Remembering John Lewis

John Lewis in Nashville (Primary Title), Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement (Portfolio Title), 1962–64, printed 2015, Danny Lyon (American, born 1942), gelatin silver print. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Endowment, 2017.404.2. Image © Danny Lyon

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts pays tribute to the life of John Lewis, who passed away July 17 at age 80. A civil rights icon, longtime member of Congress, and celebrated orator, Lewis inspired generations of Americans, including artist Donald Moffett (born, 1955). In 2006, Moffett created an immersive sound work titled Impeach (2006), the stirring audio installation features a 1998 recording of Lewis delivering an impassioned plea for unity on the House floor in the moment leading up to the vote on whether or not to impeach President Bill Clinton. In 2018, VMFA acquired Moffett’s sound work, presenting it in 2019 as an exhibition installed in the Confederate Memorial Chapel on the grounds of VMFA. Here is a video recording of the sound work, installed at Basel Switzerland in 2017.

Click to listen

Donald Moffett (American born. 1955)
Impeach, 2006. [Edition 1 of 3 with 1AP]
Sound installation: 2:20 minutes, loop.
Collection Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Brooklyn Museum, New York
Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Endowment and Aldine S. Hartman Endowment Fund, 2018.223

Basel Unlimited. Basel Switzerland. 2017
Courtesy the artist, Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York and Aspen, and Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Francisco. Video: Christian Rodriguez.

Pictured (l to r): Valerie Cassel Oliver, Jan Hatchette, Paula Saylor-Robinson, and John Lewis. Photo: Sandra Sellers © 2019 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

On June 22, 2019, Representative Lewis traveled to Richmond to address thousands at the dedication ceremony for Arthur Ashe Boulevard. Amid the flurry of festivities and only moments before Lewis’s departure, VMFA invited him to experience the sound work featuring his own voice. Escorted by Paula Saylor-Robinson, VMFA’s Director of Audience Development and Community Engagement, and Virginia State Senator Jennifer McClellan, the congressman was whisked away from the site of the concluded ceremony at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, where he was the keynote speaker, to the Confederate Memorial Chapel. There, they were joined by Valerie Cassel Oliver, VMFA’s Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Jan Hatchette, VMFA’s Deputy Director for Communications.
Cassel Oliver brought Representative Lewis into the chapel, introducing him to the setting and the sound work he was about to experience. The timing of Lewis’s visit seemed more than serendipitous and perhaps even providential. Seated around Lewis, with the recorded sound of his soaring voice filling the space, the group experienced the work of art in the very presence of its subject— their personal hero. On that unforgettable day, with its focus on honoring Arthur Ashe and celebrating the renaming of one of Richmond’s major thoroughfares, little did anyone know of all that would transpire in the year ahead—across the city, the nation, the world, and in the life of this indefatigable leader.

For these women—all African Americans in positions of leadership—news of John Lewis’s passing last week turned their thoughts back to that day—its personal meaning and their first-hand impressions of a towering figure who walked in humility, grace, love, and courage. Here, VMFA’s Paula Saylor-Robinson, Jan Hatchette, and Valerie Cassel Oliver share their reflections:

Pictured (l to r): Jennifer McClellan, Valerie Cassel Oliver, John Lewis, Paula Saylor-Robinson, Jan Hatchette. Photo: Sandra Sellers © 2019 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Paula Saylor-Robinson:
“To think that it almost didn’t happen . . . He was moments away from getting in his car to head back to DC. But through my persistence and the help of Jamie Bosket [Virginia Museum of History & Culture’s president and CEO] and Congressman [Donald] McEachin, Congressman John Lewis came to VMFA to experience the Moffett installation, and it was a unforgettable and deeply profound experience at the intersection of art, activism, and history.

“Being in the presence of such a powerful and iconic figure and feeling a personal connection to a critically important time in history was momentous. I was struck by his gentle, positive spirit. Watching him listen to himself was surreal. The awe of meeting someone you’ve seen only on TV . . . a man you saw fighting tirelessly and graciously for so long for what was right. I remember thinking that day: I am able to do the work that I do because he stood up for me and others like me. It was an amazingly emotional moment that is seared into my memory. I am also delighted that we captured it in photographs for posterity, as we strive to fulfill VMFA’s mission to preserve and share our stories through art. All that happened that day is a piece of our collective narrative now too.”

Jan Hatchette:
“It was hot as one would expect in Virginia, but there was something special looming in the air that day with anticipation of a new chapter for the city of Richmond. I had a second row seat [at the Arthur Ashe Boulevard ceremony]. There were many elected officials on the program that day, but the one that stood out the most to me was civil rights activist U.S. Rep. John Lewis.

“As he stood at the podium and talked about Arthur Ashe’s contributions, I’ll never forget the cadence of his voice—strong and deliberate, like a Southern Baptist preacher. He delivered a message about nonviolence and forgiveness and encouraged us to stand up when we see injustices: ‘It’s time for us to get in trouble again—good trouble, necessary trouble.’ He proclaimed, ‘We’re here today as one people, as one family.’ His words echoed the message he delivers in Moffett’s sound work.

“Time was slipping away as I anxiously paced the sidewalk in front of the chapel and then my cell phone rang. He was on his way. I felt every emotion in that moment from excitement to nervousness. . . . Minutes later the golf cart jetted across the Sculpture Garden. And there he was, an icon, a legend, shaking our hands and greeting us with such grace. As we walked through the chapel to take a seat in the pew, I wondered what he was thinking and then he quietly said ‘I haven’t heard this speech since I gave it.’ In that moment in the sweltering heat in the unairconditioned chapel, I got chills as I watched him listen to his speech. There was that cadence of his voice again that held strong, despite interruptions of a pounding gavel. I was in awe and humbled to be sitting next to a hero who used his position of power to fight for our equality and civil rights. That moment changed me. . . . His leadership and courage inspire me.”

Valerie Cassel Oliver:
“I have long felt the ability of artists not only to transcend but also to transform society through their work. Holding the mirror to moments in history, they allow us to truly see ourselves. When Donald Moffett created the sound installation, Impeach (2006), based on Congressman John Lewis’s rousing speech about the resilience and power of ‘the American family,’ I knew it would reverberate historically in the Confederate Memorial Chapel. It is a powerful work. And although I had heard it in that space so many times, I never walked away as moved as I was after sitting next to and listening along with The Honorable John Lewis. I had met him briefly a few times prior . . . even spoke with him about Moffett’s work . . . but on that day after experiencing the power of his words spoken to hundreds at the dedication ceremony for Arthur Ashe Boulevard . . . there I was sitting next to this icon. I will never forget it! He was visibly moved by that work in that space. The generosity of spirit and true love for this country was palpable . . . and he exuded power. But, in that moment, he was also exceedingly human. As we sat feeling the weight of history . . . it was hard to hold back the emotion that welled up as it does now. Some moments are meant to be cherished and I will hold this one close to my heart.”

Selfie with John Lewis