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Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum: Art in Service to Others

In the face of widespread recent protests, many cities including Washington, D.C., have pledged to address systemic racial inequalities. Work by governments and institutions is needed, and calls have also increased for personal introspection and action. Recognition is mounting that the responsibility for equity lies with each one of us individually, as well as collectively. This insight is borne out in the work of two Washington, D.C., artists who used their creative endeavors to inspire, connect and uplift those around them.

In this month’s column, the Anacostia Community Museum commemorates local artists David C. Driskell (1931-2020) and Ira Blount (1918-2020), two remarkable African American men who recently passed away due to complications related to COVID-19. Both leave strong legacies in the art they created and the people they connected. Though they enjoyed vastly different life experiences and careers, each took tremendous pride and pleasure in sharing his passion, and supporting the artistic pursuits of others.

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

David C. Driskell was a celebrated professor of fine art and the namesake for 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 steady participation of Black artists in American visual culture for over 200 years. His 1987 exhibition at the Anacostia Community Museum, “Contemporary Visual Expressions,” explored the varied 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 labored tirelessly to promote contemporary talent. Over the years, he donated several items to the museum that had belonged to other artists, and the collection also features works by mentors and friends of his, including James A. Porter and Alma Thomas. Through these donations and the relationships he wove, Driskell’s strong sense of community lives on in the greater Washington, D.C.

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

Ira Blount was a self-taught maker whose art ranged from basketry, quilting, and woodwork to cross-stitch, origami, beadwork and more. His works in the museum’s collection show a keen sense of color and texture, and an interest in experimenting with form. Taking up basketry in his 60s, he was intrigued by the way flat reeds could be woven into distinctive three-dimensional shapes, accented with store-bought beads, or formed around branches he picked up outside. In quilting, he tried his hand at traditional handsewn pieces as well as topical and autobiographical quilts. Unencumbered by traditional styles or categories, Blount found joy in the creative process and inspiration in the world around him. He advocated that art is for everyone, and encouraged all who would listen to pick up a craft and try making something with their hands. He shared his passion with many in his Ward 7 community, through teaching, coaching, and as an active member of local guilds including the Basket Bunch and the Daughter of Dorcas and Sons. Blount delighted in talking about his crafts because, as he explained in a 2018 interview with the museum, “I like to inspire others to create. Anybody that views my work can be inspired some kind of way.”

Check it out: Inspired? Try your hand at making art. Look for District of Creativity, a Smithsonian Learning Lab resource that offers suggestions and instructions (under Collection/Access our Resources, on the museum’s website). In Ira Blount’s words, “Leave yourself open for whatever inspiration pops up.” To learn more about the work of Washington, D.C., artists in the museum’s collection, look for the link on the Collection page of the museum’s website. Even while the museum is closed to the public, staff are continuously adding information about the collection.

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