Profile: Wilmer Angier Jennings (1910-1990)

Wilmer Angier Jennings was an African-American printmaker, painter, and jeweler. He was hired by the Rhode Island WPA to create wood-engraved prints that explored themes of economic and social hardships experienced by African-Americans. Jennings’ work also included Southern themes inspired by oral folklore traditions. During his later years, Jennings studied jewelry design, which prompted him to develop new methods of jewelry manufacturing.

Artistic career

Education

While attending Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, Jennings studied under the artist Hale Woodruff who introduced him to the principles of modernism. Under the Graphic Arts Division of the WPA in 1934, they worked together on two notable murals that reflected on the African-American experience: The Negro in Modern American Life: Agriculture and Rural Life, Literature, Music and Art and the second, titled The Dream. The first of the two was displayed in the David T. Howard School in Atlanta, Georgia while the second was showcased at the School of Social Work at Atlanta University. However, both are currently destroyed. During that stay in Atlanta, Jennings was able to learn the creative production that contributed to community murals. Woodruff already had an unconventional relationship with his students in which he was opposed to the typical teacher role. Because of that, Jennings was able to form a personal friendship with Woodruff, who he called by the nickname “Count” as a playful title, rather than calling him Hale. In regards to this relationship, art historian Winifred L. Stoelting, quoted Woodruff saying:

[…] “I remember they wanted to call me ‘Hale’ and I was reluctant for them to do that, but Wilmer Jennings always called me ‘Count,’ a kind of a warm title. I always appreciated it because he not only needed [to] but he wanted this kind of relationship that developed between us.”

Jennings continued to work with Woodruff throughout his early career and was able to exhibit his oil painting Rendezvous, 1942, in the First Atlanta University Annual Exhibition of Works by Negro Artists, an exhibition that was organized by Woodruff.

After graduating from Morehouse College, Jennings moved to New England to attend the Rhode Island School of Design. There, he was hired by the WPA where he was able to create works that represented the economic hardships of African-Americans during the Depression. During this time, he mostly used wood engraving and lino-cut relief processes. Wood engraving uses a dense block for processing and as a result, Jennings was able to create thin lines that displayed subtle detail. His Still Life, 1937 used this technique to create a shadowy quality. Lino-cut, however, uses a softer linoleum block which cannot be processed in the same way. Jennings’ Statuette, 1937, was able to emphasize contrast by creating free bold lines.

Influence

Jennings was influenced by his African roots and began incorporating African sculpture into his works. Both Still life, 1937 and Statuette, 1937 include images of an African Fang sculpture in addition to the objects found in Gabon working-class households. This included vases, urns, baskets, metal ashtrays, and textiles.

Jennings enjoyed reading and was influenced by the African-American folklore that was recorded by Zora Neale Hurston and by the poetry of Sterling Brown. Jennings’s wood engraving Just Plain Ornery, 1938, represents the humor associated with folklore by presenting the stubborn mule and mule races.

After moving to Providence, Rhode Island in the mid-1930s, Jennings represented the effect of the urban development on the black community in some of his works. His prints included images of ferry boats, oil industry sites, race tracks, and the transformation of residential areas.

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