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Making history

click to enlarge ROBERT ALFORD
  • Robert Alford

"Praise is like perfume, pleasant to inhale but dangerous to swallow," reads the plaque affixed above African-American artist Wallace Conway's workbench.

At 84, Conway appreciates some praise, but the plaque reminds him of a lesson he learned from Jessie, his late wife. She threw away his first painting because he spent too much time "showing it off."

In his Colorado Springs home, brimming with artwork, Conway has much to show off. Just as remarkable is the story of his life.

Conway grew up on the East Coast, went to school in Washington D.C., and served in the Coast Guard during World War II.

"I ended up on Ellis Island washing pots and pans," he said. A segregated military thwarted his desire to be an ensign.

After the war, Conway wanted to be an artist but there were few college places for blacks. Instead, he worked with his father as a sign painter. The relationship was tense; his father, himself a frustrated artist, was jealous of his son's desire to paint.

Conway left the family business and began working at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., in the mid 1960s. His biggest leap came when he applied for the curator's position at the New Jersey State Museum in 1969.

"They won't hire a black," commented a friend, "and I'll eat my hat if you get the job."

"When I returned, I told [my friend] to get out the salt and pepper," Conway says with a smile. He became one of the first, if not the first, African-American museum curators in the country.

Why did they hire a black man? "They were in trouble and they didn't know their behind from their elbows."

Conway helped them work it out over the next 19 years. In 1988, he retired and moved with Jessie to Colorado Springs to be close to their daughter, Stephanie. In "retirement," he actively pursues his passion for painting, jazz music and driving his mint condition Mercedes coupe.

Conway has persevered and succeeded in spite of societal and family limitations. Asked what it was like being a trailblazer he responds, "When you are part of history you don't realize it."

-- By Wayne Young

Photo by Robert Alford

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