LeMoyne-Owen College: Building a Campus Aesthetic

A charter member of the AAHBCU (National Alliance of Artists from Historically Black Colleges and Universities), Phillip R. Dotson, M.F.A., has taught at LeMoyne-Owen College since 1972.

For over forty years, Dotson has focused on building a rich aesthetic environment on campus-both in developing extensive collections and displaying powerful original art throughout campus buildings and hallways. In addition to teaching non-art majors the benefits of studying and practicing art, he works tirelessly to instill a lifelong appreciation for art in his students.

Building an Aesthetic Awareness

As a boy growing up in Mississippi, Dotson was surrounded by artists in his own family, though he notes they were artists by necessity. His parents’ arts-with his mother a quilter and his father a blacksmith-had practical purposes, but their talents meant he grew up around quilts, patterns, and vibrant colors. Additionally, after the summer of ’64, there were many people of the northern states who were looking for ways to “inspire and uplift” others, and Dotson notes that his family “was a recipient of that.” He received books on Picasso and El Greco. From his own home, he learned from the artistic greats and was inspired.

When he first came to the LeMoyne-Owen campus, Dotson notes that there was not much artwork on campus, and he sought to remedy that absence by building an archival collection. Now, four decades later, he can proudly note, “I see a much more creative environment.” A donated Kente cloth decorates the student center, art from the John & Susan Horseman Collection fills the Administration Building, and original art fills the hallways of all buildings and the offices of faculty members.

Clay Foster, the Chair of the Division of Fine Arts and Humanities at LeMoyne- Owen, also recalls the lack of archives or original art on campus in the 70s and credits his colleague Dotson for changing the campus environment. He adds that the ubiquitous displays of art on campus offer a “certain ambiance” that students would just not find at many other schools. Their African collection alone is more impressive than a collection across town in a university that is many times the size of LeMoyne-Owen. “Believe me,” Foster adds, “it was not easy.” He praises Dotson for creating this engaging and beautiful environment in the middle of inner-city Memphis.

Dr. Lee A. Ransaw, Professor Emeritus and Executive Director of The National Alliance of Artists from HBCUs, also speaks to the enrichment offered to students, faculty, and staff by Dotson’s unyielding focus on building an aesthetically rich environs where everyone who spends time on the LeMoyne-Owen campus has an opportunity to appreciate original works of art. On the power of inhabiting a rich aesthetic awareness, Ransaw states, “Beauty, power, expression and communications are all interests of aesthetics that have elastic values. Beauty is an expression of the human emotion, so when we look at art it gives us an interpretation of life which enables us to cope more successfully with the chaotic state of things, and envision a more suitable and reliable meaning for our existence.”

The Day You Become Who You Are

Ransaw explains that as campus inhabitants are introduced to original art from the past, they can “situate themselves in history,” and when they are denied the exposure to that same art, they are simultaneously deprived of “a part of history that belongs to everyone.” Ransaw adds that in students viewing Dotson’s own art, they have an opportunity to develop a “deeper understanding of our history, culture, and, hopefully, mankind.” Ransaw believes that Dotson’s “Girl with the Blues,” for example, articulates “a vision of the world” that is “more meaningful than what the Western world has made available to us.” He notes that it was only in the early 20th century that Western culture started recognizing a “Black aesthetic in African art,” a discovery that heralded a time when younger artists were experimenting with innovative styles. For instance, Spanish-born but Paris-trained Picasso was powerfully influenced in both style and motifs by African art or L’Art Negre.

Ransaw further explains that Alain Locke-often referred to as the “Dean” of the Harlem Renaissance-implied that “a double duty and function must exist for Negro artists who must look to Africa for their themes.” Ransaw views Dotson as a powerful example of this double duty at work, citing the years Dotson spent painting in the style of surrealists while blending thematic imagery from Expressionism, Realism, Surrealism, and Africa into a powerful expression of eclecticism. He adds, “Dotson’s paintings have beauty, power and express spiritual qualities that communicate ideas that generate profound thought.”

