Seeing black children read does more for Cozetta Guinn than give her hope. It has also given the Los Altos artist subject matter for her newest work, a series of paintings of people involved in education and boys who enjoy reading.
As a painter, teacher and collector of African-American art, Guinn's life has revolved around the classroom, her easel, galleries and museums. Although "technically retired" from teaching, she still teaches a cross-cultural class at De Anza College, volunteers at the de Young and Mexican museums in San Francisco and helps arrange showings of African-American art. "I thought when I retired from teaching that I would just keep my easel out all the time. But I just love being around art," she said.
Her own paintings are rooted in realism--people she knows or remembers, scenes she has walked through or lived in. "You feel you know the people, you feel you know what's going on," she said. "Sometimes they are religious, sometimes they are blues."
She has shown her work at Ebony Gallery in Oakland, the White Gallery in San Francisco, the state Capitol building in Sacramento and libraries throughout the state. In February, Guinn had three concurrent exhibitions at the East Palo Alto, Foothill College and De Anza College libraries. In the exhibitions, Guinn's works were paired with displays of books by Nobel prize-winning African-American writers.
Her portraits are of "people with strong features," done in bold, vivid colors. Her landscapes center on the desert, Peninsula woodlands and the landscape of her childhood--an Arkansas farming community so isolated it didn't have a name. "From our house you couldn't see any other houses, just the church across the road, and the lake, and the hickory trees and cedars and pines."
The farm did have a better-known neighboring town, Toadsuck, Ark., where promising, sturdy-limbed frogs attend "frog college" to learn the art of the jump. Guinn experienced a frisson of delight recently when she came across of photograph of President Clinton wearing a Toadsuck, Ark., T-shirt.
The outlying area of Toadsuck, Ark., was not the kind of place known for rearing children who dreamed of becoming artists. When Guinn's mother told a cousin that Guinn planned to major in art, the cousin replied, "What's that?"
Heeding her family's advice to add a firmament of security to an arts education, Guinn became a teacher. She attended Philander Smith College in Little Rock, alma mater of Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders. At the college, Guinn was immediately enrolled in Social Adjustment 101, where "kids from the country learned how to get on in the city."
After college--and four years of correspondence--Guinn married Isaac Guinn, an engineer and Korean War veteran. The couple moved to Kansas, then Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California, then the Peninsula, where they have lived since 1967.
She and her husband have an extensive collection of African-American art, which they exhibit. "My husband wanted to do something that reflected our culture," she said. "We thought about cooking or art, and I thought I would do better at art than at cooking."
Guinn's definition of art is broad, encompassing wall hangings, ceramics, blankets and handcrafted, everyday objects that even the artisans might not call art. "It is my belief that art is our history," she said. "I believe it permeates our whole being, our whole culture and helps to define who we are."
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