"The artist gives us the good news by saying, 'Look and see the handiwork made by God in the second tier of creation, made by humankind,'" said Driskell Feb. 21 during his guest speech at noontime worship services in the UCC Church House in Cleveland. "We are God's second tier."
Appearing on the eve of the Lenten season as part of the UCC's celebration of Black History Month, the 80-year-old Driskell is one of the world's leading authorities on African-American art.
"The scholastics said that art is the right reason for making the things that need to be made," said Driskell, addressing the link between the creative process and religious beliefs. "That's why we do it. Envision what the world would look like without the artist being here. Yes, the birds would still sing, but we would not sing the songs of Zion."
Citing the book "The Courage To Create" by psychologist Rollo May, Driskell relayed the author's notion that the creative process of musicians, painters, poets and dancers "is in an especially worldly and spiritual place."
"May calls art 'engaging in battle with the angels' and characterizes it as being the human desire to elevate the mind beyond the ordinary state of consciousness and take the leap of faith to dream the visionary dream," said Driskell.
Introduced as "an American cultural icon" by the Rev. Michael C. Murphy, senior pastor of People's Congregational UCC in Washington, D.C., Driskell said, "Art goes beyond representation of what it is. It is what we hope for, and we often hope for things unseen."
Driskell said that while artistic endeavors might be cloaked in the desire for perfection, such pursuits are more about the journey than the destination.
"We know in this life that we don't preach that particular realm of perfection like Plato described it when he said there were layers of interpretation by which we move from idea to actual form," said Driskell. "Now, Plato was pre-Christian, you know, but ... I think God had a hand on him. I don't think those ideas came from Zeus. I think they came from the Almighty."
Attending the Feb. 21 service was Kesha Williams, communications manager at The Cleveland Museum of Art. She was moved by Driskell's reflection on how his life and work as an artist have been impacted by his reverence for God.
"He was particularly inspiring as he connected 'the courage to be' with 'the courage to create,'" said Williams. "We at the museum are especially gratetful to the Driskells for offering the opportunity to purchase "Go Down Death," a painting by Aaron Douglas from Dr. Driskell's personal collection, in 2005. This masterpiece will surely continue to engage and inspire visitors for many years to come."
Practicing art since the 1950s, Driskell has exhibited his work worldwide. One of his most celebrated projects is in the DeForest Chapel at Talladega (Ala.) College, which contains 65 stained-glass windows. He has written five exhibition books, co-authored four others and published more than 40 catalogs from exhibitions he has curated. He has lectured worldwide.
In 1998, the University of Maryland established the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the African Diaspora (www.driskellcenter.umd.edu/). President Clinton also presented Driskell with the National Humanities Medal.
"We celebrate Black History Month in accordance to our wishes and desires to be part and parcel of the American mainstream," said Driskell "But it's larger than that, because the ingredient that our ancestors brought to the American experience helped to make this nation one of the greatest on the face of the earth. The African infusion has been so amazing."