Barbara Chase-Riboud, the internationally acclaimed sculptor, poet, and author who lives and works in Paris and Rome, was back this weekend where it all began - Philadelphia.
Chase-Riboud was here to help mark the 40th anniversary of the Brandywine Workshop, founded by predominantly African American artists and educators. And she was also here on business: In September, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will hold an exhibit of her work.
Outside art circles, Chase-Riboud, 74, may be best known for her historical novels. Sally Hemings, a story of Thomas Jefferson's life and children with his slave mistress, was long denounced as a lie by the Founding Father's descendants until DNA tests provided support. And Echo of Lions, about the Amistad slave-ship revolt, led Chase-Riboud to sue Hollywood titan Steven Spielberg for using her book as the basis of his film Amistad. She got a hefty out-of-court settlement.
But those controversies are mere sidelights in her far-flung, many-decade artistic career, which arguably began when one of her prints was bought by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. She was 15.
"It amazes me, too, all the time," Chase-Riboud said of her career, sitting in the Palomar Hotel on Saturday.
While in town, she is checking in with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which will host an exhibit of 10 of her monumental abstract sculptures - cast bronze with interwoven silk and wool - and related drawings from Sept. 14 to Dec. 8. The sculptures were created in the 1970s and dedicated to Malcolm X. It is the first time the works will be shown collectively.
"It will not be a retrospective in any sense," she said.
She also is talking with the museum about compiling a companion book of letters, which would unite two talents she has long kept separate: writing and visual art.
"My curator said, 'We have to somehow bring them together.' Finally, I agreed," she said. "People don't like artists who do two things at the same time. It means you are dilettante in one or the other."
She wrote the letters, more than 300, beginning in 1957, when she graduated from Temple University's Tyler School of Art and won an editing internship at Mademoiselle magazine in New York, through 1991. The letters chronicle her worldwide studies, including a master's degree from Yale University; her marriage to Magnum photographer Marc Riboud; her two sons; her travels to Egypt, Africa, China; her second marriage to art publisher Sergio Tosi; and her accompanying intellectual and emotional growth.
She discovered a cache of the missives, all handwritten to her mother, Vivian Braithwaite Chase, when her mother died in 1991.
Although Chase-Riboud had someone type the letters and put them in chronological order, she could not bring herself to read the collection until one restless, anxious night in 2008, the night Barack Obama was elected president.
"The letters are not a confessional," she said. "They bear witness to a certain kind of artistic life that may or may not exist anymore."