The exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts of more than 70 works by African American artists from the collection of Constance E. Clayton, which opens Friday and runs through July 12, has the aura of a family meal around the dinner table. These are works of art from her home.
Clayton, who served as superintendent of Philadelphia schools from 1983 to 1993, the first African American woman to hold the post, donated the works to PAFA last year, and by doing so, she kept them in her hometown and cemented her desire to have these works of art seen by local people.
“I really thought that in my home nobody saw [the collection] except for people who came to visit me and my family,” Clayton said recently. “So I thought that it was important to share it so that the larger community would be able to see it and enjoy it and realize that African Americans had something special to contribute to culture.”
Brooke Davis Anderson, director of the PAFA museum, sees the collection as "a comprehensive … collection of African American artists that was meant to be lived with.”
Henry Ossawa Tanner, Romare Bearden, Sam Gilliam, Augusta Savage, Dox Thrash, Laura Wheeler Waring, Charles White, and many others are all here and on view in the exhibition, “Awakened in You: The Collection of Dr. Constance E. Clayton.”
“It’s domestic in scale, a reflection of Dr. Clayton," said Anderson. “She and her mom lived with it. It’s a collection of family, children, neighbors, people walking down the street, children playing on the stoop. One whole wall is portraits of children, almost all boys. Portraits of families and young people dominate the gift.”
One particular aspect adds to the domestic familiarity of “Awakened in You.” Many of the works are by Philadelphia artists, and many of those have ties to PAFA — either as students or teachers.
One instance of that involves the painter Louis Sloan, who taught at the academy for many years and was considered a beloved mentor by a large number of his students, including painter Barkley L. Hendricks, born in North Philadelphia and a graduate of Simon Gratz High School.
The exhibition contains a number of Sloan landscapes and an exquisite undated charcoal portrait of a young boy by Hendricks.
Rather than have wall labels describing the art-historical significance of the works, PAFA invited community members and relatives to write more personal reflections. So it is that Susan Hendricks, Barkley Hendricks’ widow, writes about Lou Sloan’s landscape After the Storm. (Sloan died in 2008 and Barkley Hendricks died in 2017.)
“Louis Sloan was Barkley L. Hendricks’ teacher first and then later his colleague. In Barkley’s professional estimation, Sloan was also one of the best landscape painters ever to come through, and be a part of PAFA,” Susan Hendricks writes, calling the artists “two remarkable painters, Philly artists both.”
"I remember Barkley talking about Lou ‘suiting up’ in his winter protective gear and going out into the harsh elements to paint the winter landscape outside the central Philadelphia environs,” she writes. "Sloan was as devoted to the Philadelphia landscape near and around him as Barkley L. Hendricks was to his beloved tropical Jamaica.”
This kind of intimate, anecdotal description, the kind you might hear at dinner with friends and relatives, is a defining characteristic of the exhibition as a whole. You either know the works, know the artists, or have a friend who does.
Clayton was drawn into collecting by Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, the first African American to receive a doctorate in economics in the U.S., the first woman to receive a law degree from Penn, and the first black woman to practice law in Pennsylvania.
“I often visited her in her home and her home was just filled with magnificent paintings because her uncle was Tanner, Henry Ossawa Tanner,” said Clayton. “I can distinctly remember seeing The Thankful Poor, The Banjo Lesson, and other paintings at her home. And I was just delighted with that and I was just excited by it and, and then of course, I found out that the Philadelphia Museum of Art was the first museum in the country to buy one of [Tanner’s] paintings.”
Clayton and her mother, Williabell Clayton, spent decades poking through art galleries and thrift stores, attending auctions and visiting studios, all in search of art.
“I really thought it was important, particularly as a teacher, because I also taught in a totally segregated elementary school," Clayton said. "The children were very interested in art, but they couldn’t see anybody who looked like them or did any painting.
"So when we went on trips to the art museum, I would always try to find the work in the art museum done by African American artists so they could understand that they too had people who had talent, interest, and creativity.”
Clayton allows that she has a special fondness for the work of Dox Thrash, the innovative painter and printmaker who lived on the 2300 block of what’s now Cecil B. Moore Avenue. He died in 1965.
“I particularly liked Dox Thrash,” she said. “But I love all the artists. They’re all favorites. Here is a group of artists who should be recognized, appreciated, and respected."
Awakened in You: The Collection of Dr. Constance E. Clayton
Feb. 21-July 12 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 118-128 N. Broad St.
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Fri., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat. and Sun. (Closed Mon.)
Admission: Adults, $15; seniors and students with I.D. $12; youth 13-18, $8 (children under 13 free).