The HyLife: Driskell dedication: Collective colors weave a more just future for all
BY JESSICA ARENDS
On Oct. 7, about 300 people gathered to celebrate the life and legacy of world-renowned artist Dr. David Driskell, after whom Hyattsville’s largest park was recently renamed.
Dedication ceremony participants were drawn in by a freshly painted mural on the entrance road — its dynamic, abstract shapes announcing the park as a bold new space. Feather flags featuring Driskell’s paintings fluttered joyfully in the wind. Children dipped strips of fabric into vats of blue, red and orange and hung them on a line to dry. Residents created colorful and rustic tapestries by weaving long strips into community looms. A live DJ played upbeat songs over a loudspeaker.
“It’s like a quilt being stitched together — all this diversity,” Driskell’s daughter Daviryne Driskell-McNeill said as she raised her hands to indicate all the people and activities. “I think it is beautiful.”
Panelists, including Hyattsville Mayor Robert Croslin, Driskell family members, art curators, city staff and historians, shared passionate remarks frequently punctuated with enthusiastic applause.
“Dr. Driskell was a thoughtful, charismatic man who had the courage to advocate for African-American art when it was not popular to do so,” said Sarah Workneh, who was mentored by Driskell at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture; Workneh is now co-director of the school.
Many of Driskell’s paintings deal with themes of social justice, including “Behold Thy Son,” which was created in response to the slaying of Emmit Till.
Driskell was a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, where an education center was established in his honor in 2001. At age 88, he passed away from complications related to COVID-19, in April 2020.
According to Driskell’s wife, Thelma, nature provided him with inspiration and emotional balance in a segregated and unjust society. “In contrast to ugly behaviors, the trees are of beauty, love and always green,” she said. “Like his ‘Pine Trees’ painting shows: Even when the wind blows, the trees have resiliency and manage to still stand strong.”
The city began considering a new name for Magruder Park in 2019 after initiating a process to remove the “access to whites only” language, part of a restrictive covenant, from the park’s original 1927 deed. Over 800 names were submitted, with Driskell receiving 231 votes. “Namesake,” a Hyattsville Community Media film about the renaming process, premiered at the event.
“Today we honor an artist and educator for whom the color line was meant to be transcended,” said art historian Julie McGee. “To the community of Hyattsville: Today you have emancipated this place.”
Meagan Baco of the Anacostia Trails Heritage Area, Inc. helped to secure the $50,000 grant for the ceremony and upcoming park redesign. “By changing the covenant on the deed, we have exposed the inaccuracies of the public record and are correcting it here today. This project really is a model for the county, the state and the nation,” said Baco.
In addition to celebrating, the day was designed to facilitate healing, according to Allie O’Neill of the Neighborhood Design Center, who planned the community activities with Pyramid Atlantic Art Center. Painting murals, making wish trees and weaving on community looms not only honors the nature-inspired artwork of Driskell, but also accesses the healing power that can be found in nature and communal art-making, O’Neill said.
Peter Brooks of the Choptico Band of the Historic Piscataway Chiefdom led a call-and-response prayer to acknowledge the forced removal of Indigenous people from the area in the 1600s. The crowd clapped and sang along as two choirs led consoling hymns, including “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “This Little Light of Mine.”
The entrance mural was loosely inspired by Driskell’s mixed-media collages, which had to be studied and replicated piece by piece to create the mural. “To physically experience the brilliance of his work in that way — that was wonderful,” O’Neill said.
“In truth, Driskell’s studio was a theater of joy — full of color, drama, tribulations and magic,” said McGee. “For me, this is exactly what a park could be: a theater of joy. Welcome to the David C. Driskell Community Park.”
Jessica Arends is the arts, culture and lifestyle columnist for the Hyattsville Life & Times.