A CONVERSATION WITH GWENDOLYN KNIGHT
By Charles H. Rowell
Callaloo, Vol. 11 No. 4, p. 689-696
ROWELL: Will you talk about black women painters in terms of their audience? The general American viewer doesn't seem to know much about black women painters. Actually, American viewers know very little about black art. Would you talk a bout your career in terms of acquiring an audience?
KNIGHT: I guess until recently I really didn't have that much exposure. I was on the WPA Mural Project as an assistant, but it is only recently that my work has begun attracting some attention. In spite of that, over the years I have kept working. The first one-person exhibit I had was here in Seattle in 1976. It was sponsored by the Seattle Links, Inc., when they hosted a meeting here for the National Links, Inc. They asked me to show my paintings, and I did. So after that, Francine Seders asked me to join her gallery, and that's where it all started. Before that I was just exhibited once here or once there, whenever somebody would ask me. That's the way it was.
I think that is the way it is or has been for a lot of women artists. In the black community [Harlem] where I lived, Augusta Savage was probably the best known woman artist. There was also Selma Burke. Both were sculptors. Those women you see in the photograph there [pointing]. . . I don't think I have heard anything much about them since. Georgette Seabrooke, I think, shows sometimes, but I don't think they have galleries or are shown consistently like the black male artists. The problem is not unique to the black woman artist; it's been that way for many other women artists, too. But I think it's more intensified for the black woman artist. I can't think of many who are well known. Well, recently there's Elizabeth Catlett whose work we all know. And then there are women like Samella Lewis, who is a painter. She has also been doing an awful lot of writing and organizing exhibits of black artists. There is also Lois Maloi Jones. But I don't think it's more intensified for the black woman artist. I can't think of many who are well known. Well, recently there's Elizabeth Catlett whose work we all know. And then there are women like Samella Lewis, who is a painter. She has also been doing an awful lot of writing and organizing exhibits of black artists. There is also Lois Maloi Jones. But I don't think that any black woman artist is known the way the black male artists are known.
ROWELL: Would you talk about the subjects and the media of your wor? Your paintings are very different from the drawing that you sent me.
KNIGHT: Well, that was an ink drawing on paper, and it was done from the model. The model was playing a flute. This is an oil painting-I started with three figures on the canvas, actually. I said, "I'm going to do this painting, three figures on a canvas, it will be three female figures." And then, once I set that stage, it happens that some other spiritual, psychological things come into it. So I find myself doing a sort of female painting. That's what it turned out to be. . . .
ROWELL: Would you say more about what you called female painting as opposed to feminist painting?
KNIGHT: I think feminist painting has something to do with the intellectual, with philosophy, and you're putting into visual language what you should have and what's happening to you-it's more protest with feminist painting. A female painting has something to do with the psyche. I think it has to do with what's happening inside of you, your psyche and being a woman. It comes out in what you do. A feminist painting. . . intellectualizes the problems and sets them forth. Georgia O'Keefe did female paintings. So did Loren MacIver. Maybe Susanne Valadon or Marie Laurenchin. . . They all have the quality of being a woman. It comes out; you don't set out to say "I'm going to paint the qualities of being a woman."
ROWELL: How did you become an artist? What motivated you to become an artist?
KNIGHT: I've been asked that before, and I really can't tell you. I know that from the time I was a little child, I liked to do portraits, and I used to do portraits of everybody, and they would say, "God you did that ugly thing of me?" So I don't know when it really started. In high school I always took the art classes, and I was fairly well received. . . I even won a prize. And in my freshman and sophomore years I had a very good art teacher who really supported me. So when I got ready to go to college, I said I was going to the art school.
ROWELL: And you went to Howard University?
KNIGHT: I stayed there two years; I didn't stay the rest of the time. Lois Maloi Jones, who was my teacher at Howard, was very supportive. Mr. Porter wasn't. Mr. Wells was. I had this support, but I suppose that most people looked at women artists as if they were merely china painters on velvet. So they weren't really serious about pushing women artists. A woman artist would have to push herself and I haven't that kind of temperament. I think Elizabeth Catlett has that sort of drive and Lois Maloi Jones has that sort of real drive. But I don't.
ROWELL: You were denied exposure for such a long time. How did you sustain yourself to keep your imagination alive, to keep on painting?
KNIGHT: First of all, I wasn't really concerned with exterior motivation; it wasn't necessary for me to have acclaim. I just knew that I wanted to do it, so I did it whenever I could. And I didn't feel any pressure to work. I work when I want to work. . . . Even in getting in a gallery here, I never went out and asked anybody to put my works in a gallery. I guess my temperament is such that I don't depend on outer stimulation. I like it-I like the support-I like it when people like what I'm doing. But even if they didn't I wouldn't simply say I'd stop, even though it would maybe be a little disappointing.
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