By Brenda C. Siler

Sam Gilliam, who recently died at the age of 88, left an indelible mark on the art world. 

News of his death garnered an outpouring of praise and respect for his art and for creating a movement of unparalleled creativity. The D.C. artist would be known primarily for his “draped canvas” art – an approach from the abstractionist genre. 

In 2020, Patricia Turner Walters donated her coveted collection of African-American art valued at more than $2.5 million to Howard University, including three of Gilliam’s works. The collection represented works accumulated by her and her late husband, Ronald Walters, a renowned political scientist and former professor at Howard University.

“He is famous for utilizing a lot of color in his work, maybe 23 to 28 colors,” Walters said about Gilliam’s print work. “Each color is a print run. That’s why his works are so vivid.”

Currently on exhibit at theHoward University Gallery is Gilliam’s 1989 “Tulip Series: Petals” from the Ronald W. and Patricia Walters Collection. “Petals” serves as a mixed media piece of collage and marble construction. Gilliam’s style would be unique to a group of artists referred to as the “Washington Color School.” These artists, considered “abstract painters, worked in D.C. during the mid-1950s through the ’60s, according to the “Artsy” website.

Walters recalled a conversation with the artist several years ago when she visited his 14th Street studio in Northwest. 

“He was an excellent listener and very down to earth,” Walters said. “He asked about my collection and whether I planned on gifting any of my art. He said it sounded like I was. He then told me I had some fabulous pieces.”

An art collector since the mid-1980s, Walters has long been a connoisseur of excellent art. The Walters Collection includes works by Robert S. Duncanson, Edward M. Bannister, Grafton Tyler Brown, Aaron Douglas, Norman Lewis and Romare Bearden, and contemporary artists such as Kehinde Wiley, Barkley Hendricks and Kerry James Marshall. She admits to being hooked on the 19th-century “masters,” but Gilliam remains on her top ten list of favorite artists.

A long time coming, Walters expressed excitement that works of art by African-American artists continue to receive long-overdue recognition.

“Gilliam was a delightful gentleman and I think he is one of the great artists,” she said. “His work is now being truly appreciated, valued and commanding large sums of money at a level it should be.”

“Sam Gilliam: Full Circle” remains on exhibit at the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum through September 11, 2022.