The Freeze by Nancy Elizabeth Prophet (Photo Credit: RI Monthly)
March is Women’s History Month and this past Wednesday, March 8th, was International Women’s Day, which commemorates the movement for women’s rights. This year’s theme is Women in the Changing World of Work, highlighting the ongoing economic gender gap. To continue this theme, we are featuring a Rhode Island artist of enduring talent who spent most of her life working in obscurity and struggling against poverty and racism: Nancy Elizabeth Prophet.
Nancy Elizabeth Prophet in Paris, 1930 (Photo Credit: Mapping Arts Project)
Nancy Elizabeth Prophet was born on March 19, 1890 in Warwick, Rhode Island. Her parents, Rose Walker Prophet and William H. Prophet were of mixed African American and Native American descent; her father was of the Narragansett tribe. The Narragansetts are an Algonquian Native American tribe from the area that is today known as Rhode Island. They were nearly landless for many years as they worked to gain federal recognition, which did not occur until 1983. Today the tribe controls the Narragansett Indian Reservation in Charlestown, RI. Prophet enrolled in the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island in 1914 at the age of 24. Four years later, in 1918, she was RISD’s first graduate of color. Although she graduated with a degree in painting and freehand drawing, she struggled to make a career in Providence as a portrait artist. Even though Providence was a fairly liberal city, there was racial segregation and discrimination that eventually convinced her to leave and try her luck in Paris, where she intended to study sculpture.
Nancy Elizabeth Prophet in studio (Photo Credit: Mapping Arts Project)
While in Paris, Prophet kept a journal that detailed her struggles with poverty as she tried to find work as an artist. She arrived in Paris in 1922 with just $380, which was gone two weeks before she completed her first sculpture. In a performance of the journal staged in 2014, actress Sylvia Ann Soares quoted Prophet’s words: "...This thing money or the lack of it is too crushing. It keeps me from working when I should be expressing that which I learn from each day lived....Sculpture is an expensive medium, I know, but I have not chosen my medium of expression; it has chosen me. What more can I say? I want to work. I want to work. I must work. I live for that alone." Prophet was driven by her desire to create, but constantly impeded by her lack of funds. As she also said in her journal: "O poverty, the curse of genius." Her work began to eventually sell by the later 1920s and in the 1930s, her work was shown at exhibits in Paris and America. She was noticed in Paris by Henry O. Tanner who encouraged her to apply for the Harmon Foundation prize, which she won in 1929. W.E.B. Du Bois and Countee Cullen helped her submit her work to exhibitions in the states before she returned from Paris. Upon her return in 1932, she exhibited her work in New York and Newport, RI where she won the 1932 prize for Best in Show from the Newport Art Association. Her work, Congolaise (1931), was purchased in 1932 by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who summered with her family at the Breakers Mansion. Whitney was the founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York where this piece was installed in 2015. It is one of the first pieces of African American art acquired by the Whitney.
Congolaise (1931) by Nancy Elizabeth Prophet (Photo Credit: Culture Type)
Shortly after, she moved down to Atlanta to teach art at Spelman College, a historically black liberal arts college for women. Along with another artist, Hale Woodruff, she helped found the department of art and art history. It began as a collaborative effort between Atlanta University and Spelman College and resulted in the first academic visual arts program for African Americans in Georgia. After struggling to become a part of the art community in Atlanta, where she again faced racial segregation and injustice, she returned to Providence in 1945. She had one final exhibit at the Providence Public Library in 1945, but struggled to build a profitable career without money and she spent the rest of her life working in domestic service. Most accounts of her life say that she died in obscurity and poverty in 1960. Women have fought for their right to work for a long time, but the ability to earn a fair wage is something that women, and especially women of color, are still fighting for. Nancy Elizabeth Prophet spent a large portion of her life living in poverty, facing racial discrimination, as she pursued her art. The artwork that she produced speaks to her talent and imagines what more she may have created if she had been able.
Silence (left), Negro Head (center), and Discontent (right) by Nancy Elizabeth Prophet (Photo Credit: Women's Art Collaborative)