The Visual Arts program has a long, proud history as part of FAMU.
The earliest documentation of art classes taught at FAMU are listed in the Florida A. and M. University Bulletins. Our library collections begin with the 1934-1935 academic year, which offered seven courses in the Graphic and Plastic Arts under the Division of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Additionally, two art courses are provided by the Division of Teacher Training and Education, and several courses in Textiles and Clothing are listed under the Division of Home Economics. The number of arts-related courses indicate that the visual arts have a longer history at the university.
The arts courses offered by three different divisions continues mostly unchanged throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The Division of Liberal Arts and Sciences receives a name change to the Division of Arts and Sciences in 1947, yet these divisions offer the same Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees. It was also in 1947, that art appreciation appears in the course listing under this division; art appreciation actually first appears in the books in 1937 under the Division of Education and Teacher Training. Starting in January of 1948, students could earn a Concentration in Drama and Fine Arts. Courses were expanded by 1950, to include numerous art and art history courses, including art appreciation, design, graphic art, drawing, watercolor painting and ceramics.
Augusta Christine Fells Savage (1892-1962) was a student at FAMU when it was still named the Tallahassee State Normal School. She was born in Green Cove Springs, Florida, and after her family moved to West Palm Beach, she took a special class in clay modeling at her high school. Savage was inspired to become a teacher and enrolled under the Division of Teacher Training and Education. She likely took one or two art courses offered in the division during the 1919-1920 academic year. Art historian Theresa Leininger states that “She soon discontinued her studies there [FAMU] because she disliked spending valuable time translating Latin when she could have been sculpting.” (Leininger, The New Negro, 166) It seems probable that the program in Graphic and Plastic Arts was not in existence during this time, for she left FAMU to study art in New York and attended Cooper Union from 1921 to 1924.
In 1929, 1930 and 1931 she was awarded Julius Rosenwald Foundation and Carnegie Foundation fellowships for study abroad in France, Belgium and Germany. During the 1930s, she became a well-known sculptor, art teacher, and community art program director in the Harlem community of New York City. In 1934, she became the first African-American member of the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. She was appointed the first director of the WPA-funded Harlem Community Art Center in 1937. Shortly thereafter, Savage received a commission by the New York World's Fair of 1939 to create a sculpture symbolizing the musical contributions of African Americans. Her work entitled Lift Every Voice and Sing was named after James Weldon Johnson’s poem. It was exhibited in plaster; she never found the funds to cast it in bronze, and unfortunately it has since been destroyed. She worked in wood, clay, marble and bronze, yet few of her works have survived. In 1945, she retired from public life.
Samella Sanders Lewis (b. 1924) joined FAMU in 1953, as Professor and Chair of the Fine Arts Department, now under the Division of Humanities. She had earned her Ph.D. in art history and cultural anthropology from Ohio State University in 1951. According to Leininger, “When she arrived, there was virtually no material or equipment for art students. Lewis made a deal with the school’s president that she would paint his portrait if he would spend more money on the art department. Although she began with just fifteen students, within five years Lewis’s department had grown into one of the largest among black institutions.” (Leininger, “Samella,” 672-673)
By 1954, the division was renamed the College of Arts and Sciences, Humanities, and Lewis established the Bachelor of Arts in Fine Arts and Bachelor of Arts in Art Education degrees under the Fine Arts Department. Courses in Textiles and Clothing continued to be listed under the Division of Home Economics, now nestled under the School of Agriculture and Home Economics. However, it was clear that the art department was growing with a greater number of course offerings and inclusion of art education.
After being unfairly treated by the state for her activities with the NAACP, Lewis left FAMU and taught art history and humanities at the University of the State of New York in Plattsburg for the next ten years. During this time she became fascinated with Asian art and culture, receiving a Fulbright fellowship in 1962, to study in Taiwan and a National Defense Education Act post-doctoral fellowship in 1964 and 1965, to study Chinese language and Asian culture at the University of Southern California. Lewis continued to build her successful career as an artist and promoter of African-American artists through her teaching, writing and curating, and with her documentary film The Black Artists in New York and California.
Howard E. Lewis became head of the department after Samella Lewis (no relation) left in 1958. He headed the program for nearly two decades. His interest in African-American, or “black art,” art that established African-American identity through a connection to politics and civil rights, which was in keeping with the Black Aesthetic or Black Arts Movement. Howard Lewis organized conferences and encouraged students to work in this vein. He wrote “Black is Beautiful” on his canvases.
Additionally, Howard Lewis is responsible for building the first art building on campus in 1972. Previously, classes were held in Gibbs Cottage (built in 1892), which once graced the location where FAMU’s new pharmacy building is sited today on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. It was moved in 1985 to its current location on S. Adams Street.
By 1969, the department was called the Department of Art and a Certification in Art was added to the offerings, however by 1976 this was eliminated. In 1977, a minor in Graphic Arts Technology and Art Education were tendered instead. This was eliminated by 1980, when the courses listed were similar to those offered today in art history and fine arts with the addition of those in ceramics, textile design, graphic arts, and wood, metal and stone sculpture. During the 1970s, the department averaged about 50 majors. In the 1980s, however, the state mandated a 120-credit hour program be completed in four years, and since FAMU’s program required four and a half years, cuts were made, and the program reduced. The course offerings included art education, textiles (not offered in Home Economics since 1976), and graphic design.
