A celebrated artist, educator and lifelong supporter of the arts in her native Detroit, Gilda Snowden lived a full life committed to investigating the cultural identity of the art world at large. Known for her robust, figurative paintings and enthusiastic approach to arts education, Snowden taught painting at the College for Creative Studies (CCS) for over thirty years, and inspired many young artists who’ve gone on to become Museum family. In celebration of her legacy, Snowden’s husband, students and colleagues describe her magnificent energy.
William G. Boswell
I married Gilda Snowden in 1987 after a six year courtship. She didn’t take my name because hers was already a recognized name in the art community in Detroit and she was blessed with a healthy ego. I always thought her art was truly original and many times stunningly exquisite. I always hoped she liked my poetry as much. The highest compliment she paid me was that her father told her “don’t ever marry someone who’s not as smart as you”, and then she married me. Our life was a joy of wit and friendly arguments. I watched her style evolve over the years from construction pieces coated with encaustic in earthy reds, browns and black up to the last of her paintings, a six by twelve foot landscape of brilliant colors of acrylic that she called a double tornado. I also watched her interaction with her colleagues, her art community and her students. I had never seen anyone write so many letters of recommendation. She constantly informed others about grants, upcoming shows, fellowships and awards and encouraged them to try. At a recent student show that was a tribute to her, I cried when I read the sincere expressions of her student’s praises of her encouragement, teaching style and mentoring. As one said “it won’t be the same”. One of the most instructive things said to me by an artist colleague was “she brought people together.” Gilda was connected to every art organization I had heard of, and I’m sure some more I didn’t, but she was always connecting people in the Detroit art community with people and art organizations in and beyond Detroit. Gilda and I had a daughter, Katherine Snowden Boswell, who was and is the center of our lives, but Gilda’s love included us all.
William G. Boswell is a published poet and has worked at the Detroit Repertory Theatre for fifty years as an actor, director and drama instructor.
Gilda was a believer in the struggles of artists and deeply understood what it means to support those who embark on this journey. Her studio practice was fierce and her intensity rubbed off on those around her. Gilda’s contagious laughter still rings vividly in my head and reminds me that to maintain an art practice, one must be open in life—that one can be kind, jubilant, smart, generous and respectful without sacrificing the rigor and criticality of one’s work. Through these lessons one not only discovered what it meant to be a perseverant artist, but to be a person living at their greatest capacity.
Kevin Beasley was a 2013–14 artist in residence at the Studio Museum and received his MFA from Yale University and BFA from CSS.
Detroit’s postindustrial landscape has fueled artists for decades in their attempts to grasp its brutal reality: a physical decay commonly fetishized into ruin porn. The recent resurgence of social practice in Detroit shifted the large subject of our gaze from its landscape to its people. In the midst of these experiences, one Detroit artist looked beyond the gray, foggy environment and saw strong colors. Gilda’s vibrant paintings grow as layers upon layers of color are pushed, pulled, mixed, poured and shaped. This is how Gilda nourished us and illuminated the brilliant color in our lives. She affected many far beyond Detroit with her great modesty and humility.
Chido Johnson is an associate professor and the section chair of sculpture at CSS.
Edith Warton writes, “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” Gilda was a master in creating a life of making and giving. As a student of hers in the late 1980s, I was lost navigating the maze of art school and art making in the historically white, male-dominated field. I was upset that, by senior year, I had yet to learn about any black artists. Gilda encouraged me to acquire and share the knowledge I sought, and empowered me to develop the class, “How Come Ain’t No Brother’s On The Wall?” the first of its type in the department.
Detroit-based artist Sabrina Nelson is a graduate of CCS and teaches at the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum.
I had the great fortune and misfortune of meeting Gilda for the first time in 2013—fortunate for the opportunity to experience her curiosity, generosity and humility firsthand, and unfortunate because that opportunity was so short-lived. She sat casually among her students as I prepared for the guest lecture I was to give, thinking to myself, “Could that possibly be the acclaimed Art-God-Mother I’d heard so much about?” There was no fanfare, or air of someone waiting to be impressed. Instead, I found radiated enthusiasm, warmth and love. These qualities were evident in her character and in her work. That’s the kind of life that lives on and on.
Shani Peters is a Harlem-based artist who completed her BA at Michigan State University and her MFA at the City College of New York.
Published in Studio Magazine, Winter 2015 Issue.