Villanova, Pa. - The Villanova University Art Gallery presents the art of Frank Stephens in a solo exhibit spanning more than 40 years of painting by the celebrated illustrator and exhibit designer for The Free Public Library of Philadelphia. Entitled “Frank Stephens: Honoring My Heritage – A Retrospective”, the exhibit opens Friday, October 18, with more than 50 canvasses and illustrations. Many of the works are being shown for the first time.
Stephens' childhood dream of being an artist was considered far beyond the reach of a Black American growing up in the racially segregated United States of the 1940s. His mother told him otherwise; she turned out to be right. With his appointment as chief exhibitor and designer for Philadelphia's public library system, Stephens became the first African American to hold such high office at a major cultural institution in the United States. Of the paintings and illustrations in his Villanova exhibit, he says:
“My art is who I am, and I believe it to be good art. Art is not ethnic; only the subject matter is. It just so happens that my work was created by someone who is experiencing life as an African American.” Images in the exhibit range from sharply colored African masks to a soft-hued depiction of his wife Jeannette's garden at the couple's Philadelphia home.
Among Stephens' landscapes, seascapes, portraits and still lifes is his iconic illustration “To Be Black in America”. The 1970 image of a black arm and fist clenched above a chain and shackle bearing the American flag became a national symbol of the Civil Rights Movement of that era.
“He is a Renaissance man, and a wonderful painter,” says Temple University Curator Dr. Diane Turner, citing the many artistic honors Stephens has received for his illustrations, and more recently for his paintings by exhibit jurors. “Strong, colorful and moving” is how she describes his work.
His exhibits at Philadelphia's main library on Logan Square paid tribute to such authors as Charles Dickens, Beatrix Potter, Edgar Allen Poe, Pearl Buck, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin and Maurice Sendak. Thematic exhibits, including 'To Be Black in America' and 'Black Heritage, The Pride and the Wisdom' gained national recognition, as did those honoring performer, author and political activist Paul Robeson and contralto Marian Anderson, the first African American to sing as a member of the New York Metropolitan Opera. Both were Philadelphians.
With his outstanding career behind him, Stephens may now be found most days seated at his easel in his small studio. As mentor and teacher, he has helped many art students master their crafts and tune out the discouraging voices he heard along his path, the most frequent being, “You're never gonna make it, kid.” Often not mean-spirited, the warning was intended to prevent discouragement in face of the racial realities of America.
He recalls the parting words of his junior high school teacher who asked him about his future plans. When he said he wanted to be a painter, the teacher said, “Frank, the only brush you're gonna see is the broom at the end of a handle.” As a commercial art major in high school, he was shunted into lower-end graphic arts courses such as silk screening and sign painting, jobs that an African American might get. That slight may have saved his life.
In June 1950, on the eve of the Korean War, Stephens enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Once in, though, he was put in an infantry unit heading for Korea. As fortune would have it, the Air Corps was looking for someone with silk screening skills. At the time, navigational aids for fliers were being hand crafted one at a time by a large staff of artists. Silk screening would eliminate the duplication of effort. Stephens raised his hand.
Promotions quickly followed. A sergeant by the age of 19, he was given charge of the Graphic Arts Unit at Harlingen Air Force Base in Texas. He never went to Korea.
Returning to Philadelphia following his discharge, Stephens attended the Hussian School of Arts and the Philadelphia College of Art (now The University of the Arts), and lived the life of the starving artist. After class, he and fellow artists walked across the street to the Horn and Hardart automat, where they picked up ketchup packets to mix with hot water for 'tomato juice' dinners.
His prospects improved when he landed a job as a designer for the Naval Supply Depot. The Award of Esteem the agency accorded him in 1964 was among the first of scores of honors to follow. Over the next 49 years and still counting, he and his work have been cited by fellow artists, educational and cultural institutions, civic and community organizations, churches, government agencies, and by proclamation of elected officials in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Washington, D.C.
The “Best of the Best” award accorded him by Philadelphia's African American Museum in 2006 summarizes why: In addressing “the life and contributions of Frank Stephens,” Museum President and CEO Romona Riscoe Benson told the artist that: “Because of your insightfulness, vision and knowledge, you have made a difference in the total community of the arts well beyond this city, the region and across America. We extend to you our respect and gratitude . . . for the everlasting effect that you have had on others throughout your career.”
Stephens notes the passage by the celebrated African-American author James Baldwin that “to be a Negro in this country and to be conscious is to be in a rage most of the time.” Stephens, too, experienced the insults, indignities and cruelties directed at his race. Once, he and another African American soldier, both in U.S. full Army uniform, were kicked off a Greyhound bus at night in an empty South Texas prairie because the driver didn't want Black men on board after sunset.
“I experienced a lot of that kind of thing, but I never allowed it to make me bitter,” he says.
That's because, he says, his mother's encouragement and support trumped the negative voices that followed. “When everyone else was saying 'no', my mom was saying, 'You want to be an artist, I will help you.' She took in wash and ironing to buy me my supplies. That's faith, that's trust.”
Noting that he doesn't want the impression left that he was sole master of his fate, the artist cites three people without whom his climb might not have happened. Two are Ellen Shaffer, head of the Free Library's rare book department; and Dorothy Litchfield, who headed its print and picture department. “I was an illustrator when I joined the library. I didn't know anything about the care and treatment of rare books, or how to research the history of a print or picture. They showed me how, and did so generously. Whatever success our library exhibits achieved was theirs, too,” says the artist.
The third on his gratitude list is Charles Blockson, internationally recognized African-American studies scholar: “He helped me when I was with the library, and he's still teaching me my Black history,” says the artist.