Gilda Snowden: Bold and Beautiful

Remembering the late Detroit artist

Detroit artist Gilda Snowden died suddenly from heart failure on September 9, 2014.  A prominent and talented artist, she was a generous mentor and an astute archivist of Detroit’s creative culture. Her unexpected passing left a painful hole in the fabric of the city’s contemporary art scene. “What happened … was a total bolt out of the blue,” said her daughter, Katherine Boswell. “She was the glue that kept us all together.” 

A few paintings from Snowden’s creative output of 30 years are now on view in North Campus Research Center’s Connections gallery. Gilda Snowden: Bold and Beautiful celebrates the artist’s exploration of paint and personal expression with a sampling of some of her most significant works. 

Gilda Snowden, Flora Urbana, Blue Leaves, acrylic on panel, 2013
Gilda Snowden, Flora Urbana, Blue Leaves, acrylic on panel, 2013

Walk through the gallery

Upon entering the gallery, the first piece of artwork is a self-portrait, one of hundreds the artist painted during her lifetime. Writhing dreadlocks surround Snowden’s head, Medusa-like, but her face is invisible. She faces away from the viewer, and appears to both approach and retreat. She seems elusive, but she also projects a tangible presence.

Four smallish paintings from Snowden’s Chair Series hang nearby and almost leap from the wall. These dynamic artworks are the exhibit’s strongest, displaying her masterful manipulation of color and line. Chair 4 demonstrates her strategy in constructing these paintings.  She uses 5 strong swaths of dark red-brown, splashed across the plane, to anchor the image’s structure. Then she weaves vibrant pinks, lavenders and grassy greens through the composition to fashion a satisfying whole. All four paintings in the Chair Series pulse with Snowden’s characteristic energy; the compositions simultaneously coalesce even as they threaten to fly apart.

In Bold and Beautiful, 4 paintings from her Flora Urbana series represent work that the artist created in the year or two before her death. Snowden said that the paintings were inspired by Detroit’s privately tended urban gardens, and that she wanted them to be “layered, gritty, grungy, beautiful.” Stylized floral forms share pictorial space with elements of the gritty Detroit environment. The artist employs some of the techniques of street art, such as spray paint and stencils, but in a unique, painterly manner.


An Artist of, by and for Detroit

Snowden was a true Detroit native. Her family arrived in the city in the early 20th century as part of the Great Migration, when over 6 million African Americans moved from the rural South to the urban North in search of jobs and opportunity. She was born in Detroit in 1954, and studied fashion design at Cass Technical High School. She earned her BFA in Advertising, Design and Painting in 1977, and her MFA in painting in 1979, both from Wayne State University.

In her early career as an artist, Snowden was influenced by the Cass Corridor movement, a loose and scrappy agglomeration of urban writers and visual artists whose aesthetic salvaged beauty from the ruins of a city in post-industrial decline and racial turmoil. 

In 1985, Snowden became a professor in the Department of Fine Arts at the College for Creative Studies. She taught there for 31 years, in addition to serving occasionally as Chair of the Fine Arts and Painting Departments and as a juror and curator for many of the school’s exhibitions.

Gilda Snowden is well represented in the contemporary holdings of the Detroit Institute of Art, and one of her important early works is currently on display in Landlord Colors at the Cranbrook Museum of Art.  But to truly appreciate her significance, it is important to acknowledge her also as a generous and supportive teacher and an on-the-ground videographer of Detroit’s notoriously fugitive art scene. Her lifelong contributions were recently recognized by the Kresge Foundation, which instituted the annual Gilda Awards in her honor.

At the time of her death, Snowden was still growing as an artist.  As she wrote in the catalog for her 2013 retrospective: 

The definition of painting is expanding and continually flexing its muscles. When I was in school, I never thought that I would be using the media that I use now. It seems that the older I get, the more radical I am in my own visual practices. 

Though her life was cut short, the ample body of work that she left behind is a physical testament to her talent and her ongoing significance for contemporary art and artists in Detroit. 

Gilda Snowden: Bold and Beautiful will be on view through August 24 at the University of Michigan’s Connections Gallery.
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