I am an introvert, a daydreamer—a mixed media fiber artist (dolls, quilts, and paintings). I was always interested in art and listening to my Aunt Lawrencie’s storytelling. I was not a good student in school. I even repeated the fourth grade (to my straight “A” English teacher mother’s dismay). My daydreaming became important later in my life.
Back on track, I made it out of high school. I went to high school at McKinley Tech. The last two years in high school, Sam Gilliam (an internationally acclaimed artist) was my art teacher. I didn’t realize what an opportunity I had at that time. In spite of myself, I was accepted to the D.C.’s Corcoran School of Art in 1965. I majored in advertising design because I thought that was the only way you could make a living as an artist. I later came to know there are many other ways to be a working artist.
While at the Corcoran, I met printmaker, Percy Martin, who later introduced me to Topper Carew of The New Thing Art and Architecture Center in Adams Morgan. In the summer of 1970, I worked in the art department at The New Thing with Percy Martin, Eric Marlow, Michael Platt, and Lynn Sylvester, creating posters, brochures, and teaching kids’ art projects. I also worked at Hurt’s Advertisement and Mantrap Boutique.
I went to work at Garfinckel’s department store for the Christmas holidays and stayed on for 13 years. I started on the sales floor and ended in the buying office. Working at Garfinckel’s taught me discipline and how to tell a story with merchandise. I learned the ups and downs of retail. I discovered who I was as a Black person. I saw the “lack” of black imagery and knowledge in mainstream life. So I started making my own “Black” notecards and creating my “signature” style paintings of Black people in daily life in detail.
While at Garfinckel’s, I had started making little dolls as a request from the images in my paintings. I tried to sell them at Garfinckel’s, but they were not ready, so I took my cards, paintings, and dolls to the black community. Sun Gallery Art and Wonderful Things had introduced me to the Black artist communities and general arts community during the height of the Black Arts and Black Power Movements.
By May 1985, I had gained enough confidence to “step out on faith,” leave the security of a 9-to-5, and become a working artist. I figured if I failed, I could always come back to retail. I began doing craft/fine art festivals, Black memorabilia and doll shows, and shortly, I became a “suitcase” artist. To open new avenues to me, I illustrated and wrote two children’s books: I Remember 121 (1990) and Things I Like About Grandma (1991). Those books opened the door to school speaking engagements, gallery and museum exhibits, travel opportunities, and newspaper articles.
Then in 1992, I returned to retail as a shop owner at “1800 Belmont Arts,” located in Adams Morgan at the corner of 18th Street and Belmont Road, N.W., across the street from where The New Thing had been located twenty years before. Belmont Arts is where I gathered everything I had learned and experienced in my prior twenty years, put on my “big girl drawers,” and walked in faith. Belmont Arts housed ten Black artists who produced and sold our artwork in the three-story row house until 2001, when we relocated to the Brookland neighborhood in Northeast D.C. and ran Belmont Arts East until 2007. We became family and a strong community that continues to this day.
I realize when you walk your path, you are successful even in hard times and self-doubt. Whenever I was low, I remember my mother saying, “You can’t give up now. You’ve come too far!” So I’d dust myself off and go forward. Realizing that self-doubt can come from not seeing yourself in mainstream or seeing images of yourself that are vague, one-sided, or negative, I create from the “black perspective.” As an artist/writer, I unintentionally became a role model and a teacher of doll-making at the Smithsonian museums, the Children’s Museum, National Women’s Museum, D.C. Public Schools, and the D.C. Department of Recreation. All of these experiences presented me with opportunities to grow.
If you visualize your dreams or put them on paper, they will manifest in some form. Having said that, in 2016 I reconnected with my Garfinckel’s buyer, Amy Morgan, who now worked for Smithsonian Enterprises (which runs the museum shops) to produce my dolls, pins, cards, and artwork for the new National Museum of African American History and Culture gift shop. I said yes. That was an honor. I’m still producing work for the shop.
As artists, we should always be “evolving,” so instead of a “store front,” my studio is my home. I host four “open house” shows a year. I invite my artist friends, old and new, to exhibit, continuing the Belmont Arts legacy.
Finally, Art is life, spirit, energy, creation, and power. It lifts you up. Black Art is the fuel that comes from within. It is not about theories, juxtapositions, rhyme, or reason. It’s odorless, tasteless, faith, struggle, a farce. Art speaks without words, without touch, without sound, without hearing. It is power, which Black folks don’t always know they possess. That’s why Black artists must continue to tell “our” story.
Francine Haskins is a celebrated artist, children’s book author, and Afrocentric doll maker who participated in the Black Arts Movement’s institutions in her hometown of Washington, D.C., including her work at The New Thing, The Market Five Gallery, and the Miya Gallery.
Copyright © 2020 Francine Haskins. All rights reserved.
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