During her 70-year career she managed to balance her career as a curator, editor, a contemporary artist, and professor all while making history as the first African-American to earn a doctorate in fine art and art history from Ohio State University.
“I ran into problems of not only racism but also sexism,” she told The New York Times, “where my professors felt that women shouldn’t do welding” because of the heavy equipment involved. So she focused on painting and on broadening her study of art history, developing particular expertise in Asian and pre-Columbian art.
She earned a master’s degree there in 1948 — the year she married Paul G. Lewis, a mathematician — and in 1951 became the first Black woman to receive a Ph.D. in fine arts and art history at the university. A posting on a university website once called her “the godmother of African-American art,” Lewis said.
Growing up in New Orleans, Lewis was inspired at an early age by the city’s French Quarter where she began taking lessons from an Italian portrait painter and started drawing. Her first artwork sale was to her kindergarten teacher.
“All the other children were brown pigs, white pigs, so I drew a purple one,” Lewis said. “And I was determined that, in doing that pig, that I was not going to stay within anybody’s lines. I just drew lines, but then I moved outside of them. It was like the pig was vibrating.”
Over the years she would attend several different universities, including Dillard University and Hampton University, to nurture and perfect her craft before receiving her doctorate from Ohio State.
Lewis eventually moved to Los Angeles where she would teach multiple art courses on African and Chinese art, but due to the lack in racial inclusivity at her job with the Los Angeles County Museum, she spearheaded a multi-cultural art space that helped launch the careers of many Black artists in the Los Angeles area.
Never one to shy away from controversy, Lewis was vivid in her stance on protecting the work of women within her community.
“Black women are nurturers. We nurture our families by seriously listening to and seriously
considering what they tell us. We also have an obligation to see that valuing and collecting contemporary art is a significant aspect of nurturing. We must familiarize ourselves with our
historical and contemporary art in order to understand and know ourselves,” Dr. Lewis said.
Widely respected for teaching artists and hosting galleries across the country, Lewis will forever
be remembered as a pioneer of African-America art.
“They can tell us what will happen in the future,” she said. “They can tell us what we should have seen in the past.”