For Dotson, building the campus aesthetic is about more than beautifying the surroundings for students, faculty, and staff; it is about what the individual gains from this enriched environment. “You want a rich aesthetic environment” that builds aesthetic awareness, Dotson explains, because that will all lead to the “one day when you become who you are.”

Teaching Art to Non-Art Majors

Dotson notes that some of his best students are those from the sciences. He explains to his science majors that it is important they be capable of worthwhile drawings- anything that could be used for practical purposes in their studies. Like his friend and colleague, Ransaw also sees a clear connection, explaining that both science and art require observation, imagination, persistence, and perseverance. He adds that scientific themes-particularly those related to the natural environment-are often reflected in art, as members of different cultures have created scenes of their surroundings, documenting their vision of the world in depictions of the natural world that invite viewers to contemplate nature’s beauty and power.

The potential benefit to students is vast. Adding that often art of the natural world raises more questions than it answers, potlight continued Ransaw explains that the viewers are required to scrutinize their relationship with their own environment and the future of the earth’s resources; he notes that the study of art for non-art majors helps students develop their interpretative and analytical skills as well. He shares, “By combining art with science, mathematics and other interdisciplinary courses, students at LeMoyne-Owen College can build a foundation of aesthetic awareness and open additional opportunities along their career paths.”

As Chair of the department, Clay Foster has seen that a wide range of students have been drawn to Dotson’s classes, including a blind student. Though Foster was a bit skeptical at first, he watched his colleague teach this student about a sense of color and teach him elements of texture. Acknowledging that while other educators might be dubious that such a seemingly impossible pedagogical objective could be achieved, he’d “seen the real thing” and “knew it had value.” Not only did Dotson teach this blind student the elements of art, Foster added, but this student was just one of twenty students in the class.

Living the Arts

While Dotson does occasionally assign “Social Responsibility” assignments for his students, where they are asked to engage with current social issues such as the war in Syria or the Black Lives Matter Movement, he believes the most powerful art comes when “individuals look for a space to mentally relieve that stress” created by the impact of social changes or challenges to their embodied realities and complex interior lives. After they have been taught techniques and processes, he sees his job as one to help them “open their minds to the limits of their imagination,” which means the variety of their responses is much greater than what he receives with specific prompts. “I enjoy it more,” he adds, “when the student is working out of the depths of creativity.”

While Dotson is interested in introducing his students to the work of world-class artists, he is equally invested in helping his students find a lifelong appreciation for the arts, whether those students pursue their own artistic gifts or not. In fact, he fostered that same appreciation for art among his three children. His oldest child, also named Phil Dotson-just as Professor Dotson was named for his father-is not an artist, but he recalls visiting his father’s classes and being utterly in awe of his father’s gifts, as both an artist and an educator. Young Phil would travel with his father to Arts in the Park in the 80s and early 90s, helping him set up tents for his father and other artists. One of the paintings in his own home now is a creek from their land where they shared a great deal of time.

Now Phil and his younger siblings all display their father’s works in their homes, along with their grandmother’s quilts- powerful artifacts that carry forward their family history and their deepest memories. Just like his father, Phil is passionate that he pass along this legacy to his own sons, sharing these paintings that are not only about documenting relationship milestones with his father but also illuminating his father’s own experiences, all of which were instrumental in developing the man, the artist, and the father. The pieces are, forever, a tangible piece of their family history, and Phil deeply understands the importance of carrying forth that history for his father. “He’s so passionate about his love,” Phil adds, “and art has always been his first love.”

About the Author
Rachel James Clevenger earned her B.A. and M.Ed. degrees from Mississippi College. After finishing her PhD in Composition and Rhetoric, she taught and served as the University Writing Center Director for Birmingham Southern College and University of Alabama at Birmingham. Most recently, she taught Business Communications at Samford University.