Recollections of Lou Stovall (1937-2023)

July 18, 2023

I am saddened at the loss of one of Washington’s most distinguished and impactful artists, Luther McKinley (Lou) Stovall, who passed on March 3rd at the age of 86. In 1969, Stovall established a studio devoted to printmaking at the briefly active Dupont Center and later moved the enterprise to his home in Cleveland Park where it was known as Workshop, Inc. The studio initially generated posters to promote local events, concerts, and civil rights organizations. Stovall created a supportive environment for artists to work together and learn from each other. He passed on the techniques he developed and trained numerous interns who helped in the laborious work of pulling editions. Stovall had a wide network of friends with whom he collaborated, including such notable artists as Jacob Lawrence, Alexander Calder, Gene Davis, and Sam Gilliam, as well as his wife, the artist Di Bagley Stovall.

Lou Stovall also created his own silkscreens inspired by his love of nature and the surrounding community. In these beautifully drawn and vividly colored prints, Stovall pioneered a non-traditional approach creating painterly effects with speckled layers and textured surfaces that pushed the boundaries of the silkscreen process. His technical innovations in the medium expanded the creative potential and output of those who worked alongside him.

Stovall’s ethic of giving encompassed the local arts community, as he served on the board of arts organizations and contributed to non-profit groups and political causes with his distinctive printed posters. His many prestigious commissions included an Independence Day Invitation for the Reagan White House and a print for the 1988 Democratic National Committee.

I was fortunate to get to know Mr. Stovall in 2010 when I curated a solo exhibition on the Washington Color School painter Paul Reed (1919-2015). At the time, Reed was the last surviving member of the small group of painters who favored hard-edge abstraction, vivid fields of flat color, and painting in acrylics on unprimed canvas. I was delighted to learn that Stovall was an old friend of Paul’s and had printed several geometric abstractions for him. I believe Paul had served as the best man in the Bagley-Stovall wedding in 1971. I visited Paul’s home in Arlington with the Stovalls and heard many wonderful stories about their shared experiences. The Stovalls also hosted me and Paul for a lovely lunch at their home in Cleveland Park and I had the rare opportunity to tour the famous Workshop, Inc., a thrilling experience I will never forget!

Paul Reed and Lou Stovall, 2011
Lou Stovall (right) and Paul Reed at Paul's home in 2011. Photo by LuLen Walker.

Mr. Stovall participated in a panel discussion at Georgetown University in conjunction with the Reed exhibition, along with David Gariff, senior lecturer at the National Gallery of Art, art dealer Wim Roefs of Columbia, South Carolina, and Georgetown professor emeritus Cliff Chieffo. The panel addressed the history of the Washington Color School and the art scene in Washington, D.C. during that era (1960s-70s).  I was continually charmed with Mr. Stovall’s warm and generous persona and his clear delight in working with others and sharing with them in new approaches to screenprinting, a technique he learned in his youth through a job in a sign printing studio.

Stovall THE WHO poster

Soon after the exhibition, Mr. Stovall generously donated 5 masterful prints he had archived in his collection: 3 pulled for Paul Reed in 1969-70, a print for Alexander Calder, and one of his independent works: a psychedelic poster for the 1969 concert appearance of the British rock band The Who at McDonough Gym on the campus of Georgetown. This piece has remained one of my personal favorites among the vast holdings of fine prints in the art collection. It has been featured in two Library exhibitions and displayed in several classes and orientation events to welcome incoming students.

EEO tshirt screenprint, artist Sam Gilliam, printer Lou Stovall

Following Mr. Stovall’s 2011 donation I was able to purchase one of his later works, a collaged silkscreen monotype called Mambo (2010) from the Addison Ripley Gallery with funds from the Charles Marvin Fairchild endowment. More than ten years later I added the fabulous Sam Gilliam/ Stovall collaboration EEO from the Hemphill Gallery when they held an exhibition of Stovall’s early community posters. This ambitious and innovative print was created for the newly established Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1973. It features a t-shirt used as the stencil for the screenprint. A bright red tag on the shirt’s collar is labeled “EEO,” a clever way of incorporating the title into the composition. These two noteworthy acquisitions were exhibited in the spring 2022 Curator’s Choice exhibition.

I didn’t see Mr. Stovall again until 2015 when the Phillips Collection hosted a memorial celebration for the life of Paul Reed. It was wonderful to renew our acquaintance and reminisce about Paul. The event was an uplifting tribute with remarks by Paul’s daughter Jean and several others. 

In 2022 Stovall’s work was featured in exhibitions at the Phillips Collection and the Kreeger Art Museum in Washington, D.C. These stunning installations helped to illuminate Stovall’s long and influential career, his impact on the Washington, D.C. arts community and his collaborative work with fellow artists. The Phillips show, titled Lou Stovall: The Museum Workshop, focused on his early community posters from 1967 and 1968 and the artists who revolved around the Dupont Center affiliated with the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which included a museum as well as Stovall’s printmaking workshop.  The Center brought together a diverse group of artists and helped establish the Washington Color School.  The Kreeger exhibition, Lou Stovall: On Inventions and Color, was a retrospective of his vibrant screenprints from a broader time period.

I saw Mr. Stovall for the last time at the Kreeger for a screening of a short documentary. Filmed in the 1970s, it showed Stovall demonstrating and explaining his silkscreen technique. Although his health had deteriorated and he was by then in a wheelchair, that didn’t affect his spirit. He was as warm and effervescent as always, with the same delightful twinkle in his eye.

Stovall’s son Will participated in an enlightening panel discussion for the Phillips exhibition. He edited a new book, Of the Land: the Art and Poetry of Lou Stovall published by Georgetown University Press, released about a year before his father’s death. It must have been such a joy for Lou to see this enduring tribute to his life and work as well as the accolades from two prestigious museums in his home town.

--LuLen Walker, Curator, University Art Collection