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Murry DePillars Exhibit Highlights Role as Visionary Artist, Scholar and Educator

Murry Depillars "Double Vision," an exhibit at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center.
Murry Depillars "Double Vision," an exhibit at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center. The artist and scholar served as Dean of VCU's School of the Arts from 1976 to 1995. (Photo: Catherine Komp)

A new exhibit at the Black History Museum features the work of the late Murry DePillars. The longtime dean of VCU’s School of the Arts used his talents to document social justice issues and celebrate African traditions and history. Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.

Learn More: Find details about Murry DePillars: Double Vision at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center through June 3rd. Dr. Michael D. Harris, a member of AfriCOBRA, will give a lecture at the Black History Museum, "The Queen Songs of Murry DePillars," Saturday March 4th at 3:00 PM. Watch Mr. DePillars full 1992 testimony before a House Appropriations subcommittee.


Murry DePillars art is vivid and detailed, layered with history, culture and symbolism. Mary DePillars says her late husband was strong, very strong and highly creative. He was dedicated to his art and his students. He was committed to the truth.

Mary DePillars: And to making sure that history accurately records events, circumstances and experiences related to the African American experience in America and beyond.

Nearly 40 works by Murry DePillars are on display at the Black History Museum in Richmond. The VMFA’s Richard Woodward and Ashley Duhrkoop co-curated the exhibit titled “Double Vision.” It’s a play on W.E.B Du Bois “Double Consciousness.” It’s also a tribute to DePillars’ role as an educator. He helped build VCU School of the Arts as Dean from 1976 to 1995.

Richard Woodward: We wanted to make sure that the other side of Murry came out in this exhibition, Murry’s role with the VCU School of the Arts, Murry’s role as an educator, so the title seemed appropriate.

The title also references the complexity of Murry DePillars work. The longer you look, the more you’ll see. A series of large scale pen and ink drawings from the 1960s recast black stereotypes and document injustices against people of color. One of the most famous is “Aunt Jemima.” It depicts a muscular, black woman breaking out of a row of pancake mix boxes.

Woodward: This is not your Aunt Jemima that you bought off the shelf in the store, this is a reconstructed Aunt Jemima...

This was 1968, the same year Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists at the Mexico City Olympics.

Woodward: And you see Aunt Jemima bursting out of the pancake box there, with her arm raised and her gloved hand at the top...

On the sides of the pancake boxes, DePillars provides alternative “ingredients.” He writes about Section 22, where he says the athletes of color at the ‘68 olympics continued the clenched fist salute each time a black athlete won an event. The next lists places that were colonized or experienced atrocities, from Angola and Somalia to Watts and Robert Taylor Homes. Behind the boxes is an American Flag. The stars are Chicago Police badges, representing a raid on the Black Panthers headquarters.

Mary DePillars: And there’s so many stories like that, if you read the ingredients and you look at the locations and you look at the names, some you will recognize and others you will not. But there’s just so much in each of those drawings that should be examined to really understand the complexity of his thoughts and how he choose to transfer those thoughts from his head to paper or canvas or whatever medium he was working with.

When Murry DePillars traveled, he always carried a sturdy mahogany briefcase. It was full of art supplies, says Mary DePillars.

Mary DePillars: He always had his canvases, he had multiple brushes, many of them were the very fine sable brushes he used for the very fine work, a ruler...

At airports and hotels, he’d fill plastic cups with water and mix his paints with popsicle sticks. He often worked on several pieces at a time.

Mary DePillars: Art was his passion. If he could not produce art, it was like he would stop breathing. He could not not produce art.

As DePillars evolved as an artist, he developed what’s known as the “quilt aesthetic.” Using bright colors, shades of pink, blue, yellow and orange, he’d build meticulous geometric patterns that provide depth and movement. Look again, and you’ll find “ghosted” images floating just under the surface. DePillars also incorporated African history, mythology and traditions, like the Akuaba fertility figure from Ghana and Saharan petroglyphs dating back thousands of years. In one painting, VMFA Curator of African Art Richard Woodward recognized the image of an ivory saltcellar. The original was carved in the 15th century by a West African artist.

Woodward: Beautifully detailed salt cellar, but it shows the degree of sophistication and carving technique in Africa in the 15th Century and the deep history of Africa is there for reference through the choice of this image. There was an exhibition of ivories from Africa, I’m sure Murry saw it, this was in that exhibition. And I know this is a part of his art historical research so his paintings are informed by not just current events like Aunt Jemima and the Mexico City olympics but by deep historical sources.

Murry DePillars often worked during what he called the “wee small hours of the morning.” Mary DePillars says he didn’t sketch anything out in advance.

Mary DePillars: And there were so many times, when he was painting at home, I’d go to bed at night, leave him up with pot of fresh coffee and his jazz, and he’d be painting and I’d see an image. And I’d say goodnight honey, see you in the morning. And when I would wake up and go down and look, it was completely different because he changed his mind during the night. I said, “Why did you change such and such?” He said I didn’t do intentionally, but I put this color next to that color and it wasn’t working… So no he didn’t sketch. What came into his head, came out of his fingers.

DePillars loved music especially jazz, and a series of paintings celebrates this artform. There’s a tribute to Wynton Marsalis and one to Miles Davis, titled “Kind of Blue.” Co-curator Ashley Duhrkoop.

