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Providence Art Club a haven for diverse artists since 1880
Geoff Bennett: It's one of the oldest art clubs in America, founded nearly 150 years ago in the nation's smallest state.
Pamela Watts of Rhode Island PBS Weekly has a look for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Pamela Watts: Behind the big green door of the Providence Art Club, you will see contemporary galleries, painting classes, old world dining rooms, and a collection of works by its members stretching back decades.
Dan Mechnig has belonged for almost 40 years.
Dan Mechnig, Member, Providence Art Club: It seems like you're in a time machine. And there's some ambiance that comes from even the foyer, and you look up the stairs, and you will see time gone by.
Pamela Watts: In 1880, when women didn't even have the vote and Black artists were practically nonexistent, a group of progressive artists and community leaders in Providence made a bold stroke.
Dan Mechnig: The art club here was founded by 16 people, and six were women.
Pamela Watts: While women had a seat at the table, so did Black artist Edward Mitchell Bannister, oil painter, abolitionist, philanthropist.
Of all the striking silhouettes of artists and patrons lining the walls of the club, Bannister's has a distinction, the number one, indicating he was a prime mover of the art club.
Artist Nancy Gaucher-Thomas is the club's former president.
Why were they willing to rally around Edward Bannister, a Black artist?
Nancy Gaucher-Thomas, Former President, Providence Art Club: Well, I think that they saw that he was an artist of note. They recognized who he was.
Artists don't see black and white. It was his commitment to his work and everything that he did to help create the New England cultural community.
Pamela Watts: The Narragansett Bay shoreline and rural New England are prominent pastoral themes in Bannister's paintings, some on display here, many more at the Smithsonian.
Nancy Gaucher-Thomas: His landscape scenes were very bucolic, very serene, very somber tones in his palette. His work wasn't good because he was an African American. His work was great because he was a dedicated painter. And that's all he wanted to do.
Pamela Watts: And Gaucher-Thomas says Bannister's fierce dedication was fired up by an article he read in The New York Herald in 1867.
Nancy Gaucher-Thomas: Quote: "The Negro seems to have an appreciation for art, while being manifestly unable to produce it" — end quote.
Ironically, less than a decade later, in 1876, Bannister was the first African American to receive a first prize medal award.
Pamela Watts: It happened at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, and it caused a sensation when the judges announced the winner from hundreds of artists entered in competition.
Nancy Gaucher-Thomas: He went up to get his award, and they were a little taken aback and said: This can't — you know, this can't be right. He's a Black man.
They wanted to take it away. And there were white artists that came in and said: No, he's getting his award.
And he did.
Pamela Watts: Bannister's certificate is one of the art club's most prized possessions.
The art club is currently bestowing its own honor on Edward Bannister. This is a miniature of what will soon be a public fixture in Market Square, near the Rhode Island School of Design.
Nancy Gaucher-Thomas: And the wonderful thing about this sculpture is that it's not a monument. He's not standing on a pedestal looking down at people. He's actually sitting on a bench, kind of waiting for people to sit next to him. He has a sketchpad in hand.
And on the sketchpad is a sketch of his wife, Christiana Cartreaux.
Pamela Watts: The sculpture is being cast life-size in bronze. It's the finishing touch for a man whose talent and tenacity broke down barriers and led to the open doors at the art club today.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Pamela Watts in Providence, Rhode Island.