“Valerie Maynard was a woman who could do many things … she was fearless and unflinching in facing the art world.”
That is how Januwa Moja, a multidisciplinary artist and friend, described Valerie Maynard, the pioneering artist of portraiture and printmaking. She was among many in the art world who fondly remembered Maynard, who died this week. She was 85 years old.
As an artist, Maynard focused on the social experience of Black people around the world. Her “No Apartheid” series, created in the 1990s in support of South African freedom, placed her in a league of artists who have used their work to fight for change.
She was originally from Harlem, New York and later made her home in Baltimore. She participated in residencies around the world after graduating with an MFA from the Goddard School in Vermont.
She told Art Papers magazine in 1990 that when she was younger she fought against being sent to a school where she would not see another Black person among her classmates and teachers.
“I have always been aware of us as a people in this place, ever since I was three years old. So even though we had no reflections on TV, in magazines, on billboards … Even having nothing to sustain you in the system, you knew that in fact your culture and community were valid,” Maynard told the magazine.
Throughout her 50-plus-year career, Maynard was a global educator. She taught at Howard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of the Virgin Islands and even the Baltimore School for the Arts.
Those who knew her said that even outside of the classroom she was always ready to share her knowledge. She guided fellow artists through uncertainties in life.
“Any doubt I had in myself [when I spoke to Valerie] it would completely wash away,” said Pierre Bennu, a local multidisciplinary artist who met Maynard years ago.
“Speaking with Valerie was always invaluable,” Moja said.
Her work spanned across mediums, including sculpture, printmaking and painting. As a multidisciplinary artist, she built connections with artists of all kinds. Growing up in Harlem, she became close to the family of the author James Baldwin. His younger sister Pauline Baldwin said: “Valerie’s relationship with our family grew over the years. … I learned so much from her wisdom, just like I learned from my brother [James].”
Valerie’s work is part of collections around the world. Toni Morrison was a fan of Maynard’s work and had a sculpture of Maynard’s at her home on the banks of the Hudson River. Angela Davis also has a print of Maynard’s displayed in her home. The print is of Maynard’s friend, James Baldwin. Davis said in an email that the print recalls a great Morrison quote: “[Maynard’s work] summons, creates what ought to be and deconstructs what ought not.”
Maynard’s wisdom will be an enduring legacy, artists say.
Elissa Blount Moorhead, a filmmaker and artist, said: “Valerie had a very clear idea of self … she was interested in making art but not all the other stuff that goes along with it.” Moorhead said that being showcased in the gallery and museum system was never a part of Maynard’s vision for herself. But her talents would bring her there.
In 2020, The Baltimore Museum of Art curated an exhibition of Maynard’s work to honor her contribution to Black arts. Dr. Asma Naeem, interim co-director of the BMA and the Eddie C. and C. Sylvia Brown chief curator, said, “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.”
As the work to gather her pieces came together for her show at the BMA, Maynard asked friend and cultural worker Jess Solomon to help steward the relationship with her work and the museum. Solomon took the role very seriously.
“My role was setting the table for Valerie to take a seat,” Solomon said. “This wasn’t the pinnacle of her work and she never really cared about institutions.”
Core to Maynard’s work was showcasing Black people and their humanity. While she gained popularity in her later years, for a long time people didn’t write about her work. Now that Maynard is being honored, Moorhead says: “It feels like I can relax.” Moorhead also said that Maynard was an active participant in protecting her legacy.
“Valerie always asked where is your sacred space?” Bennu recalled. Maynard visited the Exit the Apple gallery where his work is on display and he hosts events and shows. She was clear in her conversations with artists that there must be a place that is private where one can do their best work, he said.
Maynard is already missed fiercely by many who knew her. Many spoke of Maynard’s ability to find friendship with others of all ages, bridging generational gaps. Her friendships were rooted in the preciousness of Black life, Solomon said.
“[Maynard] used to always say ‘we [Black people] are wearing the brown silks.”