Painter, scholar, filmmaker, educator, critic, and printmaker Samella Lewis was born in New Orleans, LA. She received a BA and an MA from Hampton University, VA, and an MA and PhD in art history and cultural anthropology from Ohio State University, Columbus. Lewis was the first African American woman to earn a doctorate in fine art and art history. In 1953, she became the first chair of the Fine Arts Department at Florida A&M University, Tallahassee. In order to publish Black Artists on Art in 1969, Lewis founded Contemporary Crafts, the first African American-owned art publishing house. In 1970 she co-founded with Bernie Casey the Contemporary Crafts Gallery, Los Angeles. Lewis founded the International Review of African American Art in 1975 and the Museum of African American Art, Los Angeles, in 1976.
Lewis’ figurative art reflects the African American experience and complements her efforts as a historian, educator, and mentor to generations of academics and studio artists. She self-published a monograph of the sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett and wrote or edited numerous essays and books highlighting the achievements of those she admired. She is considered by many to be the dean of African American artists-art historians.
She retired as professor emeritus from Scripps College, Los Angeles. The school honored her by establishing The Samella S. Lewis Collection of African American Art and scholarships that carry her name. She has been a longtime consultant to several major institutions including the Getty Institute (now Getty Center) and Hampton University. Lewis serves as an advisory member of the Institute for Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity in Education and the Arts (IIDEEA), which has developed Artura.org.