Three world-class artists of color in residence at Zion Union Heritage Museum in Cape Cod — Joseph Diggs, Carl Lopes and Robin J. Miller — share a pride in their African-American heritage which informs their art, but their styles and techniques differ widely.
All practiced art full-time after other careers. Miller was an award-winning art teacher at P.S. 108 in the Bronx. Lopes was the beloved director of visual arts at Barnstable High School. Diggs was a flight attendant, which enabled him to see the world and its museums.
Lopes said, “During 35 years, I taught 3,500 students, which gave me insight into my own work.” When Miller created a hands-on history project, for which her students made a mixed-media collage on paper in the style of a “jazz quilt,” honoring African-American quilting women and jazzmen, it inspired her to create her own framed “narrative quilts.” (Diggs is also an awarded teacher who instructs teenage prisoners in “how to do art, and how to do life.”)
Growing up, Miller felt shame at being black; stating that nothing “encouraged us to feel we were of significance.” Two trips to Africa wowed her with “the intelligence of the people, their art and stories, the physical vistas of mountains, the colors,” inspiring both her art and pride in her heritage.
Her DNA revealed a mélange of West African nations including Benin, Senegal and Cameroon. “The west coast of Africa was the slave coast, but we are not just slaves; we were in America, but in Africa there were kingdoms and sophisticated civilizations before Europe.”
“I want to chronicle our story,” she said, and to do that, she picks themes and creates collections — rather than single pieces of art — around them, which practically dance out of their frames. After exhibitions, collections often become books, such as “Humble Village,” or one depicting Jesus’s life. (Her faith has been paramount to her development.) She’s been working on her Langston Hughes Collection, now showing at Zion, since 2000.
Lopes’s Cape Verdean ancestors of African and Portuguese descent emigrated to New Bedford three generations ago as whalers, fishers, mill workers and cranberry farmers. Those roots go back through slavery to Africa, and it is that African heritage he came to celebrate.
“At first I was a geometric artist,” he said, stretching acrylics on canvases over large tubes, using tonal scales from light to dark. In 2010, he acquired an African mask, inciting a new phase — inspired by “historical works of art, 1,000-year old masks from Africa, stone and wood carvings, ritual items,” like the antelope headdress used for farming ceremonies in West Africa in the painting “Warrior 1” at Zion.