"I love the academic environment. I am a perpetual student." — Elmer Lucille Allen
When Kentucky Center for African American Heritage Center Director Aukram Burton describes Elmer Lucille Allen as, “one of our Elders,” he is not just acknowledging that the ceramic and fiber artist is an Octogenarian. The term carries weight in various cultures, but in parts of Africa it specifically denotes a connection to ancestors, the dead who remain vested with mystical power in the kin-group, and the elder’s authority stems from the idea that they are representatives of the ancestors to the contemporary community.
Elmer Lucille Allen is as approachable and convivial as anyone you would ever meet, but she is a “senior” (the far less satisfying American appellation) who has never truly retired. She earned the gold watch, so to speak, after 31 years as a chemist at Brown-Forman, where she was the first African American chemist to be hired (in 1966). In the twenty years since she retired, she has established herself as one of the most important artists in Louisville and an important influence on succeeding generations.
In person, Ms. Allen is an archetypal matriarch, speaking in the unadorned but nurturing language you would expect from any great-grandmother. She exhibits little outward evidence of the depth of her academic background, the years spent as a community activist, and the position she occupies in local history; she never wears her ‘status’ on her sleeve. She puts it this way: “I take it as an honor because what I do is part of who I am.”
“I became involved in the art scene in the early 1980s when Ken Clay, then head of Renaissance Development, held the first African American (AA) Arts Conference at the Galt House. After this conference, the Kentucky Coalition for Afro-American Arts, Inc. (KCAAA) was formed. I was the first and only president of this organization that lasted 10 years. When I decided that I did not want to continue as President, the treasury was donated to the Arts Council of Louisville. I was a charter member of the ACOL and a treasurer for four years.”
Ms. Allen states she has never felt a bias in the arts, but her history before she was an artist is another matter, and reflects the time. “Remember, I came up through a segregated system and did not have classes with a white person until I was a junior in college. I experienced racial difference when Nazareth College (now Spalding University) graduates in 1953 were looking for a place to host a graduation event. The event was eventually held at the Knights of Columbus Hall.”
“When I graduated I could not get a job as a chemist in Louisville. The only jobs available were teaching. My first job was as a clerk typist in Indianapolis, Indiana, at Fort Benjamin Harrison. There was bias on that job - one person from a city in Indiana had never been around a "colored" person, but you have to be who you are and stand up for what you believe. ‘Speak to a person even if the person does not acknowledge you.’”
Allen took her first pottery class at Seneca High School in the late 1970’s after her children were all grown and out of the house. She never gave empty nest syndrome a chance, following up with mold ceramics or pottery classes through JCPS and New Albany adult education. But this was still just the beginning: “Then I enrolled in a ceramics class at Metro Arts Center where I studied with Melvin Rowe. Also, while I was a student there I had the pleasure to meet Laura Ross, a national ceramic artist who encouraged me to take classes at the University of Louisville with internationally recognized ceramicist Tom Marsh.”
But studying ad hoc wasn’t enough, and, after retiring she decided to seek a masters in ceramics at U of L. It was while studying for her master’s that she was introduced to a second art media - fiber/textiles. “My thesis exhibition consisted of stenciled wall hangings and over 200 reduction fired porcelain sculptural boxes that were placed on boards on the floor, which meant you had to view the pieces while standing.”
Whatever racial or gender restrictions she encountered in her earlier life, Allen’s first years in the art world were mostly lacking in such difficulties. “I have not experienced any discrimination as a woman artist or as an artist of color. My work does not depict any culture - it speaks for itself. I create work that I enjoy making. I do not do commissions. I have been fortunate because I did not have to depend on selling art for a living. I retired in 1997 and have been volunteering in some capacity ever since.”
Yet she is not blind that many artists of color find it a challenge to reach wider audiences and secure their place at the larger community table, particularly in the visual arts world. “I think that one organization needs to take control. At the present every organization's president has their own agenda and is not looking out for other persons or organizations, and small organizations normally do not have a specific place, computer equipment, or expertise for such large undertaking.”
One of the values of being an Elder is that you have been a witness to the changes in the arts and cultural landscape that surrounds you. Allen can recount a time when there was much effort in the name of unity and inclusion. “Years ago, Louisville Visual Art had a large (non-digital) database of artists and arts organizations. The Kentucky Arts Council funded two directories of African American artists in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Two conferences were held, one in Lexington, and one in Louisville. They conducted free workshops for the community at the Chestnut Street YMCA, West End branch of the YWCA, as well as other venues. Bale McKnight, who conducted drum making at the YMCA, created a drum that was in Chickasaw Park, which was the first public art project in the West End. KCAAA was the fiscal agent for Educations Arts and the dance group founded by Harlina Churn.” You see, Elders know the history.
So how does Louisville recapture that level of motivation again? What actions need to be taken today to build a functional community network? Allen feels, “Everyone is waiting for someone else to do the hard work,” but individuals who want to be leaders need to focus on developing their game in crucial ways; Elders also get to give advice:
- Organizational and leadership skills are a must.
- You have to show up and be willing to assume responsibilities.
- You must not be afraid to fail. You learn from your mistakes.
- You, as a leader, must be presentable and responsible for your actions at all times. Remember the golden rule - Do unto others as you want others to do to you.
- You must be punctual.
- Respect the time of others. Meetings should have an agenda and should not exceed two hours.
So how does this near-iconic status affect Elmer Lucille Allen’s work as an artist? Or does it? “My work is not impacted by my place in history,” states Allen. ”The work that I have done since 1981 speaks for itself. I have been the volunteer curator/director of Wayside Christian Mission's Wayside Expressions Gallery since 2005. My goal is to showcase artists, some of which have never exhibited. My second goal has been to have an African American artist or artists for February. I have done the scheduling, press releases, fliers, finding new artists, etc., from my home. I think my presence in the art world has afforded me the opportunity to be asked to serve as judge for the 2016 Fund for Arts, as a panelist for Metro arts grants, etc.”
“I think that over the years, the community sees who is where and what you are doing. Action speaks louder then words.”
You can see Elmer Lucille Allen’s work as a part of the Louisville Visual Art exhibit Tessile Ora, at Metro Hall, now through May 26, 2017.
Louisville Defender – Lifetime Community Service Recognition Award (2016)
Outstanding Community Leader by Metro Council (2016)
Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft’s First Art and Advocacy Award – Bourbon Bash (2015)
Parkland Rising Up Project (2015)
Community Spirit Award given by the University of Louisville College of Arts and Science and the Yearlings Club (2015)
Spalding University Caritas Medal (2011) - the highest honor awarded to an alumnus
This Feature article was written by Keith Waits.
In addition to his work at the LVA, Keith is also the Managing Editor of a website, www.Arts-Louisville.com, which covers local visual arts, theatre, and music in Louisville.
Entire contents copyright © 2016 Louisville Visual Art. All rights reserved.