History lesson

Works by Nancy Elizabeth Prophet; "Nonspace" at GRIN
By GREG COOK  |  June 4, 2014

0606_Art_Facing_top.jpg 
FOLKSY Prophet's 'Facing the Liight' [polychromed wood panel; courtesy of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society].

The portrait of the sculptor Nancy Elizabeth Prophet (1890-1960) that emerges from the small exhibit “Delicious Sensation of Rightness,” at the John Brown House (52 Power St, Providence, through June 30), is fuzzy.

“Cutting stone. How I love it,” she once said. “I feel so much in contact with myself.”

Organizers promote her as “RISD’s first black graduate.” She seems to have been a powerful personality, who sculpted heads in marble and wood and plaster. In particular, she frequently made art about African Americans at a time when the fine art world didn’t much give a damn.

The show, organized by Robb Dimmick in the museum’s lobby, offers just 10 artworks, along with some memorabilia, mainly reproductions of photos. It feels more like a book than an exhibition. And it seems an invitation for some other local institution (perhaps Rhode Island College or RISD, both of whom own works by Prophet) to organize something more extensive.

Here’s the story that emerges. Prophet was born in Warwick in 1890, the daughter of an African American mother and a Narragansett father who made a living as a farm worker and, later, a laborer for the Providence Parks Department. She changed her last name from Profitt to Prophet around the time she graduated from RISD in 1918.

Prophet sailed for Paris in the 1920s, where she worked hard on her art and connected with African Americans — including painter Henry Ossawa Tanner, poet Countee Cullen, and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois. But she also struggled with poverty and depression — as she would for the rest of her days.

She moved to Atlanta in the early 1930s, where she taught at Spelman College. Her art from this era included a folksy, painted woodcarving from the 1930s of a row of heads and the sun, titled Facing the Light. The show also displays a traditional realist, gilded terra cotta mask with a faint smile that she made sometime before the end of World War II.

Prophet moved back to Providence in the mid-’40s and had an exhibition at the Providence Public Library in 1945. But her art career foundered and she took on domestic work. She was broke when she died of a heart attack in 1960 and was buried in Cranston’s Oakland Cemetery.

Other art in the show includes a metal head of a woman, a painted wooden profile of a woman with lilies, and four loose drawings, including a squiggly watercolor and chalk rendering of houses among trees, that suggest, perhaps, the influence of early 20th-century French modernism.

One of her last works, according to the exhibition, is an elongated wooden head thought to date from the 1950s. Prophet often favored a smooth finish — whether in her more stylized efforts or her skilled realism. This piece demonstrates an expressionist style, animated by her rough gouging of the wood, that might bring to mind the emotional force of Alberto Giacometti or folk art. The face’s expression is calm, with eyes nearly closed, but the marks zigzag up the hair as if the person’s mind was afire.

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