Kansas artist Aaron Douglas regains local, national spotlight

— Art history may be repeating itself, at least in the case of Aaron Douglas.

Raised from humble origins in Topeka, Kan., thrust center stage as an artist in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and '30s, then quietly, thoughtfully, purposefully giving the spotlight the slip to continue painting while pursuing his passion for teaching, Douglas had almost let history pass him by.

But he is coming full circle of late.

That's because earlier this month Douglas was among several Kansans celebrated for their lasting contributions to the arts at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, N.Y. That event grew out of a Topeka fund-raiser for an "Aaron Douglas Celebration Mural" to be overseen by Lawrence artist Stan Herd at 12th and Lane in Topeka's "Tennessee Town."

Celebrated along with Douglas were Lawrence-bred poet, author and essayist Langston Hughes; Fort Scott native Gordon Parks, 93, now of New York, whose career continues as an author, poet, photographer, filmmaker, composer and musician; and filmmaker Kevin Willmott of Lawrence.

But there at the Schomburg, even beneath the four murals comprising his "Aspects of Negro Life," arguably the least well-known of the four was Aaron Douglas.

Topeka roots

Cheryl Ragar, a Ph.D. student working on a dissertation about Douglas in Kansas University's American studies program, ran across the man while reading about the Harlem Renaissance in her art history studies.

"I discovered this artist whose work I really liked a lot, the kind of colors and expression, and I learned he was from Topeka," Ragar said.

Douglas was born May 26, 1899, and grew up on the north banks of the Kansas River. He was interested in art from an early age, and the Mulvanes often gave magazines to him through his mother. It was through these magazines that Douglas made the pivotal discovery of Henry O. Tanner, an American painter living in self-exile in Paris.

Through Tanner, Ragar said, Douglas "realized that a black man could make art and make his living as an artist."

New York beckons

After graduating in 1922 from the fine arts program at the University of Nebraska, Douglas taught at Lincoln High School in Kansas City and continued to pursue his painting. Word spread in New York that a talented artist was on the rise.

A visual artist was needed to illustrate the magazines of the burgeoning Harlem Renaissance, "The Crisis" and "Opportunity," both familiar to Douglas.

According to Ragar, the pivotal point came when "Ethel Manse wrote Douglas, laying it on the line, saying that he could either continue to be a teacher in a small town or come to New York and make it happen for himself."

So in the late spring of 1925, Douglas went to New York and was immediately taken under the wings of both W.E.B. DuBois and Charles Weldon Johnson, for whom Douglas illustrated "God's Trombones: Seven Sermons in Verse."

Douglas was astounded by the scene in Harlem, Ragar said.

"There are black police officers," Ragar said, "and everyone around him in the whole area has a face that looks like his."

Douglas "was aware of modernism early in his life" and utilized the modern style of "flatness of color, uses of light, abstraction" and African sculpture for inspiration, Ragar said.

He embraced modernism as an outgrowth of African aesthetics, much as Picasso and Modigliani were looking at African sculpture for new ways to break away from naturalism, Ragar said.

The "Aspects of Negro Life" murals at the Schomburg Center are examples of Douglas' modernist style.

Artistic legacy

Douglas went on not only to teach art history and fine arts at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., but also to create the school's art department. He continued painting, primarily selling to those who were already aware of him rather than showing at exhibitions or galleries, until his death in 1979.

Perhaps teaching in Tennessee and his lack of exhibitions drew attention away from Douglas.

Susan Earle, assistant curator at the Spencer Museum of Art, while attending the Schomburg Center event, said Douglas "developed a whole new kind of style that was really distinctive ... that singles him out" and that contributed to the importance of the Harlem Renaissance and the development of American modernism."

With the Douglas mural project in Topeka scheduled for completion in the fall, a renovation soon to be underway at the Schomburg Center and an exhibition of Douglas' works slated to open in October of 2006 at the Spencer, these are boom times for Douglas.


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