Immortalized in Art

Dana Herra, '01
African American art

Alumna Arlene Turner-Crawford, ’71, poses next to “Arty” in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

When the Smithsonian opened the new National Museum of African American History and Culture last year, artist Arlene Turner-Crawford, ’71, discovered her own face hanging on the fourth floor, larger than life.

The painting “Arty” by renowned artist Nelson Stevens is part of the museum’s collection of art from the AfriCOBRA artists’ collective of the 1960s and 70s. Turner-Crawford was a student of Stevens when he taught at NIU from 1969-1971, and says she was the model for “Arty.”

When Turner-Crawford came to NIU in the late 1960s, she said, she was one of only a few African American students in the School of Art. As she searched for her own voice as an artist, she worked as a model for drawing classes.

“DeKalb wasn’t particularly hostile to black people, however, the town wasn’t accustomed to them either,” Turner-Crawford said.

In 1968, shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Turner-Crawford joined other African American students in a protest demanding, among other things, that the university hire more black faculty and counselors. Stevens was one of several black faculty hired the next academic year. After leaving NIU, Stevens went on to teach for more than 30 years at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

AfriCOBRA was founded in Chicago in 1968 with the purpose of creating uplifting art relevant to black communities. It was part of a larger cultural movement that also included works of literature, poetry, drama, music, dance and scholarship celebrating contemporary artistic expression of black culture in America.

Turner-Crawford said she traveled to Washington, D.C. for the opening of the museum “for the sake of my own passions and my connections to that journey, to see for myself African American or black pride honored and institutionalized, a legacy for my children and grandchildren to come.”

“I am truly grateful and honored to have an image of me displayed as a small part of the cultural history of my people, and it’s due to Northern Illinois University’s role in my life, its outstanding academic community that taught and nurtured my intellectual growth and development,” she said.


Turner-Crawford is an alumna of the School of Art. Click here to make a contribution to support the school’s future alumni.