The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is honoring Murry DePillars, the retired dean of the School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University who died Saturday, with a special showing of his 1997 painting “From the Mississippi Delta” (as seen above).
The acrylic-on-canvas work, measuring 42-1/2 by 32-1/2 inches, was a gift to the museum from VMFA’s Friends of African and African-American Art in 2006.
The painting will go on view when the museum opens Wednesday morning at 11.
“From the Mississippi Delta” reflects DePillars’ maternal roots in Gunnison in the Mississippi Delta.
DePillars, who was born in Chicago in 1938, was an artist-scholar of international renown who had lived in Richmond since 1971.
“Virginia has lost an important figure in the world of art, a man who was both an artist and an educator and who will be remembered and valued for his important contributions to both fields,” says Alex Nyerges, VMFA’s director.
“From the Mississippi Delta” is an important work that addresses racial turmoil in Mississippi and throughout the South, says John Ravenal, VMFA’s Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. The work was inspired by a play by Endesha Ida Mae Holland of Mississippi, a scholar and dramatist. One of her plays (also titled “From the Mississippi Delta”) reflected her move from poverty and prostitution in the segregated South to civil rights activism and an academic career. She died in 2006 at age 61.
DePillars embedded his composition with layers of symbolic and protective imagery. The central figure, a little girl, is waving goodbye to the unsafe place of her birth. The girl’s white dress is a metaphor for the act of removing children from unsafe environments, particularly from Mississippi, which many families fled to escape racial hostility, Ravenal says.
Delta quilt patterns known as “windmills” or “cartwheels” in each corner of the painting are metaphors for moving quickly through life’s underbelly. Other images – silhouetted nudes, serpents, the dress with a purple hem – symbolize and encapsulate the playwright Holland’s own dramatic evolution.
“DePillars’ sensitive treatment of these themes incorporates a palette alternating between vibrant and deep colors, thoughtful use of geometry, and fine brushwork honed over the course of his career,” Ravenal says.
DePillars taught at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, where he was dean of the School of Arts for two decades before his retirement in 1996. He was an academic specialist for the United States Information Agency in 1985 and was the USIA’s university affiliate in Zimbabwe in 1994. After he left VCU, he was executive vice president of Chicago State University for three years.
DePillars was a member of the arts collective AfriCobra. His work has been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is on the Boulevard at Grove Avenue. The galleries are open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. VMFA is an educational institution of the Commonwealth of Virginia and in 2008 celebrates 70 years as a leader in statewide arts education. Admission to the museum is free. For additional information about exhibitions and programs, telephone (804) 340-1400 or click here to visit the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Web site.
-- The copy and image above were provided by Suzanne Hall at the VMFA. The photograph of the DePillars painting is by Katherine Wetzel (2006).
Writing for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Jeremy Slayton looks at the impact DePillars has had on VCU, since his 1971 arrival:
Under two decades of leadership by Dr. Murry N. DePillars, Virginia Commonwealth University's School of the Arts developed and grew into one of the largest such programs in the country, colleagues said yesterday. Dr. DePillars, who retired from VCU in 1995, died at his Richmond home Saturday after a period of declining health. He was 69...
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