Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Mary Parks Washington Papers

One of the jobs that archivists do is process collections. When collections arrive at the archives, they are often unorganized or organized in a way that only makes sense to the creator of the collection. In addition, an archivist may need to treat preservation issues such as mold, acidic paper (for example, brittle, yellowed newspaper), or damaging adhesives. During processing, archivists arrange, preserve, and describe collections so that they are accessible to users.

This summer, I’ve been working on processing the papers of Mary Parks Washington, an Atlanta-born visual artist, arts educator, and arts advocate. Washington uses the art forms of drawing, painting, sculpture, and collage to explore themes of history and memory. She also developed a unique collage form which she calls “histcollage,” an assemblage of old documents (such as family photos, insurance policies, and letters) that she incorporates into her drawings and paintings.

As a young woman, Washington had several experiences that helped nurture her talents and love of the arts. Washington exhibited her artwork while she was still in high school at Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High. The artist Hale Woodruff, a professor at Spelman College, was one of the judges and continued to mentor her when she attended Spelman to study art.

After her graduation from Spelman in 1946, Woodruff helped Washington receive a scholarship from the Rosenwald Fund to attend the Summer Art Institute at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Washington’s experience at Black Mountain was a contrast to her life and schooling in Atlanta. In addition to being at a racially integrated institution, classes were informal with students often spreading their work on the floor to be critiqued by their instructors. Washington bought a pair of “dungarees” especially for the relaxed atmosphere since she had never before worn pants. At Black Mountain Washington studied with several renowned artists including Josef Albers, Jean Varda, Beaumont Newhall, and Gwendolyn Knight. It was at Black Mountain that Washington developed lifelong friendships with Knight, her husband artist Jacob Lawrence, and sculptor Ruth Asawa, who was one of her roommates.

Following her summer at Black Mountain, Washington began her career as a teacher at David T. Howard High School. In 1947, Washington once again used her summer vacation to study art, this time at the University of Mexico. In order to forestall desegregation attempts in higher education, the State of Georgia paid the out-of-state tuition for African American students. Using Georgia’s segregationist policies to her advantage, Washington was the first person to receive out-of-country tuition from Georgia. Her histcollage Georgia Out-of-State Tuition explores this experience.The Mary Parks Washington Papers document these events as well as Washington’s career as an arts educator, her friendships with artists; her role as arts advocate, and her participation in civic and community service organizations.

Photo credits: Mary Parks Washington at Black Mountain College,1946, Photographer: Beaumont Newhall. Marriage License and Georgia Out-of-State Tuition, excerpted from Atlanta: Remembrances, Impressions and Reflections, 1996 © Mary Parks Washington, Photographers: James Devrances & John Bremons

Posted by Krystal Appiah, Archives Intern


  1. Ms. Washington in 1946 was at the beginning of a thread of Southern history. Her attendance in the summer art program near Ashville, N.C. at Black Mountain College attests to the influence of wealth and culture in that part of North Carolina. The tradition of the summer art institue continues at Tougaloo College, Mississippi where peoples of many races and culture gather yearly in mid July.

  2. The first African American students attended Black Mountain College in 1944. Decades later Ms. Washington learned that some faculty members had originally opposed integration. For the most part, faculty and students were racially tolerant and appreciative of the creative atmosphere. Thank you for your information about the summer art institute held annually at Tougaloo.