G. Caliman Coxe, the African-American artist who spent his teen and adult years in Louisville, labored for much of his career in the era of discrimination. He was the first black man to enroll in the fine arts program at the University of Louisville, but that was in 1955, when he was already 48 years old.
Many galleries in Louisville didn’t carry the works of black artists in those days. And, while Coxe was a prolific artist, he never had the commercial success he felt was due him. He was known to have held bonfires of his pieces, just to clear working space in his studio.
Nonetheless, he was a major influence for younger African-American artists in Louisville, starting with Gallery Enterprises, which he formed with artist and friend Robert Douglas in 1959. The purpose of the studio was to give young black artists a place for showing their work.
It was also a workshop, where ideas, techniques, conversation and arguments flowed, and where these artists could get reinforcement and support they weren’t always getting elsewhere in town. They met at a downtown bar on South Tenth Street called The Brown Derby.
Today, one of Gallery Enterprise’s early African-American artists — sculptor Ed Hamilton — has an international reputation and sells his work for tens of thousands of dollars. It is an indication of how the art world has opened up for black artists, especially locally.
On Thursday, the Filson Historical Society will hold a panel discussion called “From the Brown Derby to the Speed: A Panel on African-American Arts in Louisville,” to discuss that journey from the early frustrations to the later successes.
Black artists of several generations will participate in the discussion, moderated by local sculptor and glass artist Ché Rhodes.
The panel will include Dr. Douglas, emeritus professor of Pan-African Studies at UofL, who was among the first, immediately after Coxe, to receive an arts degree from the school; Hamilton; and sculptor William Duffy, who also came out of UofL’s art program and the Louisville Art Workshop, the outgrowth of Gallery Enterprises.
Rhodes, the youngest of the panelists, is professor of sculpture at UofL’s Hite Art Institute.
While the discussion will be about the travails and subsequent triumphs of 20th century African-American artists in Louisville, the context is G. Caliman Coxe, known to his intimates as G.C. Since late August, the Filson has been holding a special exhibit of Coxe’s work, called “Understanding the Indescribable,” which will culminate on Sunday, Dec. 10.
The Filson acquired its first piece by Coxe in 2015. It now owns three. The other five pieces in the exhibit are on loan, donated by Hamilton, Douglas and Julie and Warren Payne. The exhibit is the first solo show of a 20th century African-American artist at the museum and also the first of abstract art, a style Coxe settled upon in the 1950s.
“We were happy to add a representation of 20th century abstract art to our collection,” said Aaron Rosenblum, associate curator of special collections at the Filson who curated the Coxe exhibit. The Filson’s collection had for years largely specialized in 19th century portraiture.
Douglas has written an unpublished biography, “The Life and Art of G. Caliman Coxe,” about a talented artist who struggled to gain recognition of this kind during his lifetime.
Coxe arrived in Louisville in 1924, at age 17, with his family. His father was a Presbyterian minister.
Though Coxe had formal education — he attended Central Colored High School (as it was known until 1956) and the West End College of Music and Arts (set up specifically for black students) — his parents, both college-educated, also taught their children classical languages and art education at home.
Plus, said Rosenblum, practical homesteading skills, like carpentry.
“As an artist, Coxe was known for the quality of his workmanship,” the curator said. “He built his own frames and was a stickler for proper construction of frames and stretching of canvases.”
Coxe made his living in Louisville primarily as a sign painter and house painter. For a time, he managed a downtown movie theater on Walnut Street, where he painted marquees and signs. He also worked as an illustrator at Fort Knox.
But he got his emotional support from the community of fellow black artists, first with his Gallery Enterprises — where he mentored such ultimately prominent black artists as Gilliam, Hamilton, Kenneth Young and Bob Thompson — and later with his Louisville Art Workshop, “pointedly to bring all young, local artists together,” said Rosenblum, “to provide opportunities for them to be seen, to show their work, to sell their work. It was also a studio for them to work in.”
The Workshop was multi-racial. The common threads were young, local and underappreciated.
If Coxe struggled for recognition — “It was not easy for any of these artists to get shown at the galleries in town,” Rosenblum said, “and abstract art was not particularly well-received in Louisville at that time, either, by the galleries or collectors” — his contemporaries knew his worth.
“If you ask any of them,” added Rosenblum, “their opinion of Coxe’s work is that he deserved more recognition. That he was a master — probably the first African-American master in Louisville.”
Coxe died in 1999.
The panel discussion, a collaboration between the Filson Historical Society and UofL’s Commonwealth Center, will explore the cultural and artistic avenues that Coxe, his contemporaries and his successors all walked down.
It will begin at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 7, in the Street Lecture Hall, Owsley Brown II History Center. An hour prior, from 5-6 p.m., the Coxe exhibit will remain open for those who attend the panel discussion. (The Filson normally closes at 5.)
It is free for all students and Filson members. Admission for the general public is $10.Call 635-5083 or go online to reserve a seat.
The Filson Historical Society is located at 1310 S. Third St. in Old Louisville.
This post has been updated to correct the members of the panel.