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Black History Month: Muralist Aaron Douglas

In looking for Black artists with ties to our region, it is always fascinating to see how many have ties not just to Kansas, but practically to our own neighborhood. A number of those artists are featured in Return of the Pollinators, a mural by Dave Loewenstein in downtown Lawrence. In its original iteration, the mural featured several regional Black artists: Aaron Douglas, Gordon Parks, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, Oscar Micheaux, Hattie McDaniel, and Coleman Hawkins. In the 2017 reimagining of the original mural, Loewenstein also included contemporary musician, actress, and Kansas City native Janelle Monáe. Each artist helped define how to be a Black artist, increase visibility, and change the world on their own terms, whether it was with words, paintings, photography, in films, or through music. In our series so far we have featured Langston Hughes, and Nedra Bonds. Today we feature painter and muralist Aaron Douglas.

Aaron Douglas (1899-1979) was born in Topeka to Aaron Douglas Sr. and Elizabeth Douglas. He grew up attending the segregated McKinley Elementary School and Topeka High School. Douglas went on to earn his Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree from the University of Nebraska in 1922, and shortly thereafter began teaching art at Lincoln High School in Kansas City, MO.

In 1924, Aaron Douglas was invited to New York by sociologist and university administrator Charles S. Johnson to take part in the Harlem Renaissance. Initially he declined, but after the school year ended he resigned from his teaching position and made his way to the Big Apple. It was there that his artwork evolved from portraiture into illustrations and murals. Douglas infused African imagery into his art to connect African Americans with their rich heritage. He was one of the first artists to do so. Douglas utilized silhouettes, elements of cubism, concentric circles to direct the eye, and a muted color palate to distinguish his unique voice. His piece titled The Founding of Chicago can be seen at the Spencer Art Museum in Lawrence.

Read more about this influential artist from the National Gallery of Art website.