Gerald Hooper was the chair or facilitator of the department in the 1970s, after Howard Lewis was promoted to division head. He has a Ph.D. from Columbia University in Education. During his tenure, he managed as many as eight faculty members with four in art education, three in studio art, and one in art history. Hobie Williams, who also earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University in Education, followed Hooper. Williams is the first of several facilitators and professors who were graduates from the FAMU Fine Arts program.
Kenneth Falana filled the position after Williams. Kenneth Falana is an internationally recognized printmaker, draftsman and collage artist with a pre-slavery family name that derives from the Yoruba heritage (Nigeria). He received his MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Falana is responsible for establishing the first computer lab in the program as a response to student requests for courses in computer animation. He also oversaw a renovation on the 1972 Foster-Tanner Fine Arts Center buildings in 1997, which included an expansion of the East building.
Notable professors include Elizabeth Ann Kirby (c. 1933-2018) who was born in England and also lived in Jamaica, Italy, the Netherlands, Ireland and Florida. She earned her doctorate in Humanities and Art History at Florida State University in the 1960s, and taught art history classes at FSU, Tallahassee Community College and FAMU. Yvonne Tucker, who taught ceramics, and Chester Williams, who taught sculpture, worked together to bring African-American artists to FAMU for an artist-in-residence program funded by grants from the Florida Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs. Richard Hunt (b. 1935), a metal sculptor, was one of the several artists they brought to FAMU in the early 1980s. Tucker earned her MFA from Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. She joined the faculty in 1973, retiring 29 years later. In addition to her teaching and writing grants, Tucker also directed the art gallery from 2000-2003. Williams earned his MFA from Michigan State University and is responsible for the Jake Gaither sculpture in front of Gaither Gymnasium on Wahnish Way. Ron Yrabedra joined the faculty in 1974, and taught art education until he retired in 2008. He earned his Ph.D. in Art Education from Florida State University. Yrabedra has been a fixture in the Tallahassee arts community for 30 years. He has served as the director of the Lemoyne Art Foundation, faculty member for the Florida Institute for Art Education – funded primarily by J. Paul Getty Foundation, curator of an exhibition of 19th-century photographer Alvan Harper’s portraits of African Americans, and recipient of three grants by the Florida Department of State – Division of Cultural Affairs. Yrabedra opened his studio at Railroad Square Park in October 1981. He can be found painting there today; he keeps his door open during First Fridays.
In 1982, the School of Journalism, Media, and Graphic Arts opened, offering degrees in graphic arts. Afterward, the art department only offered a minor in Graphic Arts. The department was renamed the Division of Visual Arts, Humanities and Theatre in 1986, and the Visual Arts Program was named. The program continued to offer the two Fine Arts degrees as well as minors in Graphic Arts and Industrial Arts and certifications. The minor in Industrial Arts and the certifications were no longer offered after 1998. Our program last offered the Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art Education degree in 2008.
Harris Wiltsher earned his Bachelor of Science in Fine Arts degree from FAMU and continued on to earn his MFA from the Cranbrook Academy of Art where he specialized in printmaking. In 1993-1994, he was awarded the prestigious J. William Fulbright Scholarship Award to South Africa and curated a traveling exhibition entitled “Sicula Sixhentsa Xa Sisonke: The South African Aesthetic.” He returned to FAMU as a faculty member in 2000, and served as gallery director from 2003-2008. Wiltsher was promoted to facilitator of the Visual Arts Program in 2006. He added the arts administration/museum studies/art history and animation tracks and has built the program back up to 35 majors on average. He also initiated the Horizons summer art camp program that was offered to children in grades 6-12. When student Samantha Christian won a Verizon-sponsored art competition, $20,000 was given to the program, which was then used to upgrade the computer lab used for design, media and animation courses today.
In 2017, the Visual Arts Program received a donation of 155 works of African art from the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida. This established a permanent collection of African and Diaspora art to inspire and educate the FAMU, Tallahassee and Leon County communities.
“Elizabeth Ann Kirby.” Tallahassee Democrat (23 May 2018), https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/tallahassee/obituary.aspx?n=elizabeth-ann-kirby&pid=189077736. Accessed 11 June 2018.
Florida A. and M. University Bulletin, Florida A & M University, Samuel H. Coleman Memorial Library
Keith, Naima J. “Samella Lewis,” https://hammer.ucla.edu/now-dig-this/artists/samella-lewis/. Accessed 18 June 2018.
Leininger, Theresa. “Samella Sanders Lewis.” In Notable Black American Women, ed. Jessie Carney Smith, 672-676. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.
-----. The New Negro Artist in Paris. New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 2000.
Reynolds, Gary A. and Beryl J. Wright. Against the Odds: African-American Artists and the Harmon Foundation. NJ: Newark Museum, 1989.
Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. “Augusta Christine Fells Savage.” In American Women Sculptors: A History of Women Working in Three Dimensions. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1950.
Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University, Atlanta. Samella S. Lewis papers, 1930–2010 .
Wiltsher, Harris. Interview by Courtnay Micots, 20 June 2018.
Yrabedra, Ron. Interview by Courtnay Micots, 27 June 2018.