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Coming Home: The Works of Beauford and Joseph Delaney

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By Christy Howard Womack

Perhaps we only leave 
So we may once again arrive,
To get a bird’s eye view
Of what it means to be alive.
For there is beauty in returning,
Oh how wonderful, how strange,
To see that everything is different
But know it’s only you who’s changed.
Erin Hanson

The Knoxville Museum of Art is committed to bringing Beauford and Joseph Delaney home to Knoxville, because they know how inspiring their story of coming from humble beginnings to worldwide recognition as creative geniuses could be to the future art students in our community. 

Stephen Wicks, curator of the Knoxville Museum of Art, first met Joseph Delaney in 1990 when Wicks worked for KMA. Wicks met Joseph and other members of the Delaney family and saw Beauford’s work in storage that Joe had brought back from Paris after his brother’s death. 

“We had great paintings by Joseph, but nothing by Beauford at the time,” said Wicks. “Beauford was the big missing piece in the KMA’s gallery landscape.” Wicks contacted the family who in the late 1990s lent two beautiful abstract paintings from the estate for viewing at KMA. The museum hosted a major exhibition of Beauford’s work in 2005, Beauford Delaney: From New York to Paris, with paintings loaned from many prominent museums from all around the world.

“For East Tennesseans who didn’t know or appreciate Beauford Delaney’s art, this provided the external validation that some people needed,” explained Wicks.

Wicks, along with Executive Director David Butler and a group of KMA trustees and stakeholders, went to Columbia University’s Paris campus last year for a show of Beauford Delaney’s work, and the visit lit a fire under the team. “We had been thinking about Beauford for a long time as one of our institutional priorities,” said Butler. “But the moment when we saw this guy from Knoxville, who went on to operate in the wider artistic world, being celebrated in Paris with an international reputation, it was a lightbulb moment. 

“Here he was being celebrated in Paris and there was hardly anything in Knoxville. We realized what this could mean for us as a community, to be able to hold up as an example, what someone from Knoxville, the segregated South at the time, could do. It’s a thrilling and inspiring story,” Butler continued.

Certainly. Beauford was born in Knoxville in 1901 to a Baptist minister Samuel Delaney and his wife Delia Johnson Delaney who recognized and nurtured her sons’ artistic talents. Beauford, along with his younger brother Joseph, grew up in the heart of Knoxville’s “particularly sophisticated and educated black community.” When he was fourteen, Beauford received his first commission, and he met renowned Knoxville impressionist painter Lloyd Branson, who gave him art lessons in exchange for his doing odd jobs around the studio. In 1919 their father died suddenly, and that same year, the relative tranquility of Knoxville erupted into race riots.

In 1923, with the assistance of Branson, Beauford left Knoxville for Boston, where he studied art and in 1929 he moved to New York City where his artistic talents and outgoing nature attracted a host of cultural luminaries including James Baldwin, Duke Ellington, Henry Miller, who wrote about him, and Georgia O’Keeffe, who even painted Delaney’s portrait. In the time of the Great Depression, Delaney found work doing portraits and worked with the mural division of the Federal Art Project, under the Works Progress Administration. Beauford was a celebrated artist who was a part of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1930s and 40s. In 1950 after a two-month fellowship at Yaddo Art Colony, a retreat for artists in Sarasota Springs, New York, he was inspired to travel to Europe. In 1953, he settled permanently in Paris, arguably the most sophisticated artistically enlightened place on earth, where he supported himself through the occasional sale of his art as well as contributions from friends. 
While his talent never met with economic success during his lifetime, Beauford had an outgoing personality that attracted other artistic people. “He had a magnetically attractive personality that drew people to him, including the crème de la crème. He wasn’t successful commercially but he ran in lofty circles, and he made a real mark wherever he was,” explains Butler.

Now widely considered by many to be among the greatest American abstract painters of the twentieth century, Beauford achieved an international reputation for his portraits, scenes of city life, and free-form abstractions marked by intense colors, bold contours and expressive surfaces. Visible references to the outside world began to fade as the artist sought to battle his growing mental illness with what he believed to be the healing powers of light and brilliant hues. As the artist’s inner turmoil grew, so did the emotional intensity of his paintings. Lifelong friend James Baldwin described Delaney’s compositions as a “metamorphosis into freedom” fueled by a painted light that “held the power to illuminate, even to redeem and reconcile and heal.”

Existing mental health problems only intensified, and Beauford’s star faded long before his death in 1979 at a Paris mental hospital at the age of 78. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the Thiais cemetery. Monique Wells, a travel writer investigating African-American burial places in and around Paris, discovered the grave and she began a mission to honor Beauford. Wells founded a nonprofit association Les Amis de Beauford Delaney to spearhead a fundraising campaign to permanently preserve the gravesite and to establish memorials throughout Paris to recognize Beauford’s sites. Wells also organized the exhibition of Beauford’s work in Paris that the KMA delegation attended. 

