Evolving History of African Americans Seen Through Art At Krasl Exhibit

Apr 10, 2014

27 years ago, Harriet and Harmon Kelley were a couple from San Antonio, Texas that never gave art much thought. That is, until they needed some for the walls of their new home.

"At the time we were interested in landscapes, seascapes, portraits - and that's what we purchased initially," says Harriet Kelley.  

Their quest led them to the landscape art of 19th century landscape painter Edward Bannister. The experience began a journey that would lead to an exhibition that would travel across the county.

"We had no idea that blacks could produce this type of art because of the discrimination in museums and you just didn't know about it," she says. "It's just a hidden treasure, all of these great artists and the artwork."

Collected in less than a few decades' time, the Kelly’s traveling exhibition of African American art now holds the works of some of the most notable African American artists: Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, and Jacob Lawrence just to name a few. Their pieces capture the changing world of America as seen through the eyes of the farmers, dancers, protestors, families and other slices of life.

The 70 works on paper have are currently on view at the Krasl Art Center in St. Joseph. Several of the artists in the collection worked for the Works Project Administration, an organization created as part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal during The Great Depression. The artists depicted the faces and emotions in the pastoral landscapes and the grit and determination of the farmhands who worked them.

"There's a lot of African American artists who received opportunities through that program to not only create artwork but to receive compensation for creating it," says exhibitions curator Tami Miller. "As part of that program - and this is indicative of all the work from the WPA, you tend to see a lot of working class types of situations going on."

Miller also notes that it's important to keep in mind the different eras that these works were created in - and what that could have meant to the artist both publicly and personally.

"You know, we're talking over 100 years of history that's been going on in these artworks...just thinking about that historical context in the US in general and for the artist specifically, how might that inform how I’m looking at and thinking about this image," she says.

In creating their collection, Harriet Kelley feels that she, a trained biologist, and her husband, who is an obstetrician, have received a second education. She has since turned herself into an art patron and authority, and has served on the board for the Foundation for Art & Preservation in Embassies.

She hopes that others are able to see that through the images, that American history is one that involves all races, and that African Americans' roles in it were just as multifaceted.

"In order to tell the whole American story you have to include the works by these artists - because they documented the history...” she says.

The Harmon & Harriet Kelley Collection of African American Art: Works On Paper will remain on view at the Krasl Art Center through April 20.