Canada's gift: the art of Artis Lane.

Author:Von Blum, Paul
 
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A venerated and accomplished African American artist in Los Angeles--and in the United States--is actually an Afro-Canadian. Artis Lane is one of the most distinguished sculptors, painters, and printmakers working in the early 21st century. Throughout her many decades of outstanding artistic production, she has won numerous awards, has exhibited nationally and internationally, and has created works in many public settings. She has been an inspirational figure to generations of younger artists of all racial and ethnic backgrounds and has continued an astounding level of productivity well into her eighties.

Born Artis Marie Shreve in 1927 in an all-Black village in North Buxton, in southern Ontario, Canada, Lane is the descendant of Southern slaves who fled to Canada through the Underground Railroad, making North Buxton a village populated primarily of transplanted refugees from U.S. enslavement. She is the direct descendant of famed abolitionist and educator Mary Ann Shadd, who became the first woman Canadian publisher. She moved with her family to Ann Arbor, Michigan in early childhood. In a pattern that reflects the story of most accomplished artists, she began to show strong talent in childhood, painting portraits of her classmates and creating other striking artworks. Her family was supportive of her artistic efforts, a valuable (but far from universal) catalyst for her ultimate professional success as a visual artist. She has made art, with increasing sophistication and public recognition, for eighty years, perhaps rivaling only Pablo Picasso for creative longevity.

After high school, she attended the Ontario College of Art on a scholarship. She moved back and forth from Ontario to Detroit in the summer in order to earn money for her educational expenses. In Detroit, she met her first husband, journalist and activist Bill Lane. That relationship caused her to transfer to Cranbrook Academy in Bloomfield, Michigan, so that she and her new husband could remain together. Cranbrook was (and remains) an elite art school and initially approved her portfolio but denied her admission, reinforcing the tragically long tradition of racism in American art education. After pressure from the Urban League, she was finally admitted.

Throughout her training, she absorbed the traditional European tradition of painting and sculpture and her work reveals an exceptional level of formal excellence. She has always fully understood her African origins and many of her works reflect her pride in her Blackness. Like many distinguished Black artists, Lane successfully synthesizes Western artistic form with her highly developed personal style, especially in her three-dimensional works, reflecting her identity as a Black woman committed to the domestic and international struggles of her people.

Life at Cranbrook was not easy for a talented Black female artist, reflecting further the insidious fusion of racism and sexism of the earlier admission denial. Some of her still lifes were sabotaged and she recalls, many decades later, the deep-seated prejudices of some of her fellow students, including the all too common use of the racist slur "nigger." Like many African Americans, including people of her generation, her recollections of those moments are sharp and precise. And although she has never forgotten those incidents, she has effectively risen against them through a lifetime of extraordinary artistic creativity.

From her early career on, Artis Lane has achieved enormous distinction as a portraitist. As a young married woman and mother in Detroit, she helped support her family by painting portraits of some of the elite figures of Michigan political and industrial life. Over the years, she has used both paintings and sculptures to produce portraits of leading figures in politics, entertainment, and the arts, as well as major luminaries in African American history and culture.

Her exemplary record in this genre is rooted in a long tradition of African American portraiture. One of the first well recognized African...

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