Joseph Delaney has always been better known as an accomplished painter in Knoxville. Perhaps because he returned later in life to live in Knoxville. After high school Joseph left Knoxville and drifted before serving three years in the Eighth Illinois National Guard. In 1930 he decided to become a professional artist and moved to the creative arts community of Greenwich Village in New York City to join his older brother. He also painted portraits and worked with the WPA teaching art to inner city children, collaborating on public murals and illustrating archival inventories. Joseph was known for drawing the human figure and the events, struggles, and triumphs of ordinary existence. He exhibited his work annually in the Washington Square Park Outdoor Art Show. Later in his career, Delaney would execute portraits of Eleanor Roosevelt, Eartha Kitt, Tallulah Bankhead and Eubie Blake among other notables. Joseph was well known for his signature works: urban scenes that celebrate the landmarks and liveliness of the city. In 1985, he returned to Knoxville to live out the remainder of his life, as an artist in residence at the University of Tennessee, which mounted his first retrospective in 1986. Joseph died in 1991, five years after he returned to Knoxville.

In 2006, the travelling exhibition Life in the City: The Art of Joseph Delaney helped him achieve greater national recognition. Joseph Delaney’s works can be found in the nation’s premier museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Chicago Art Institute and the National Academy of Design among others.

Wicks hopes to expand KMA’s collection so the Delaney brothers’ hometown museum will become the center for excellence for art of Beauford and Joseph Delaney. “We’d like to top the international list of the place you would go to see their work,” said Wick. “It’s an attainable goal.”

Stephen Wicks rejoined KMA in 2007 and Butler had been hired as director a year or so before. “David proposed the brilliant and long overdue idea that the museum establish an ongoing exhibition devoted to the history of art in East Tennessee, which was music to my ears. In the course of putting together this display, which we named Higher Ground, we included great examples of paintings from our collection by Joseph Delaney and quite a few other leading artists from our area. Since we owned nothing by Beauford, we had to borrow works from the artist’s estate. Several years after Higher Ground opened, the Aslan Foundation awarded the KMA a significant fund for acquisitions. The foundation admired what we had been able to build with next to nothing. Now they wanted to see what we could do if we had a bona fide fund to work with.”

With these new funds, Wicks recognized an opportunity to fill the most significant gap in the KMA collection – the absence of any art by Beauford Delaney, Knoxville’s most internationally heralded modern painter. He worked with the attorney for the estate and selected a group of approximately 40 drawings and 1 oil painting that were purchased from the estate between 2014 and 2016. These works were introduced to area audiences in the 2017 KMA exhibition, Gathering Light: Art by Beauford Delaney from the KMA Collection.

The KMA is currently raising funds for another significant purchase from the estate – nine additional works by Beauford (five oils and four works on paper). As Wick explains, “this latest purchase promises to establish the KMA as owning the largest museum collection of Delaney’s art in the world. We are capitalizing on a moment that a year or two from now might be long gone with the estate is liquidated. Once those paintings leave the estate and go to commercial galleries in Chicago and New York they will be priced through the roof. African American art is enjoying a long overdue renaissance. Collectors far and wide are paying attention to these master painters.” Earlier this month three paintings were sold in New York by Beauford Delaney that were priced between $975,000 and $1,250,000 for a single painting. 
“African American artists were written out of history for years. That historic injustice is being corrected by the marketplace. The market is changing quickly. We are trying to get as much as we can while some are still within reach, still it’s a stretch for us even now,” says Butler.

After the KMA’s 2017 Beauford Delaney acquisition effort concludes, Wicks hopes to turn his attention to acquiring additional works by Joseph Delaney to complement the three existing paints in the KMA collection. He points out, however, that the University of Tennessee’s Ewing Gallery is by far the leading repository of Joseph’s work. “Between Ewing Gallery and the KMA – assuming our 2017 acquisition is successful – Knoxville will be the center of excellence for the art of Beauford and Joseph Delaney.”

In order to create greater visibility for the brothers’ legacies, the KMA plans to present an exhibition devoted to Joseph’s in late 2018 and Beauford’s in late 2019, the latter of which would be accompanies by an international symposium.

The KMA is also working with other local cultural entities toward the goal of solidifying the Delaney family’s local legacy in a community-wide effort spearheaded by KMA trustee Sylvia Peters and supported by the Knoxville chapter of The Links, Incorporated, an organization of professional women of color. “We are also working with the Beck Cultural Exchange Center to form a viable plan for the Delaney home, which happens to be next door to the Beck Center, to make it into a cultural destination.  As a direct result of inspiration stemming from two plaques that honor Beauford in the Montparnasse district of Paris, the East Tennessee History Center has received approval for the installation of a double-sided marker that honors Beauford and Joseph near the original Delaney home,” said Butler.

There are also plans to have musical compositions that celebrate the life of Beauford Delaney. The Marble City Opera is producing a new opera about Beauford Delaney with a libretto by Knoxville writer Emily Anderson. And another musical composition is planned as well. 
“We feel an obligation as an art museum in Knoxville to work with the Beck Cultural Exchange Center and the University of Tennessee and the East Tennessee Cultural Center, to tell the story of Beauford Delaney,” says Butler. “My experience is that everyone who gets involved with him falls in love with him. I’ve seen it happen again and again. His is a story of an artist, but it’s also a story of a human being.

“We hope together to be sponsoring a whole series of events to introduce Beauford to a wider audience in his hometown. We want to develop curricular materials for the schools. Students from the Knoxville school system should know and celebrate who he was,” Butler continued.
“We want to work with the area schools on an outreach program about the Delaney family and the two stellar artists it produced. We want young creative people living in Knoxville to learn about Beauford and Joseph and be inspired to pursue their dreams with a similar intensity and relentlessness,” furthered Wicks. 

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