Meet the woman behind some of our most famous paintings and sculptures

Written by PlayBack

By Marissa Johnson

Artis Lane is a black sculptor, painter, and print-maker. She was born on May 14, 1927 in North Baxton, Ontario, Canada. The village where he was born was an almost all-black village as it had been a destination in the Underground Railroad. Lane descended from abolitionists.

However, Lane did not grow up in Canada and moved to Ann Harbor, Michigan with her family at the age of two. At age six, she was known to work with her hands and created dolls. By age fifteen, she was painting portraits of her classmates.

In 1949, Lane married a journalist named Bill Lane and moved with him to Detroit where she would make new contacts in the art world.  There she received an art scholarship to further her education.

After Detroit, she moved to New York and finally to Los Angeles. In LA, Artis Lane worked for Universal Studios and she also studied at UCLA.

Lane’s great artistic ability was recognized by black and by white notable figures. She has painted or sculpted John F. Kennedy, Frank Sinatra, Mr. and Mrs. George H. W. Bush, Nelson Mandela, Aretha Franklin, “Magic” Johnson, Quincy Jones, and Henry Kissinger. Jamie Foxx once hired her to paint a portrait for his friend Oprah as a gift.

Her famous portrait of Nelson Mandela is simple. The background is of a crisp sepia tone, while a yellow glow surrounds his face. He neither looks triumphant, happy, nor sad, just as an old man. It’s as though Lane sees Mandela as an ordinary man who just happened to do great things. She didn’t feel the need to exaggerate his face or hide his wrinkles.

Lane’s sketches of the human figure is described as being dynamic, graceful, and athletic if exaggerated.

In a photograph with First Lady Michelle Obama and former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, one can see the bust Lane has created of Sojourner Truth. This is evidence that Lane’s work remains just as culturally and politically relevant today. Few artists are able to achieve such greatness in their careers. Maintaining that greatness and remaining relevant is an even harder feat.


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