The Art of Life
If former UD professor Jim Newton is seen by some as an African-American artist, he’d prefer to emphasize American and art.
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In 1966, Newton decided to find the answer to that question. Screwing up his courage, he took his small carton of drawings to an open audition for the University of North Carolina’s fine arts program in Chapel Hill. He was accepted, and in 1968 became the first African-American to receive the master of fine arts degree from UNC.
He learned more than just painting and sculpture during his three years there. He also took away some life lessons.
Chapel Hill of the late ’60s was not the enlightened city it is today. One night during his first year, after working late in the school’s art center, as he often did, police stopped him as he was walking home and asked for identification. He showed them his student card, but the cops accused him of impersonating a student and held him in a detention area until a university official vouched for him.
“That was a big jolt,” says Newton. “It was humiliating and devastating, and I was ready to quit, but my adviser talked me into staying.”
As an African-American, he came to understand that he was “a curiosity” there, as he puts it. But he learned to hold his head high, especially as he began to win awards. “My work was starting to take on a life of its own, and I got to the point where I thought I was competitive.”
For a while, he considered pursuing a career as a full-time artist. Perhaps he could have made it, had he become more “commercial,” doing portraits, caricatures, landscapes and such. But he had his own style, and he would not compromise it. Finally reality set in. By the time he received his masters in fine arts, he was married and had a daughter. He needed a job and benefits.
His wife, LaWanda, was an elementary school teacher in Wilmington, so they moved to Delaware, where Newton went to work as an interior designer at Atlantic Aviation. But he had acquired a taste for the academic life, so after a year in Wilmington, he accepted a position as assistant professor of art at West Chester University, teaching design and art history. A year later he moved the family to Normal, Illinois, and Illinois State University, where he taught art courses while getting a doctorate in curriculum development and education research.
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