In September 2020, the VCU Board of Visitors passed a resolution to recognize former VCUarts Dean Murry N. DePillars, Ph.D., by naming the fine arts building on West Broad Street in his honor. The longtime educator, who died in 2008, oversaw a period of tremendous growth as dean of VCUarts from 1976-95, and elevated the school’s national reputation.
In addition to his work as an art educator, DePillars was a professional painter and art historian with an affinity for Black artistry in the U.S. His paintings incorporated a vast lexicon of cultural iconography, from the gyrations of hip-hop dancers to ancient Saharan petroglyphs.
His work was exhibited throughout the country, and his research appeared in numerous publications.
Vanessa Thaxton-Ward, Ph.D., the director of the Hampton University Museum, first met DePillars in the early days of her career. Twenty years later, she had an opportunity to curate a solo exhibition of his work at the Hampton University Museum and Archives. In 2007, his work again appeared at the museum as part of an exhibition featuring AfriCOBRA, the Chicago-based Black artists’ collective to which DePillars belonged.
Here, Thaxton-Ward talks about working with DePillars and his influence on American and African American art.
How did you meet Dr. DePillars?
I met Dr. DePillars in the late ’80s, early ’90s, when I worked in South Carolina at a place called Penn Center [an African American historical and cultural institution]. It’s located on St. Helena Island, and it’s a historic site.
We had submitted a grant to the NEA’s folklife program and he was a reviewer. He came to St. Helena Island to work with us and go over our grant. I was green. I was just starting out in the field. And we were very nervous that we were getting this visit from an official. But I see this man, he has on all white. He’s this beautiful dark-skinned brother. And he was so very nice and genuine and down to earth. That was my first introduction to Murry DePillars.
You later curated an exhibition of his work. What was it like to work with him in that capacity?
At the Hampton University Museum, we decided to have a solo exhibition of his work in 2002. It was a joy to work with Dr. DePillars and his wife, Mary, to put this exhibition together. My husband and I went to Richmond, to his home, and I got to select pieces that I wanted to include. And of course, he had his say, and Mary had her say, and it just came together beautifully.
I like to work with artists in that way. I don’t want to just go in with my ideas, but also see what they want to show. He was very easy to work with in that way.
It was called Beyond the Fixed Star: The Art of Murry DePillars. The title came from one of his works in the exhibition. It was a beautiful, colorful exhibition. He did programming for us, and we actually acquired a piece of his art for our collection afterward. It was one of the best experiences, I would say, of working with the artist.
What did you want to convey about Dr. DePillars in the solo exhibition?
The pieces that were selected, were some of his favorites, or some of his big series. We went from 1962 to his current works. A lot of them were oils, but also drawings, acrylic on canvas, pen and ink on paper, and ink and pencil. So, you were also able to see his diversity and his skill as an artist.
One of the ones that we acquired was from the Queen Candace Series and [we featured] the Aunt Jemima Series. These were very important because of what he was doing with images that had often been portrayed as negative for African American women and African American people at large. For him to take that Aunt Jemima image and make her a superhero was really important. So, we did investigate his whole journey.
[We also showed] how he developed as an AfriCOBRA artist and the energy that was put into the work that they did; they called it “Kool Aid colors.” So, the vibrancy, the quilt backgrounds, all of that design was mixed in.
[I wanted to present] his skill and mastery of his medium and the direction his work went, which was very African American-centered. There was a basic evolution, but he was consistent. He was not an artist that changed, that painted based on what was popular. He was true to himself and what he wanted to share.
Since you also curated an exhibition featuring AfriCOBRA, how did you see his personal work intersecting with the collective?
I think he would not have been a part of that group if they were not in sync and on the same level with where they were in their careers and what they stood for with their art. It just melded beautifully with what he was already doing, and what AfriCOBRA stands for. I don’t think it changed his direction; it may have been enhanced by it a bit. He may have picked up something here or there, and they may have picked up things from him. It was just a great collaborative group.
How would you describe his influence as an artist?
I think he will stand out as someone that people will emulate, that you may see people borrow from. He was really important, not just to African American art, but to American art. His images were strong and powerful and respectful of his culture and American culture.
With the Queen Candace Series, the flow of the women and the movement and the strength and that color, it reminded you of South Africa and the women. I was blown away by the color, but they’re just strong pieces. They make you feel good, and they make you feel good about yourself.