Some Monroe area artists recently started an organization to honor of one of their predecessors.
About a year ago, the Robert Seldon Duncanson Society was formed by several artists, including Dora Kelley, Sandy Vanisacker, Jeff Albergo and Patrick Barley, its founder and president.
Today, its membership and support have grown, and the society is preparing for its biggest events to date: Feb. 19’s “Robert Seldon Duncanson’s Legacy: A Celebration of Black Artists” and a month-long art exhibit featuring African American artists.
The newly formed society is named for Duncanson, an African American landscape artist who lived from 1821-1872. He came to Monroe at age 7.
Duncanson and his brothers worked as house painters in Monroe, according to research by Florence Buchanan. Later, Duncanson expanded to glasswork and portrait painting.
At age 19 he left Monroe and found his claim to fame: landscape art. Duncanson became one of the few African American 19th-century landscape artists and achieved international fame. He’s buried in Monroe.
“He lived here as a child. We consider him a Monroe native. He still has relatives in Monroe,” Vanisacker, an area artist and society member, said. “We are definitely keeping his association with Monroe right here in Monroe.”
Duncanson’s art was appreciated in his day, but today, his popularity has exploded.
“His art is in the Smithsonian. It’s selling many places around the world. Now, his artwork is basically unattainable, even in Paris,” Vanisacker said.
“A lot are selling over a $1 million. Duncanson’s sold more painting than Van Gogh,” Albergo said.
Last year, the Bidens chose Duncanson’s piece “Landscape with Rainbow” for the White House.
“That got all this going,” Kelley said.
Soon after, a local committee was formed. Its purpose was to recognize Duncanson’s 200th birthday, but things spiraled from there.
Barley secured grants from the La-Z-Boy Foundation, City of Monroe, Monroe NAACP, Monroe Rotary Club, individuals and others.
On the urging of the then-new Robert Duncanson Society, both the City of Monroe and the State of Michigan declared Robert Seldon Duncanson Days in 2021.
Last summer, several Plein Air Paint-Outs took place. Participants painted outdoors, in nature light, just as Duncanson did years earlier.
“We started out with four and have done 10. It was a contest, and cash prizes were awarded,” Vanisacker said. “People from Detroit came down. We’re going to build on that. Other towns have paint-outs in the name of Duncanson. Plein air and landscape art were his specialties.”
Future goals of the society include offering art classes, promoting Black history and expanding art education.
“We have a lot of teachers (involved). We are creating a syllabus for teachers to take back to the classroom,” Vanisacker said. “We want Monroe and the Monroe art world to grow.”
The society’s biggest events to date have already begun
In honor of Black History Month, works by 11 African American artists from the Detroit Fine Arts Breakfast Club will be on display through Feb. 28 in the amphitheater at the River Raisin National Battlefield Park’s Education Center Visitor Center, 333 N. Dixie Highway. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is free. Masks are required.
- Walter Bailey, an artist for more than 50 years. He invented the “aCRYLIC Fusion aRTS” medium and has earned numerous art awards.
- Nathan Spratt Jr., a visual artist who currently works in acrylics and pastels.
- Dawud Shabazz, an abstract artist. His main intention, he said, is to “capture the eye of the beholder and spark a moment of serenity.”
- Jonathan Harris, a visual artist who majored in graphic design and minored in studio art. He works in oil paints, acrylics and charcoal and is known for an oil enamel technique.
- Reggie Singleton, who majored in fine arts at Wayne State University. He’s worked primarily in wood sculpture since 2010.
- Izaiah Ford, a self-taught artist who uses art to teach about Black history.
- Darrin Darby, a self-taught visual artist. In 2014 he created a new art technique he calls Laypuzzim, a layered puzzled image.
- Terrell Anglin, who studied at Kendall Art and Design School and uses a blow torch to create figurative artwork.
- Patricia Baker, a self-taught mixed media artist and retired educator. Her mediums are pen and ink, markers, acrylic and watercolor.
- Priscilla Phifer, a self-taught abstract expressionist. Her work has been displayed locally, and she’s a published author.
- Jide Aja, a Nigerian-born artist who’s worked in Detroit for more than two decades. He works in acrylics and water-based paint, and his genre is abstraction.
“The artists are a good demonstration of the many different ages and experiences,” Kelley said.
The artwork will be on display during the society’s second event this month, the inaugural “Robert Seldon Duncanson’s Legacy: A Celebration of Black Artists,” set for 5 to 8 p.m. Feb. 19 in the amphitheater at the River Raisin National Battlefield Park’s Education Center Visitor Center on N. Dixie Highway. Admission is free. Masks are required.
“It’s going to be big,” Vanisacker said. “The biggest Black artists in the country are in Detroit. I think they are thrilled to be asked (here). There is a tremendous quality of art in Detroit, and it’s growing. We’re part of Detroit. Monroe’s part of the art world in Detroit. Bringing those artists down will emphasize this,” Vanisacker said.
Dr. Kojo A. Quartey, president of Monroe County Community College, is the master of ceremonies for the Feb. 19 event, and will speak.
Many of the artists also will talk about their work and show some pieces.
“They will have time to present themselves, their accomplishments, pieces of art, what they are working on,” Vanisacker said. “Guests can ask questions.”
Henry Harper, co-founder of the Detroit Fine Arts Breakfast Club, will speak via video.
The keynote speaker is Bailey, a 73-year-old artist who’s been creating art since 1977. He has six works at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
An unsigned Duncanson piece, on loan from an art collector, will be displayed.
“It’s confirmed Duncanson by the Detroit Institute of Arts. That’s exciting,” Kelley said.
A reception will be held and will allow visitors to meet with the artists.
Videos from artists also will be shown in the amphitheater and inside the building.
“It’s an art show in motion. Guests can travel around the building and view what is going on and see some of the art. There’s a lot for them to look at,” Vanisacker said.
Funding for the event came from La-Z-Boy Foundation. Kelley of Monroe is the event chairperson.
Kelley met the members of the Detroit Fine Arts Breakfast Club when she worked to mark the grave of Duncanson in Monroe’s Woodland Cemetery. The club helped pay for the memorial, which was installed in 2019.
“She went about gathering funds and was meeting people in the Detroit area,” Vanisacker said.
Kelley has been involved with the organization ever since. She said the artists are looking forward to the Monroe events.
“They respect Monroe. They’re so excited that they have this exposure,” Kelley said.
The Robert Seldon Duncanson Society meets at 6 p.m. the first and third Thursdays of each month at the United Way building.
Next up for the Robert Seldon Duncanson Society:
- Local Black artists will be celebrated in May or June, during a program at MCCC. The program will focus on art and history and possibly feature Toledo-area Black contemporary artists.
- “Women Artists of Color” is in the works for July or August in downtown Monroe. Members of the Toledo Black Artist Coalition may speak.
- A celebration of Duncanson’s contributions is set for next winter. Organizers are hoping to include national and international participants.
The events are offered with grants from the La-Z-Boy Foundation.