On loan from the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture in Charlotte, N.C., the 58 works on display by 20 artists were culled from the collection of John and Vivian Hewitt, a couple from New York City well known for having amassed a large and important collection of African-American art over the span of nearly 50 years — from the 1940s to the 1980s.

It's worth noting several Pittsburgh connections in this exhibit. Bearden, whose 780 ceramic tile mural "Pittsburgh Recollections" graces a wall in the Gateway Center light-rail station, graduated from Pittsburgh's Peabody High School in 1929. And Ann Tanksley, whose vibrant painting "Canal Builders II" (1989) is a real standout work, is a Pittsburgh-born artist who earned her bachelors of fine arts degree in 1956 from Carnegie Mellon University.

And Vivian Hewitt herself, a native of New Castle, received a master's in library science in 1944 from the Carnegie Library School, a cooperative venture of Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) and the Carnegie Institute, before becoming the first African-American librarian employed by Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

In 1998, Bank of America acquired the collection and sponsored a national tour of the exhibition, sending it to more than 25 museums across the United States, before donating the entire collection to the Gantt Center in 2009. The collection was last on display in its entirety at the Gantt Center in 2011.

According to Yvonne Cook, co-founder of the August Wilson Center and the executive producer of the exhibit, the Hewitts began buying works of art on their honeymoon and continued to give each other gifts of art for anniversaries and other special occasions. They also entertained many of the artists whose works they collected in their home.

"He was a writer. She was a librarian. They weren't wealthy individuals, but they opened up their home to these artists, supported these artists, because they saw artists as valuable resources in our community that we needed to support," Cook says.

John Hewitt died in 2000, but Vivian Hewitt is now 97 and still living in the New York apartment where she and her husband hosted the likes of Bearden and his wife, Nanette, as well as contemporary artists James Denmark and J. Eugene Grigsby, a cousin of Vivian Hewitt's.

A video of her showing the apartment she shared with her late husband in New York City is the first thing visitors will see when entering the center.

"They looked at art in terms of value to the African-American community as a whole because the works they collected tell a story," says Cook, who has met Vivian Hewitt on several occasions.

In this way, the exhibit too tells a story, from early Cubist-inspired works, such as an untitled still life in gouache and charcoal by Ronald Joseph, to images that capture social themes, such as "Waiting" (c. 1965), a lithograph on paper by Ernest Crichlow (1914-2005), depicting a little girl staring from behind a barbed-wire fence.

Crichlow was part of a group of artists who developed their techniques in the 1930s at a Harlem workshop established by the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project. His lithographs and paintings focused initially on Depression-era social justice themes, and later on civil rights issues.

Another standout piece in the exhibit is "Easter," a small acrylic on paper painting by Jonathan Green from 1989. It features his signature "big hats and big dresses" common to the black South's Gullah culture.

On the first floor of the center, visitors will find a companion display presenting posters of 45 paintings that Green — a Charleston, S.C.-based artist who is considered one of the most important painters of the southern experience — authorized nonprofits nationwide to reproduce for fundraising purposes.

As for the Hewitt collection, a book, "Instill & Inspire: The John & Vivian Hewitt Collection of African-American Art," was recently released by the University of Pittsburgh Press. The hardback version, with 58 color illustrations, is available for $49.95.

Kurt Shaw is the Tribune-Review art critic.

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