When Joe Overstreet invited us in for a private viewing of his gallery, we had no idea that we would spend the next two hours looking through some of the most impressive African-American art we have ever seen. We had walked on 2nd Street many times, but it wasn’t until this particular day that our curiosity got the best of us, and we decided to enter this unmarked building and find out what was behind the doors. We did not realize, as we began our personal tour of the incredible collection that Overstreet and his wife Corinne Jennings have amassed over the last four decades, that this would become one of the highlights not only of our walk across 2nd Street, but perhaps one of the most memorable experiences we have had on any street.
Had we not been personally escorted through the unmarked double doors that lead to Kenkeleba Gallery, we might not ever have known it was here. The only sign on the building reads Henington Hall, etched into the stone facade along with the year it was built, 1908. According to Overstreet, in the 70’s the building was condemned until he and his wife were able to strike a deal with the city in 1978. Although 2nd Street was teeming with drug activity back then, the arrangement proved worthwhile for Overstreet, as it gave him, his wife, three children and the emerging Kenkeleba House a home in an area that eventually cleaned up its act and became one of the most important neighborhoods for the arts in New York City.
The exhibits on display in this gallery recognize the rarely explored contributions that people of African descent have made to the art world. It is here, hanging on the walls and filed away in the deepest recesses of his private collection, that Overstreet showed us a portrait of Dr. John DeGrasse painted by a largely forgotten African-American artist by the name of Edward Mitchell Banister (1828-1901). Banister won a national award for his most famous painting, “Under the Oaks.” The magnificent framed picture of Dr. DeGrasse is easily worth more money than we could count, but the history lesson we received from Overstreet was priceless. Dr. DeGrasse was a native New Yorker and also one of the first African-Americans to receive a medical degree. He gained acceptance to the Boston Medical Society in 1854, making him the first African-American to belong to a medical association in that state. And to boot, he was also the first African-American medical officer in the U.S. Army serving as Assistant Surgeon in the Civil War. Finding out these little-known facts alone made the time we spent at Kenkeleba Gallery worth every second. But there was so much more to learn and Overstreet was happy to teach us. He showed us works dating back to 1773 that included a few by an African-American artist who studied with Picasso and some by the late Hale Woodruff, an African-American abstract painter who lived in New York City from 1943 until his death in 1980. In addition to being an artist who aspired to express his heritage, Woodruff was also an art educator and member of the faculty at NYU.
“We are African-American, so that is what we do,” said Jennings when we sat down for a chat with her before being ushered off again by Overstreet to view the studio where he creates his own works of art, “but we are also interested in artists from the Lower East Side.” Jennings was born into a family of artists, so it is no surprise that today she is a prominent art dealer. Her father, a talented printmaker, who studied under Hale Woodruff, is widely known for his black and white wood engravings, although he later settled into a career making costume jewelry. The Wilmer Jennings Gallery across the street is named for him. Jennings’ mother was a Yale graduate and painter. Jennings’ personal art collection reflects much of her parent’s amazing work, as well as that of other African-American artists, both well-known and yet undiscovered. Together, Overstreet and Jennings aim to teach the younger generations about African-American history. “Every nationality walks by here on a daily basis, but they have no idea who we are as a people,” Overstreet explained. He went on to talk about the contribution African-Americans have made to the arts that began right here in this community. Their private collection is made up of over 30,000 paintings, artifacts, art books and jazz records that tell the rich history of African-Americans in this country. And their stockpile is so vast that the works spill over into Kenkeleba’s large sculpture garden that can be entered from both 2nd and 3rd Streets.
Since it’s founding in 1974, Kenkeleba House has flown under the radar as a not-for-profit gallery space and artist center. Not only is it an art gallery, but it is also an artist workspace. Twenty-five artists currently rent space here. Overstreet and Jennings say that they are only interested in promoting new ideas, emerging artists, experimental work and solo shows for those deserving of the recognition. They prefer to showcase artists whose works are not typically featured in commercial galleries.
Needless to say, Overstreet and Jennings gave us plenty to mull over when we returned to our side walking across 2nd Street. We were honored by this extensive tour and their thoughtful conversation with us. The rich cultural heritage, massive collection spanning hundreds of years, and the discreet, impassioned owners, made our experience at Kenkeleba House unforgettable.