In the creative hands of the artist Whitfield Lovell, vintage pictures of African Americans who lived during the Emancipation Proclamation through the Civil Rights Movement are transformed into drawings that capture personal memories, ancestral connections and the collective American past. 

The breadth of the acclaimed contemporary artist’s work is traveling the country in Whitfield Lovell: Passages, which launched at the Boca Raton Museum of Art this past February. As his largest and most immersive exhibition, Passages focuses on this lost African American history. “I see the so-called ‘anonymous’ people in these vintage photographs as being stand-ins for the ancestors I will never know,” Lovell declares.

Showcased over the entire first floor of the museum, Irvin Lippman, executive director of  Boca Raton Museum of Art states, "There is a commanding attraction in Whitfield Lovell’s drawings. We become totally engaged as soon as we walk into the first gallery with The Kin Series (a group of Conte crayon drawings on paper that feature stark portraits of early- to mid-20th-century African Americans) on one side of the room and The Card Pieces (charcoal drawings with collaged playing cards) on the other ... In our modern-day world so feverishly focused on ever-decreasing attention spans, the depth of presence and history we experience throughout the exhibition reminds us that remembering the past does matter.”

Here, EBONY chats with Lovell about the genesis of his artwork and what he hopes visitors take away from this unprecedented installation. 

Deep River, Whitfield Lovell, 2013. Image: courtesy of American Federation of Arts, Whitfield Lovell and DC Moore Gallery, New York.

EBONY: How does it feel to have decades of your work encompassed in the immersive Passages experience?

Whitfield Lovell: It is always exciting to see this much work up at one time and I am pleased that more people will have the opportunity to see the two major installations and individual works in Passages. The strong, positive response from viewers has been gratifying. I have done many other works and series over the past three decades but this is a strong sampling of my oeuvre from these years. My only regret is that my parents and grandparents are not here to witness this achievement. They laid the groundwork for my success by always encouraging and supporting me to develop my artistic skills. They taught me so much about the world and their experiences and so much about our heritage.

How did the art programs you participated in during your youth help shape you as an artist? 

I always had a way of bonding with my art teachers. I am still in touch with several of them from junior high school through college. I learned how to stretch canvas at the age of fourteen with the artist Vincent Smith at the Whitney Museum Art Resources Center and studied with the artist and educator Randy Williams at the Metropolitan Museum of Art High School Programs from the time I was 15 until I was 24. Randy became my mentor. Having role models was key in being able to envision myself as a part of this community that is called the “art world.” During my teens, I took advantage of every art program that I could fit into my schedule. As a result, I advanced my skills and knowledge of art history. The really important thing is that art saved my life and gave me a sense of self-esteem and self-worth.

You traveled to Africa. How did that experience change the nature and scope of your artwork?

I had already traveled throughout Europe twice and had been well-trained in Eurocentric academic art practices and Western art history before I had the opportunity to travel to Africa. My travels in Egypt, Nigeria and the Republic of Benin heightened my awareness of the spiritual elements of my ancestry, which I then needed to fuse with my technical abilities.

Kin I (Our Folks), Whitfield Lovell, 2008. Image: the collection of Reginald and Aliya Browne © Whitfield Lovell. Courtesy DC Moore Gallery, New York and American Federation of Arts.

Your work focuses heavily on forgotten African American faces from the past. Is it your intent to make these faces seen again?

It is absolutely my intention to make these forgotten faces seen because they were all human beings and they had hopes and dreams like all of us. They helped build our nation and our culture, but their humanity was invisible and their contributions were uncredited. They were not acknowledged while they were here, but their survival is a testament to the human spirit. I feel privileged to afford those "old souls" whatever ounce of dignity and recognition that I can.

How have you used art to right some of the wrongs Black people have experienced in the past?

I am just an artist. I don’t have the power to right the wrongs of the past. What I can do, as an artist, is to help raise the consciousness of what life is like on this side of the human experience. That is what I believe the power of art can do. I hope I can always use my artistic abilities toward making the world a better place for all of us.

You're My Thrill, ©Whitfield Lovell, 2004. Image: courtesy DC Moore Gallery, New York, and American Federation of Arts.

What do you want visitors to get out of this exhibit and your decades of work capturing African American profiles?

I would like the art to make an impression that stays with the viewer, like when you go to a musical performance and you come away singing or humming tunes that are catchy and move you. I want the work to linger with the viewer after they have left the museum so that they contemplate the essential issues and ideas that the works address.

What is your favorite part of the exhibit?

I think of my creations as if they are my children. One doesn’t favor one child over another. I could never choose a favorite.

Where is your art taking you next?

I would like to continue traveling to absorb more of the culture from around the world. I would also like to show my work more internationally and broaden the scale and ambition of my art. Most of all I would like to continue growing spiritually and artistically. There is still so much to learn.

Whitfield Lovell: Passages, on display at the Boca Raton Museum of Art through May 21, 2023 and the tour will continue across Virginia, Arkansas, Ohio, North Carolina and Texas through January 2025.