Art through dark lenses: ‘The Hampton Years’ play

By Briana Oates

As I looked through archives from Hampton University's museum, there is a whole box just for artist Viktor Lowenfeld: All of this books, a few artwork pieces, and also articles that he contributed to specific art journals. "The Nature of Creative Activity" by Lowenfeld was one of his well-known books. The book talks about experimental, comparative studies of visual and non-visual sources of drawing, painting and sculpting. What is so fascinating about this book is when looking through the types of topics; they were unique to its own discussion; such as looking at blind objects, different cultures, expression, attitudes, space and physical weak elements.

It shows that Lowenfeld was a creative, visual thinker. He saw things and people that were different, not just unique but beautiful. People who did not have a voice could speak through their art. "The Hampton Years," directed by Chris Hanna and written by Jacqueline E. Lawton, tells the story of artist Lowenfeld and his relationship with his art students at Hampton Institute. There was a connection between Lowenfield and his students and how being a Jewish refugee in World War II can impact another person's life such as students being a minority in the South. The students are able to connect with Lowenfeld through art.

Some of his students included John Biggers and Samella Lewis, who was also mentored by notable artist Elizabeth Catlett. In a statement by Lawton on her website, she talks about what fuels her passion in theater. "Theater that is magic," she said. "That provokes and pushes boundaries. That poses questions. That reflects the human condition. I'm inspired to write about history, paintings, music, heartbreak, hope, memory, negligence, and injustice as it relates socially, politically, and historically to who I am as an African-American woman."

What makes this play unique is that it talks about the hard lessons that African Americans had to learn, while living in the South during the 1930s and 1940s. The reality was that Hampton Normal and Agriculture as it was once called did not believe in the values of art. However, Lowenfeld saw art as a complex psychological statement. It was intricate and even related to the healthiness of the mind.

Lowenfeld created the foundation for art to become a department at Hampton because African-Americans did not have freedom of expression. He wanted the students to express themselves because it helped them to establish cultural identity and a healthy well-being. In the book "Five Decades" by John Biggers about the Hampton art tradition, Lowenfeld mentioned in the book that, "art has been frequently expressed to imitate "superior" white group- one inhibiting factor of genuine art." He challenged his students to think outside of normal capacities and to draw, paint, sculpt truly how they felt.

For instance, Samella Lewis created a piece called "Field." When looking at the woodcut artwork, the lines on the man and creation of the field depict the harshness of the work and the shape of the sun created in circles shows endless work that slaves had to do in the hot sun. This artwork is a true expression. Lowenfeld taught his students to create realness and that was one of many things genuine for African Americans.

In a past interview with the New York Times, Sanders explained her artwork. She said, "I needed a voice and they needed a voice. I had things to say about the social situation at that time. There was a hurt inside of me that I could not get rid of unless I understood it a little better."

This play is a must see for all artwork lovers and students that are art majors. It gives you a sense of history into how art became a part of many people's lives, particularly African-Americans.

The birth of art and embracing its value to Hampton is credited to Viktor Lowenfeld. He had faith in his students that they could be great and there words could be heard through lines, paint, sculpture, color and many other art mediums.

"The Hampton Years" by The Virginia Stage Company at Wells Theatre in Norfolk, Virginia is running until Sunday. Feb. 7.

The writer is a student at the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications.

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