“In Memoriam,” a Tribute to Jean Lacy
by Rosalyn Story
Jean Lacy was born in 1932 and died in 2023 at the age of 90. She was preceded in death by two sisters and two brothers, and is survived by a son, Nathaniel Lacy, III, of New Mexico, and a niece, Monique Wells, of California.
The house where Laura Jean Lacy lived for forty years, on Robin Road near Dallas’ Love Field, sat on a corner sprawl of wooded land, nestled between some two dozen trees. If you followed the map address, you would have been led to a manicured, pristine entry on an understated side street. But those who knew her well, her ‘family’ of artists, friends, colleagues, and neighbors, would enter the house, as family often does, through the modest back door off the kitchen.
It speaks to the duality of Jean Lacy; brilliant but not one to stand on ceremony, approachable but intellectual, humble, yet with a full awareness of her talent and vision. She could be both serious and playful, embracing both the secular and the spiritual, with a sense of irony and irreverent wit that was as apparent in her personality as in her art.
She was also a woman who loved company. Once a year, on a winter night, Jean hosted her famous holiday season birthday parties (she was born on December 10). On those joy-filled evenings the house on Robin Road would be packed from front entry to back kitchen door, and everywhere in-between there was nearly every imaginable kind of art. Jean was as much a collector as a creator. The dining room held a multitude of ceramic face jugs from her favorite folk artists and dolls of handmade cloth. The living room featured three-dimensional works melded together from found objects she might discover on her neighborhood walks, and walls decked with contemporary paintings. The family room, where she worked, was dominated by her oversized desk, a wall above it crowded with artifacts from travels, gifts from artist friends, and representations of her interests or current whimsical indulgence; Spanish colonial retablos, figurines of santos, ornate crosses of silver or wood, cigar boxes transformed into mini-shrines, antique political buttons, swatches of fabric for doll-making, and all manner of African American collectible art from the early decades of the century.
But it was Jean’s bright midcentury-style kitchen, the heart and soul of her home, that may most represent her devotion to the preservation of African American cultural history, a history that Jean turned upside down with an alternative point of view. Where some might have seen her assortment of collectible bandana-clad caricatures and antique Aunt Jemima spice jars as a curious nod to dark nostalgia and hurtful stereotypes, Jean Lacy saw humble heroes, remnants of a history to be enshrined on the altar of black survival. That was Jean Lacy, the artist, who saw treasure in the most unlikely places. Her keen eyes recorded all that she witnessed —the sacred and the profane, the positive and the painful—and turned it all into art.
Jean was born in Washington, DC in 1932, the youngest of five children, to David and Helen Wells. The Great Depression had already begun, but with cultured and educated parents (both were graduates of Howard University) Jean grew up immersed in Washington’s thriving worlds of art, music and black culture, and the family’s associates and influences included the likes of Alain Locke, leader of the “New Negro Movement” of the Harlem Renaissance, and Nobel Prize laureate Ralph Bunche. From DC she attended college at Southern University in Baton Rouge. LA and earned a B.A. in Art Education in 1956. She met and married Nathaniel Lacy, Jr. and followed him to Dallas, where he studied for the ministry. After their son, Nathaniel, III was born in 1959, the family moved to Los Angeles. There, they experienced the heady days of the 1960s.
Los Angeles was marked not only by a climate of social upheaval and political unrest but also artistic ferment, as a boiling political revolution spilled onto a revolution of black art. Internally, and in her work, Lacy cataloged it all, before she and her husband moved back to Dallas where he accepted a position at Dallas’ Perkins School of Theology.
Their marriage ended in Dallas, and Jean joined an ever-growing army of single black women raising their sons alone. As a mother and teacher in the Dallas Independent School District, and director of the African American Cultural Heritage Center for DISD, the trials of young black men influenced her artist’s sensibilities. Her work began to reflect attention to the subjects of their plight; police brutality, street life, mass incarceration, rap music iconography and the struggle to be seen and heard.
By the time she was tapped to join some four dozen black artists for the landmark 1989 exhibition, “Black Art, Ancestral Legacy: The African Impulse in African American Art,” she had developed a confident vocabulary of black life in art, as the struggles, aspirations and dreams of a people defined her exhibition works. The show catapulted her to national prominence. Her piece, “Little Egypt Condo: New York City,” pairing an ancient Egyptian dwelling with the idea of an urban tenement, was chosen by curator Alvia Wardlaw to adorn the cover of the catalogue. The fusing of the ancient traditions and icons of Africa with the artifacts of contemporary black urban culture became one of Jean’s many trademarks and artistic signatures. The exhibition, launched by the Dallas Museum of Art in 1989, traveled the country for nearly three years, to Atlanta, GA, Milwaukee, WI, and Richmond, VA.
But the 53 stained glass windows of St. Luke “Community” United Methodist Church in Dallas, was her most ambitious work, her ’tour de force,’ along with stained-glass projects at two other churches in Dallas and one in Houston, TX. The St. Luke windows, commissioned by the church and then pastor, Rev. Zan Holmes, allowed Jean to discover new techniques and applications. Her windows, vibrantly colorful, irreverent with bold themes, provide a dual narrative of Biblical and Civil Rights history from a perspective rarely seen in the African American church. In one window, Mary, the mother of Jesus, is homeless, cradling her son beneath an urban bridge. In another, Harriet Tubman, called “Black Moses,” becomes an actual Moses figure, leading her people out of bondage to the “Promised Land.” Jean’s artistic philosophy, that the past should not be forgotten, and in fact is a necessary part of the present as well as a guide to the future, remained with her for life.
Some 80 works of Jean Lacy were compiled for the Tyler Museum of Art’s retrospective in 2009. Assembled by the Dallas African American Museum’s former curator, Phillip Collins, the exhibition was titled, “Divine Kinship: Ancient Forms and Contemporary Social Commentary in the Art of Jean Lacy.” Comprising works from numerous museums and collections, the exhibit spanned her more than 50 years of making art.
At the end of Jean’s annual holiday/birthday parties, as the crowd thinned, a few close friends––artists, patrons, and lovers of art––would gather around Jean’s kitchen table. The conversations were lively, even intense, turning to the politics of the day or the latest cultural headlines, but laughter always prevailed. And even into her 80s, Jean would hold court at that kitchen table, surrounded by art and friends, into the small hours of the morning.
Jean and her son moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2016. The house on Robin Road is gone, as are the sheltering trees and the holiday parties. In Albuquerque, however, Jean kept making art at the same desk that sat in her family room in Dallas. Her work continued to reflect the changing times, no matter how challenging. Often, she entertained visitors passing through. Her son, Nathaniel, would proudly display Jean’s latest projects, and over the years her themes had changed some (the pandemic), or hardly at all (the murders of unarmed black people). But as the consummate artist she was, she did what all great artists do: Quietly observe and distill those observations into art that helps us heal, empowers our legacy, and gives clarity and meaning to the times in which we live.