After Rhode Island rejected her brown face, sculptress Nancy Elizabeth Prophet moved to Paris on Aug. 11, 1922, with $380. A sporadic journal by her—Rhode Island School of Design’s first black graduate — states that she had a “dogged determination to conquer.” The then-32-year-old Prophet wrote, “I worked away on my first piece of sculpture with a calm assurance and savage pleasure of revenge.”
Two weeks before the bust was completed, the $380 was gone. Prophet, black and Native American, continued to work and study at the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts anyway—sometimes without any food, and once with meat and a potato that she stole from a dog’s plate.
While portraying her Sunday afternoon, actress Sylvia Ann Soares swung her arms the way Prophet described sculpting: with a great rhythm. The performance at RISD Museum’s Metcalf Auditorium was the first of three events this week to celebrate Prophet’s art and life.
“Nancy Elizabeth Prophet is one of America’s elite African American sculptresses,” says Ray Rickman, who coordinated the free events with Robb Dimmick and others. “She is certainly in the top three or four of all time…”
Purchased by Brown University’s John Hay Library, Prophet’s Paris diary chronicles the struggles — extreme poverty took the place of the racial inequities she encountered in Rhode Island — and the triumphs she had in France for 12 years. Soares brought the diary entries to life in front of about 200 people.
“Oh my goodness, what a wonderful gathering,” Soares said, in character, as she entered.
Peering at the crowd, she continued, “What wonderful heads … Welcome to my salon in my alma mater.” (Prophet received her RISD degree in painting and freehand drawing in 1918.) Soares took them through the substandard conditions of Prophet’s studios, her worthless husband and the “ugly” model for her second, life-size sculpture. Prophet even detailed her love and hate for loneliness, and repeated bouts of starvation—“O poverty, the curse of genius.”
Shaking her fist in the air, Soares recited with a pleading desperation, “…This thing money or the lack of it is too crushing. It keeps me from working when I should be expressing that which I learn from each day lived.…Sculpture is an expensive medium, I know, but I have not chosen my medium of expression; it has chosen me. What more can I say? I want to work. I want to work. I must work. I live for that alone.”
Prophet’s pieces were eventually sold. By the 1930s, her work was shown at exhibits in Paris, New York, Boston and Newport. In 1932, she won Best in Show at the Art Association of Newport. Prophet returned to the United States and created the art department at Spelman College, a historically black liberal arts college for women in Atlanta. After 10 years of teaching, she returned to Providence. A handout at Sunday’s performance said she “lived the rest of her life in oblivion.” She died in 1960.
“Prophet is one of those great Rhode Island icons that time and historians have mostly forgotten,” Rickman said. “This project reintroduces her to the public in new and exciting ways.”
A reception to mark the opening of an exhibit with some of her work will be held April 17 at 5 p.m. in the John Brown House, 52 Power St., in Providence. The exhibit is called “Delicious Sensations of Rightness.” Art dealer Catherine Little Bert will discuss the scarcity and desirability of Prophet’s work in the marketplace in the last event on April 18 at 5 p.m. in the Providence Athenaeum, 251 Benefit St.
All three events are funded by the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities.