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Eyes for Each Other, and for Painting

Buying art on a limited budget was an act of love for John and Vivian Hewitt, whose collection is on tour.

February 04, 2001|RACHEL USLAN | Rachel Uslan is a Times staff writer

For as long as John and Vivian Hewitt were married, gift shopping was never a problem. Whatever the occasion, whatever the amount of the mortgage on the house, they knew to buy each other an original work of art.

"I told my husband, 'Don't give me a sweeper or a dishwasher. Those are practical things. If you're going to give me anything, give me a painting,' " says Vivian.

Through 50 years of marriage, until he died last year, John did just that. Now the result of their dedication--to art and to each other--is touring the country as "Celebration and Vision: The Hewitt Collection of African-American Art." The exhibition, which includes 55 of the New York City couple's finest purchases, opens Saturday at the California African-American Museum.

The collection was born out of a chance meeting in 1949 in the Atlanta University library. Vivian was the librarian; John, the freshman-English teacher from nearby Morehouse College. In a mere three months, they were married and on their way to New York to spend their wedding-gift money on art.

After settling there permanently, John and Vivian quickly immersed themselves in the city's African American art scene, establishing lifelong friendships that became their collection's greatest source. The process started with family. Vivian's cousin, J. Eugene Grigsby, was studying for his doctorate in art education at New York University, and introduced them to his fellow students and instructors. John's sister, Adele Glasgow, welcomed them into the Market Place Gallery, an exhibit space and salon that she operated in Harlem. Glasgow, who had once been Langston Hughes' secretary, brought her former boss to speak one evening in 1959, and at the show's record turnout, the Hewitts discovered several talented artists, none of whom were getting mainstream gallery attention at the time.

So John and Vivian took an active role, buying Grigsby's "Abstraction in Red and Black" and "Black, Brown and Beige" in 1963.

"We were professional people of modest means--he was now working as a writer, I was a librarian--but we bought the art that we loved, the art that meant something to us," Vivian says. At one point that meant skipping a mortgage payment to buy a piece that particularly touched them.

"John reasoned that we could always just pay a late fee," Vivian says.

*

By 1978, their generosity was well-known. Alvin Hollingsworth, an artist whom they barely knew, was convinced that the Hewitt home would make a perfect temporary show space and salon.

"I was hesitant," Vivian recalls. "In New York, you don't open your home to just anybody. But Alvin met every roadblock I set before him. So we took down our works and put up his, and he sold more paintings in one afternoon than he could have in a year in a gallery."

Each time the Hewitt "gallery" would open shop--and it did so four times through the '80s--it helped the African American art scene flourish. Not only were undiscovered artists enjoying exposure, but a new type of audience was attending the shows as well.

"When we opened our home for Ernest Crichlow, he underpriced his works. I told him, 'Ernie! You can't do that.' But he said, 'I want my people to have my paintings.' It was the first time such a large number of African Americans were exposed to his work," Vivian says.

As part of "Celebration and Vision," Crichlow and the 19 other artists represented will be viewed by their largest audience yet.

This newfound exposure is thanks to an unlikely source, the Bank of America and its philanthropic arm, the Bank of America Foundation. In 1998, due to John's weakening health, the Hewitts were looking to sell their collection, and the bank, recent sponsors of a gallery at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, N.C., were looking to buy.

But there was a catch. It was imperative to the couple that their life's work stay together.

"My husband's health was quickly deteriorating and he was getting impatient," says Vivian. "I was almost ready to give in and sell the major ones to private collectors. But we wanted it all to go to a nonprofit organization as an educational tool that would inspire other collectors and young people. We wanted to show that you did not have to be rich to invest in art."

The bank sent a Mint Museum curator, Todd Smith, to the Hewitt home to assess the power of the 58 paintings. Smith, who would later become curator of the collection, was impressed by its comprehensiveness.

"He was stunned. And we were stunned when they decided to take it all," Vivian says. "It was satisfying for John to know that it was in good hands."

The collection ranges from Henry O. Tanner, who worked in the early 20th century and is one of its more celebrated artists, to Jonathan Green, born in 1955, who has been garnering critical praise in the seven cities the show has visited so far.

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