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The Voice of the Black Community

Arts and Entertainment

Lifetime of art, love
Family's collection has national reputation
Published Thursday, March 10, 2011 9:22 am
by Ryanne Persinger

John and Vivian Hewitt first collected art during their honeymoon in New York in December 1949. They used the money they received from their first vacation as a married couple and bought artwork.

Vivian Hewitt, along with her late husband John, started collecting art as newlyweds in 1949. Today, their collection is housed at the Gantt Center in Charlotte and has been on exhibit across the U.S.

“We got very good prints and brought them back to Atlanta and had them framed and hung in our faculty suite where we lived,” Vivian Hewitt said. “In 1952 we moved to New York and continued to add to our collection by buying what we liked and our first oil painting was bought in 1960 when we vacationed in Haiti.”

The Hewitts gave each other paintings during holidays such as birthdays, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and for Christmas they joined their funds and purchased art together for their home.

“We bought five or six paintings a year,” Hewitt said. “We gave each other them as presents. We were married for 50 years and we acquired a lot of work....nearly 300 pieces.”

Vivian was once a teacher at Atlanta University (now Clark-Atlanta University) and John at Morehouse College. He died in 2000 at 75.

Hewitt said she and John bought Haitian art for 15 years because it was affordable, occasionally buying American art.

“I described us as an American couple by modest means,” Hewitt, 91, said. “Then my husband said, ‘look we’re specialized in Haitian paintings and we’re African American, we should buy some of our own art and invest in our own culture and heritage.’“

In New York, the Hewitts befriended artists J. Eugene Grigsby and Romare Bearden. They, along with Charles H. Alston, are part of the Hewitt Collection of African-American Art and have Charlotte roots.

Bearden was born in Mecklenburg County, Alston was born in Charlotte and Grigsby, a Greensboro native, attended Johnson C. Smith University. Grigsby is also Vivian’s cousin.

The Hewitt Collection was acquired by Bank of America in 1998 and is on display at the Harvey B. Gantt Center through a gift. Hewitt will speak at the Gantt Center from 1-3 p.m. March 12.

“We’re pleased that Mrs. Hewitt is returning to the Gantt Center,” Gantt Center CEO David Taylor said. “The Hewitts were not a wealthy couple yet chose to invest in art. Their collection shows the power of a vision.”

Hewitt herself has ties to North Carolina.

“My family roots are in North Carolina even though I was born and raised in Pennsylvania,” she said. “My granddad had a farm in Kings Mountain and I visited throughout my life and I knew all of my cousins.”

Additionally, Hewitt said U.S. Rep. Mel Watt’s mother is her first cousin.
Having the Hewitt Collection at the Gantt Center is purely by chance.

Hewitt said Hugh L. McColl, then the CEO at Bank of America, wanted an African American art collection for its gallery.

“Through the art world grapevine network, Bank of America learned about the Hewitt Collection and Todd Smith, then the curator at the Mint Museum, flew up to New York and looked at the collection and decided they would take 58 pieces,” she said. “I’m grateful for Hugh McColl as  a visionary and great humanitarian and for his expansion of the Hewitt Collection.”

When Hewitt traveled with the exhibit, she went to 30 cities throughout the United States and found it refreshing.

“It was so fulfilling to me that afterwards several people would say, ‘you’ve inspired and encouraged me to start collecting,’” Hewitt said.

Her favorite painting is not in the Hewitt Collection.

“People have always asked me that and I would say in the collection that they are like your children, you love them all equally but you treat them differently,” Hewitt said. “My favorites are two finger paintings done by my son when he was in kindergarten and a modern painting done when he was in the first grade and a pastel when he was in the second grade. They hang in my bedroom and are professionally framed.”

Her son, Dr. John Hamilton III, is a retired physician and her two granddaughters LeighAnn Easton and Marivien Hewitt, are both interested in art.

“I’m thrilled they’re interested in art,” Hewitt said. “We’ve started their art collections.”

Hewitt will discuss many things during her Gantt visit. She’s also recently released her memoir, “The One and Only.”
She added: “You really don’t have to be wealthy to collect good art, but the main thing is to buy what you like and what you love.

“Also support local artists and to parents, if you have children who show any talent in art, nurture and encourage them.”
The gallery talk is free with museum admission.

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