Ashley Duhrkoop: It features two figures playing in the center and it has the geometric pattern background. Murry was very inspired by the beauty of human body when it played an instrument and listening to the music as he painted brought images to mind. So that work really encapsulates the influence that jazz music had on him. He was also instrumental, in terms of his career as Dean of School of the Arts at VCU, in creating the jazz program, the jazz festival and establishing the Richmond Jazz Society.

Mary DePillars: “The Dancers,” he got such an education himself when he was painting "The Dancers."

“The Dancers” shows a group of nine, each with a distinct style and hat and or head covering, collectively sharing the joy of movement. Mary DePillars says her husband prepared by watching early hip hop videos.

Mary DePillars:  And I’m thinking, what’s going on with him, is he losing it? And what I realized was he was watching these videos to get a sense of the movement and to figure out how he could create that sense of movement on the canvass.

Murry DePillars was a member of the artists’ collective AfriCOBRA, or the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists.

Mary DePillars: AfriCOBRA is one of the most phenomenal groups I have run into. I call all the guys my brothers.

Mary DePillars remembers one AfriCOBRA gathering in Washington, DC. She was invited to sit in and spent 11 hours observing critiques.

Mary DePillars: It was most intense 11 hours that I can remember in any what I call educational session because I certainly got a strong crash course, not only in the AfriCOBRA aesthetic but in the building of these pieces. It was incredible, it was an incredible experience.

When friend and fellow AfriCOBRA member Jeff Donaldson died in 2004, Murry DePillars was deeply affected.

Mary DePillars: Jeff and Murry probably connected more than any of the other artists. They were both very strong artists themselves, both had terminal degrees, both headed up significant art educational institutions, both from Midwest. There were just so many commonalities that bonded them together.

DePillars spent a year making a painting to honor him. It’s titled “Lifting of the Plate.”

Mary DePillars:  It is in my opinion, one of the, if not the most intricate of all his pieces.

An accordion border in blue, purple and green creates a continuous sense of movement. Woven into the geometric patterns are the Egyptian scarab and lotus, and a majestic ancestral bird from the Senufo culture. In fine gold strokes, DePillars added another layer of symbols used in Vodou.

Mary DePillars: I’d never seen him do that before, he’d never used the gold before. He said I don’t know how it’s going to work.

The gold symbols are connected to the title: Lifting of the Plate.

Mary DePillars: It goes back to the African tradition, when an elder dies, the plate is removed from the table and broken. (Pause) So therein is another lesson to be examined.

Double Vision also includes Murry DePillar’s “Drums of Change.” The last large piece he did brings together the quilt aesthetic, music and movement, ancestral Africa and the cycle of life and death.

Mary DePillars: It’s very complex. He knew that was the last one. (Pause) It encompasses so much that is final. But here again it takes a study of the painting and researching the whole story.

If DePillars was alive today, he’d be responding to political and social issues, says Mary. She
reaches in her purse and pulls out her phone where she keeps a quote by her husband.

Mary DePillars: He said I have attempted to celebrate, affirm and present the augustness of the Black presence. It is my hope that one day we can acknowledge, appreciate and celebrate the presence of all people. When this occurs the words of Ghandi will become a reality. He said I want the winds of all cultures to flow freely through my house and not be swept off my feet by any culture. That’s what he’d be painting in response to the chaos we’re experiencing in our country right now.

DePillars was not shy, she says. He believed was he believed, and he did not back down. You can get a glimpse of this conviction, as well as his humor and deep knowledge of history in a May 1992 Congressional hearing. The topic - funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. Just weeks earlier, the NEA’s acting chair Anne-Imelda Radice unilaterally revoked two grants. One of them was for VCU’s Anderson Gallery and an exhibit titled “Anonymity and Identity.”

Murry DePillars (1992 Congressional Testimony): The endorsement of free expression is risky yet the benefits for VCU have been returned by distinguished alumni who have been the recipients of Oscars, Emmy’s, Coty’s, Addy’s, Jacob Javits fellowships and I will add National Endowment for the Arts grants.

DePillars warned about censoring art, using his own experiences as an example.

Murry DePillars (1992 Congressional Testimony): If I can, I’d like to drift back to the 1960s and a group of Black artists in Chicago, we painted murals, we did what the press referred to as socio-political paintings and so forth. We were subjected, although we were not getting federal money, we were subjected to a form of harassment and censorship that even I doubt if Radice could compare with her first few actions. I as a senior at a college in Chicago was denied an opportunity to put my paintings in a show because I had socio-political images in those paintings and they dealt with the black experience in Chicago. About six years that same university invited me back, because one of the paintings they would not let me show was shown in two exhibitions at the Whitney Museum and they gave me a one man show. You don’t do those things after the fact.

Curators Woodward and Durhkoop hope visitors to the exhibit contemplate the relevance of DePillars work today. They want people to know about and appreciate the lasting impact he’s had on VCU and the arts and jazz in Richmond. Mary DePillars hopes it jostles the complacent into seeing their potential.

Mary DePillars: I hope that this will inspire people to take up that mantle of activism again and recognize that right now we’re in danger of losing a lot of the progress that’s been made over the last 50, 60, 70 or more years. I hope that people will come to grips with whatever this fear is that seems to have overtaken our society and confront in a constructive way. I hope that Murry’s strength will be palatable enough that folk will be moved to speak up, when it’s appropriate. I feel like this exhibit has the potential to inspire a level of hope and activism that we’ve not seen in recent years.

The exhibit Murry DePillars Double Vision runs through June 3rd at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.