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Friday, June 30, 2006

An Afternoon With Ms. Lilian Thomas Burwell

The DC Black Artists appropriately ended its season of member artists studio visits at the Highland Beach Studio Home of Lilian Burwell. The significance of the excursion was inspirational as Lilian shared with us stories of her remarkable upbringing and support system, her lifelong dedication and continuing commitment to being an artist and the living evidence of her efforts.

Burwell strongly believes, and encouraged us also to realize that,

“One of the primary forces that has enabled people as a whole, and our people in particular, to find answers critical to survival, is the creative spirit original to each of us.” She encouraged us to each “doggedly pursue our own individual visions, and not to be seduced by the siren call of a derivative marketplace. There are many tangential means and supports, which can allow us to be true to ourselves while we follow the sound of our own drummer’s drumbeat. Without that constant and determined search, we’ve little chance of being what we’re destined to be. Remember...the struggle continues.”

Highland Beach, where Lilian now lives after most of her life in Washington, was the first black resort community in this country. It preceded such social communities as Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard of Cape Cod in the northeast and Idlewild, Michigan in the Middle West. Frederick Douglass’ son Charles is alleged to have been denied access to a resort facility adjacent to the area. He returned to Washington, DC and put together the resources to purchase the land and develop the Highland Beach resort community. Among other amenities, Highland Beach remains today a largely Black independent community maintaining a park, a pier, a beach, the Frederick Douglass museum & historical society and a year round residential community. It is significant that Lilian Burwell chose to “cast down her bucket” here.

The screened front porch entranceway where the DCBA members have discarded their outer shoe wear is cool and comfortable. Once indoors, the transformation is remarkable. The ceiling is vaulted and the open plan great room is illuminated by multiple window and sky lit exposures. We are in the live-work and display space dominated by free-formed mobile curvilinear walls. The color and scale of these sculptural forms reflect the salient recurring theme of the seashore, the bird-life and the gray atmosphere of this rainy Monday afternoon. Lilian has recreated and brought indoors the very character of the external environment. It is here in this theatre in the round that she shares her message of commitment and dedication of purpose.

She shared with us the economic creativity she employed to develop her studio/home, making her space a continuing work in progress of her own art. Her bathroom, which took her almost a year to complete, is her latest sculptural installation. She has designed her entire home to display her ‘journey from painting to painting as sculpture’. Our visit and the discussion of how she plowed under one consecutive crop after another to reach this place led to the decision to have a DCBA workshop to address and evaluate the possibility of such endeavors by the group.

We shared a lunch, a workshop in paper sculpture, and an informative and serene afternoon. On behalf of DC Black Artists, thank you again Lilian, for being such a gracious host on a memorable afternoon.

Frank Smith


At 2:58 AM, Anonymous Hugeaux said...

This is truly a inspiration commentary. Included in this commentary should also be American Beach, Northeast Florida.

The first African American beach in the United States of American founded by African American millionaire Abraham Lincoln Lewis(insurance tycoon).

I did a nature photography exhibit On-Line of American Beach. You can find it in the ARCHIVES of



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