Timeless artistry and mentorship from a local legend

The artistic life and legacy of James E. Newton

3 minute read
Alt Text:  Painting. Faces, eyes appear through a colorful mashing of shapes in a surrealist style.
'​​They Came Before Columbus VI' (2007) by James E. Newton, with ink and acrylic on board. (Image courtesy of Delaware Art Museum.)

Beloved member of the Delaware arts community, esteemed professor, distinguished artist—it’s difficult to succinctly capture the life of James E. Newton. So, perhaps it’s fitting that the exhibition celebrating his art and legacy takes place across not one but three galleries and two institutions. A collaboration between the Delaware Art Museum (DelArt) and the University of Delaware (UD), The Artistic Legacy of James E. Newton is currently on view, broken into three exhibitions: Poetic Roots at the Delaware Art Museum, Heritage and Character Portraits at UD’s Mechanical Gallery, and The Archival Record at UD’s Morris Library.

“Dr. Newton wore so many hats, and I marvel at his output productivity in every single space in which he worked,” Margaret Winslow, chief curator and curator of contemporary art at the Delaware Art Museum.

Both artist and mentor

Winslow is among the many who counted Newton, who died in May 2022, as a mentor. She recalled he shared information “openly and generously.”

“Any time you'd see that Dr. Newton was calling you, or you knew you'd have a meeting with him, you made sure you had a thick pad of paper and plenty of writing utensils at the ready,” Winslow recalled.

Newton often prioritized others’ work over discussing his own. He was integral to the establishment of UD’s Black American Studies department, as well as a Wilmington leader who helped found the Mitchell Center for African American Heritage. At DelArt, he served as a board member and guided the 2021 exhibition Afro-American Images 1971: The Vision of Percy Ricks.

Yet, always, he was an artist, too. He was the first Black student to graduate with a master of fine arts from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Poetic Roots focuses on his early work from this time. His vibrant compositions—which explore abstraction and figuration—include themes of social justice and American history in ways that seem historic and ever-relevant.

Among the pieces in the DelArt exhibition are a commentary on contraception entitled The Pill, an homage to Frederick Douglass where the abolitionist’s portrait is layered and repeated, and a mixed media assemblage featuring semi-automatic rifles above an American flag.

Exploring personal and public history

Newton was deeply interested in history and heritage, said Amanda Zehnder, chief curator and head of UD Library, Museums, and Press. At UD, Heritage and Character Portraits plays with this concept and, indeed, the pieces here are whimsical.

UD’s Mechanical Gallery features Newton’s later works, with an emphasis on works on paper, including drawings, collages, and prints. Among them is a series of his “couch potatoes,” which are 100 ink-on-cardboard drawings depicting Newton's childhood and adolescence memories. Newton himself described them as doodles he would make while sitting on the couch watching the news after work.

“There's a very serious component to everything he did, but also in our exhibition, people will see a playful style,” Zehnder said.

The exhibition includes self-portraits, depictions of real people, and a recurring theme of history, both personal and public. Mother Heritage, a large red collage from 1990, is believed to depict Newton's mother, and the series Red Hatters presents imaginative character studies inspired by Newton's wife's affiliation with the Red Hat Society.

"Multifaceted, in every sense"

At DelArt and UD, visitors will see images from Newton’s They Came Before Columbus series, creating yet another visual link between the two locations. Winslow is hopeful viewers, those who knew Newton and those who did not, will see for themselves how Newton was “multifaceted, in every sense of the word.”

In her mind, he remains an artist and mentor. Why limit him to a single descriptor?

“He spoke so passionately about artistic creativity being part of him and his life from an early age,” Winslow recalled. “But, he also was such a nurturing and mentoring individual that they seem so equally important.”

What, When, Where

The Artistic Legacy of James E. Newton: Poetic Roots. Through May 19, 2024, at the Delaware Art Museum, 2301 Kentmere Parkway, Wilmington. $2-$18. (302) 571-9590 or delart.org.

The Artistic Legacy of James E. Newton: Heritage and Character Portraits. Through May 16, 2024, at the Mechanical Hall Gallery at the University of Delaware, 30 North College Avenue, Newark. (302) 831-2965 or udel.edu.

The Artistic Legacy of James E. Newton: The Archival Record. Through August 23, 2024, at the Morris Library at the University of Delaware, 30 North College Avenue, Newark. (302) 831-2965 or udel.edu.

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