When Lula Cooper wrote a book of poetry in 1972 about a Delaware exhibition of art by African-Americans, she won the admiration of fellow artists, but few others knew about it. Nearly 50 years later a major art museum is presenting four of her poems, including a new one as the theme, in an exhibit of the work of Percy Ricks and other Black artists.
Cooper, wife of Dick Cooper, Prescott’s first Black City Council member, knew about Ricks from an exhibit by his organization, Aesthetic Dynamics, Inc., at the Wilmington Armory in 1971. He had been given a grant in 1968 to develop the exhibit. Both Cooper and Ricks had been present in Wilmington in the ‘60s when the National Guard was sent to occupy the city and stop riots following the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. The occupation lasted nine months.
“He was teaching art in segregated schools part-time, and at the time was interested in promoting artists who were knownand not well known,” Cooper said. Ricks had asked the Delaware Art Museum to use the art in an exhibit, but the museum passed.
With the support of a young, enthusiastic curator, Margaret Winslow, the exhibit that was three years in the making is currently up in the museum. Called Afro-American Images 1971: The Vision of Percy Ricks,: The Vision of Percy Ricks, it features over 130 works of art by 66 artists, ranging from drawings, prints and photos to paintings and sculptures.
Some of Ricks’ contemporaries later became famous, like Romare Bearden, whose works are collected in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sam Gilliam, a member of the Washington Color School of artists, and Faith Ringgold, who created brilliant quilts and influential paintings. “They asked me to write an introduction for the exhibit, because the Delaware Art Museum had never in its 200-year history had an exhibit of African-American artists,” Cooper said.
She wrote a poem over the course of five mornings, and the curator was so impressed that it was used as the theme for the exhibit. Attending the opening with her friend and caretaker Maria Mendoza, Cooper saw her poem and photo as the introduction, the impact hit her.
“I cried, because never before had anything I had written been seen as important like that,” Cooper said.
One of the featured artists was Simmie Knox, who painted the official portraits of President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton. He has also painted many Black celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey and former US attorney general Eric Holder, Jr.
“He’d come a long way since my poem on his untitled painting,” Cooper said. “He said he still has my poem, under glass in a cocktail table at home.”
Unfortunately Ricks died in 2009, so he wasn’t able to see the honor paid him by his hometown museum, which had rejected his work so many years before.
A video presentation about the exhibition gives the context of how important the works and the artists are in modern art history, something the museum failed to recognize in 1972. The exhibit opened on October 24 and will run through January 23.
Unlike Ricks, Dick Cooper had been recognized as early as 1970 for his work. As a scientist at EI DuPont Company, the Yale graduate and PhD filed 17 patents and retired as director of Environmental Affairs after 35 years with the company. He had created a patent for a rubber product in 1966 that was used to seal the Concorde, making it safe to break the sound barrier. He died in 2016 at age 85 of a rare brain disorder.
But only now is Dick Cooper’s stature as an African-American scientist becoming fully realized, Lula said. Recently a Delaware institution, the Hagley Museum, asked for his papers and memorabilia to make a film about his life. Lula is compiling his life’s achievements, along with photos, to send them.
In addition to accepting honors for her late husband, who served on the Prescott Council 1997-1999 and as mayor pro tempore 1999-2001, as well as on numerous nonprofit boards, Lula plans to return to writing her life story. She published a book about her childhood, Raven’s Song, in 2010, as well as a children’s book, How The Penguins Got Their Polka Dots, with co-author Aby Mendoza. Lula earned a Masters degree in creative writing from Goddard College in 1982.
Lula's latest poem, below, fills a wall at the museum's entrance.
To Wilmington’s African American Artists
Jewelizing the spirit of your artistry
Bringing forth your profound subtlety
You do not dream … you create reality
Revealing crystalized belief in assured equality
Once bound by chains, now freed from all ties
You have made these human beings spiritualized
You followed Tubman and Douglass' mystical path
Fearless, undaunted, immune to negative wrath
Today, your day, in deep gratitude we bow
For you have gifted us your eternal now
Colored images, a uniqueness our own
Honoring you we are connected … known
Lula Cooper (left) at the opening with Maria Mendoza