The "Ruth Starr Rose (1887-1965): Revelations of African American Life in Maryland and the World" retrospective, currently on view at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture, contains a pair of portraits of the same young African-American woman, Fanny E. Copper. Rose was an educated, affluent white woman from the Midwest who moved with her family to Maryland's Eastern Shore by the early 20th century. Copper was a resident of Copperville, Maryland, the all-black township in Talbot County not too far away from the Hope House estate where Rose's family lived. In both portraits the young Copper is seen from the shoulders up. One is a fresco, painted in muted colors. The other is a lithograph depicting the young Copper in stark black and white. Both are dated 1930. And their side-by-side installation spotlights similarities and differences in Rose's media and subject matter that calibrates the brain for thinking about the entire exhibition.
The first impression is that Rose is a more accomplished printmaker than she is a painter, and her most potent work here appears in the supple chiaroscuro of her lithographs. Rose studied at the Art Students League of New York under George C. Miller, an exceptional printing craftsman who was partly responsible for the rise of printing as a medium for fine artists, as opposed to commercial work, in the 1920s. (Miller worked with Rockwell Kent, Howard Cook, and José Clemente Orozco, among others.)
Rose's skill is evident in the Copper lithograph—the gradient shading that she uses to achieve the smooth curves of the young woman's face are lovely—but more impressive are Rose's interpretive series of spirituals. In these prints, Rose depicts Biblical scenes through a combination of visionary flourish and scenic drama. These pieces' titles will be familiar to anybody who's spent time in a pew with a prayer book—'Little David Play Upon Your Harp,' 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,' 'Standing in the Need of Prayer,' 'Daniel in the Lion's Den'—but how Rose chose to realize them is powerful. For 'Joshua Fit de Battle ob Jericho,' Rose includes a pair of angels blowing trumpets and the surrounding walls seemingly tumbling down. But the central figure is black boxer Joe Louis knocking out German fighter Max Schmeling in their 1938 rematch, a bout that was as much a symbolic battle between American democracy and Nazi Germany as it was between two heavyweight fighters.
More potent is 'Nobody Knows de Trouble I See,' which depicts a black World War II veteran returning to America to find his rural home set ablaze. His farm animals flee from the skyward-climbing flames, his wife and children kneel behind him. Rose dramatically uses nearly white swaths of negative space to depict the harsh heat and light radiating off the burning building, from which billows menacing dark smoke. Just above that smoke, a host of angels descends.
Rose's sensitivity to the African-American experience as witnessed in this exhibition has so far been lauded as "ahead of her time" (Baltimore Magazine), "rebellious" (The Baltimore Sun), and even speciously suggested as a sympathetic antecedent to the #BlackLivesMatter movement (Washington Post). And while, yes, an overwhelming amount of early-to-mid-20th-century art depicting African-Americans made by white artists traffics in demeaning caricature and racist stereotype—see, well, Disney cartoons and popular advertisements—African-American artists had been creating and exploring their own visual world since at least the 19th century. All Rose really did was make the simple decision to recognize the African-Americans of Talbot County that populate her work as human beings.
It's what's unsaid in that decision that offers a profound and complicated narrative to this exhibit, which is the surreptitious second big impression to takeaway from this show. "Ruth Starr Rose" was guest curated by Barbara Paca, a Rose collector and advocate, and the exhibition doesn't oversell the historical context in which Rose worked. Throughout the exhibit are a series of cases that provide some contextual narrative to the painting and prints on view—archival photos, Rose's notes about the spirituals series, a pamphlet from the Rose retrospective at Howard University in 1956, and various newspaper clippings. Those newspaper clippings tell a bit of Rose's story, her work as what amounts to a lay ethnographer/folklorist documenting African-American life and, later, life in Haiti and among Native Americans. A few from The Sun also allude to the race relations on the Eastern Shore at the time: a pair of photos from the 1933 Salisbury race riots, a 1933 H.L. Mencken column about a pair of unpunished lynchings.
In her 2007 book, "On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-first Century," Sherrilyn Ifill, the University of Maryland law professor and current president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, includes the stories of the last two recorded lynchings in Maryland, both on the Eastern Shore: Matthew Williams in Salisbury in 1931 and George Armwood in Princess Anne in 1933. A grand jury actually heard from 124 witnesses to Williams' murder and ruled that it didn't have enough evidence to indict anybody.
This Eastern Shore is where Rose was interacting with and depicting the lives of the people in her immediate community, which is as old as America itself. Tobacco plantations date to the 1630s in Talbot County and Hope House, where Rose's family lived, was built on land once owned by descendants of the Lloyd and Tilghman families, two of the Eastern Shore's oldest land owners and plantation operators. The exhibition's catalog mentions that Rose was socially active in Copperville, attending its DeShields United Methodist Church, and it was her familiarity with its residents that allowed her to make art from inside the African-American experience. And that is certainly an unconventional choice for an artist of her time. Know what else is unconventional? The people looking back at you in Rose's works, like young Fanny E. Copper, who got to know this woman and decided, "OK—I'm going to trust you to represent who I am."