Wilhelmina Godfrey with her work Composition I, c. 1969; Image courtesy of the Burchfield Penney Art Center Archives
Wilhelmina Godfrey: Artist, Educator, Innovator and Community Builder
Monday, February 24, 2020
b. Philadelphia, PA
Wilhelmina Godfrey was an esteemed African American artist and an influential figure within both the local arts and African American communities. Her lifelong contributions as an artist, writer and teacher earned the admiration and respect of many, creating a legacy within Buffalo’s art history recognized in the exhibition In the Fullness of Time: Painting in Buffalo, 1832-1972, now on view through May 31. Born in Philadelphia, PA, Godfrey was raised and educated in Buffalo. She was a graduate of painting from the Albright Art School, attended the Art Institute of Buffalo, and studied at the School for American Craftsmen at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
She organized and taught painting and drawing classes at the Michigan Avenue YMCA in Buffalo in 1951. In 1958, inspired by an exhibition in Rochester her creative expression advanced to fiber art. She organized the University at Buffalo’s weaving program and was an instructor at their Creative Craft Center from 1967-1970. Additionally, she founded and taught creative craft classes at the Community Center for St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church.
In 1969, Godfrey co-founded the Langston Hughes Center for the Visual and Performing Arts with fellow artists Allie Anderson, Clarence Scott and Jim Pappas. Named after the legendary black artist and poet, its mission was to teach kids to express creativity through dance, drawing, painting, weaving, graphic design, and ceramics.
Godfrey created a massive portfolio that includes weavings, prints, abstractions, representational works and figurative depictions of her subjects. Her work at its core is reflective of her love of color, her African heritage, and the places she traveled. She frequently incorporated African motifs and techniques in her weavings.
Her paintings often portrayed African American life on Buffalo’s East Side. City Playground, 1949-1950, donated to the Burchfield Penney Art Center collection in 1994 by her husband, William Godfrey Jr. and daughter Carol B. Wing, offers a figurative depiction. The ambiguous urban landscape is of two boys playing in a hollow outdoor space that ironically, has no conventional playground equipment, but rather concrete. The background is accented by drying laundry and a peeling poster, suggesting a lack of carefree space for children to develop their creative imagination. Despite the apparent bleakness of this landscape and its social implications, Godfrey’s technique with soft, pastel colors and figurative forms prevent the work from feeling overwhelmed by this commentary.
In 2009, Craig Flinner donated 15 preliminary studies Godfrey made for the work that show her working progress. “The most recent acquisition is from Mark Dabney, who generously donated an extensive archive of materials relating to Wilhelmina Godfrey’s career in 2018,” said Nancy Weekly, Burchfield Penney head of collections and the Charles Cary Rumsey Curator. “It includes 350 color slides of her paintings, weavings, and prints; a 277-page copy of her manuscript, From These Hands: Contemporary African-American Craftspeople of the 60’s and 70’s, copyrighted 1980; as well as a folder that contains inventories of artworks, biographical information, exhibition details, and other information.”