A striking modernist painting depicting a Washington, DC neighborhood caught documentary filmmaker Cintia Cabib’s eye when she presented two of her films at the DC Historical Studies Conference in 2014. The painting, Third and Rhode Island, appeared on a brochure published by the DC Preservation League. The artist was Hilda Wilkinson Brown. Intrigued by the painting and curious about its creator, Cabib set out to find out what she could about the artist.
Her search led her to Wilkinson Brown’s niece, abstract artist Lilian Thomas Burwell. Wilkinson Brown had died in 1981, but Burwell was a fount of information about her aunt, who had inspired and encouraged her own career as an artist and educator. She also owns the majority of Wilkinson Brown’s artwork. Initially planning a documentary about Wilkinson Brown, Cabib expanded her project to include Burwell as she realized how interlocked the two women’s lives had been. Kindred Spirits: Artists Hilda Wilkinson Brown and Lilian Thomas Burwell, a half-hour documentary currently in production, will explore the life and work of these two accomplished but underrecognized African-American women artists who lived and worked in Washington, DC during the era of segregation.
Native Washingtonian Hilda Wilkinson Brown (b. 1894, d. 1981) created modernistic paintings of Washington, DC’s historic LeDroit Park neighborhood and Oak Bluffs in Martha’s Vineyard, linoleum block prints and lithographs of African-American families, portraits of local residents, and commercial illustrations for two magazines founded by renowned scholar and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois. Wilkinson Brown taught art for over 30 years at DC’s Miner Teachers College, one of the few institutions of higher education for African Americans in Washington, DC when schools were segregated.
Lilian Thomas Burwell is experiencing a wave of recognition in her ninetieth year for her nature-inspired abstract expressionist paintings and unique “sculptural paintings”: carved wooden sculptures which are covered in painted canvas. Burwell worked as an art teacher in DC public schools, including Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Recently, she taught seniors at Anne Arundel Community College. Of her aunt Hilda, Burwell says, “I know that I would not be who I am today if it had not been for her influence and her nurturing.”
In the film, the artists’ stories will be told by Burwell herself, who recounts her aunt’s and her own experiences living in a segregated society, the people, places and landscapes that influenced their art, their shared passion for teaching, and their special bond as aunt and niece. Her narrative will be complemented by historians and artists — including artist and historian David Driskell, Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives Executive Director Kimberly Springle, and Howard University Community Association Director Maybelle Taylor Bennett — who will describe the historical, economic, and social conditions that existed during the time Wilkinson Brown and Burwell attended school and pursued their careers. Through their voices, Kindred Spirits will explore the history of the segregated schools the artists attended and taught in, examine the impact of the African-American magazines founded by W.E.B. Du Bois (for which Wilkinson Brown created illustrations), note the important role of the Barnett-Aden Gallery, one of the few black-owned galleries in the U.S. which exhibited works by African Americans, and delve into the history of LeDroit Park, a source of inspiration for many of Wilkinson Brown’s paintings.
Producer Cintia Cabib has embarked on a fundraising campaign for Kindred Spirits. The Wyeth Foundation for American Art has promised $12,500 in finishing funds for the film only if the $38,000 needed to complete major production on the film can by raised by August 1, 2018. To date, Cabib has filmed a series of interviews with Lilian Thomas Burwell and three historians, videotaped and catalogued the artists’ artwork for inclusion in the film, and conducted archival photo research. Funding is needed to film additional interviews and video footage, acquire and license archival material, edit and close caption the film, and present the film to audiences throughout the country. All contributions go to Video Action, the documentary’s non-profit fiscal sponsor, and are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law. Individuals can donate at http://www.kindredspiritsfilm.com by clicking on the “Donate” button. Donors will receive a DVD of Kindred Spirits, an invitation to the Washington, DC premiere, and acknowledgment in the film’s credits.
Cabib says, “I hope that through this film, viewers will feel the thrill of discovering the impressive work of these two artists, learn about their sources of inspiration, and appreciate their determination to succeed in their chosen careers despite the inequities of racial segregation. Through my research, I have learned a great deal, not only about the lives and work of these two unique and accomplished women, but about Washington, DC as a segregated city. One of my goals in making this film is to show how black artists, denied the same access and opportunities as their white colleagues, seized educational opportunities, became prominent faculty members of African-American schools, and established their own venues to exhibit and publish their work.”
To watch a clip and learn more about Kindred Spirits, visit http://www.kindredspiritsfilm.com.