Valerie Maynard, a sculptor and printmaker whose works ambitiously sought to chronicle the nuances of the Black experience, has died at 85. Her death was confirmed by the Baltimore Museum of Art, which mounted a survey of her work in 2020.
In an email to ARTnews, Asma Naeem, the BMA’s interim co-director and chief curator, wrote, “Valerie was a profoundly individual maker and thinker and her legacy goes well beyond the art world and into an abiding cosmos of ethics and dignity. Her artmaking was deeply political, local and lived. Who else to picture a universe of injustice from Harlem to Johannesburg, who else to shape the Pan-African and our environment into carved and dancing objects?”
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For the past six decades, Maynard had been creating images of Black men and women that defied simplistic interpretations. She tackled a spread of issues, from Apartheid in South Africa to the status of Black artists in society, and she gained many admirers in the process.
One was the writer Toni Morrison, who once penned an introduction for one of Maynard’s prints series, titled “Lost and Found.” “This is art that summons, that creates what should be and disassembles what should not,” Morrison wrote. “The medium is dream, but the power is magic.”
Baltimore Magazine reported that Morrison, Stevie Wonder, and Lena Horne were among those who had bought Maynard’s work.
At times, Maynard’s works can appear simple. Rufus (1968), crafted from a stone that Maynard found at the bottom of a swimming hole, resembles an everyday Black man, his eyes looking off into the distance.
But her works also often had a tendency to turn dreamy, as in “No Apartheid,” a series of lithographs that features bodily forms layered atop one another. Sometimes, these beings appear to assemble to form a person in anguish. A work by Maynard in this vein is currently included in the exhibition “Black Melancholia” at the CCS Bard Hessel Museum of Art in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, alongside works by artists several generations Maynard’s junior, including Cy Gavin, Arcmanoro Niles, and Ja’Tovia Gary.
Valerie Maynard was born in New York in 1937. Growing up in Harlem, her next door neighbor was Audre Lorde, and her family became close with James Baldwin, whose 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk is thought to be a fictionalized version of her brother’s wrongful conviction and incarceration for murder. (Maynard’s sculptures appear in Barry Jenkins’s 2018 film adaptation of the Baldwin book.)
She attended the New School and later set up a printmaking workshop at the Studio Museum in Harlem. From 1969 to 1974, Maynard was an artist in residence there.
Maynard, like many other artists, spent a good amount of her time teaching—she led courses at Howard University, the College of the Virgin Islands, and the Baltimore School of the Arts, where she founded a sculpture program—but she made a special point of how important her pedagogy was in interviews. She often emphasized the value of intuition. She told Baltimore Magazine, “I just wanted them to be serious and imbue their spirit in their work.”
Although Maynard may not be as well known as others in her orbit, her works are featured prominently in public spaces where they melt into their surroundings, including a set of mosaics for a Harlem subway station.
She remained committed to raising consciousness among Black artists throughout her career, once telling the artist Mildred Thompson, “We are a cultural voice of the people and we have to know that, acknowledge that.”