Myrtle Desmond Blair, an African American Artist and Community Advocate in Hertford
By Thomas L Blair
3 July 2017
My wife Myrtle Desmond Blair of Savoy MA, who died 13 April 2017, aged 90, was an artist and community advocate profoundly influenced by living in Hertford, England, where she had long made her home.
Her floral sketches and waterside scenes display her unique experience and reflect the town’s growing confidence as a cultural centre. In her most productive years, from 1980 to 1995, she gained awards and patrons for her paintings of the county town’s hidden garden. Moreover, her cheery children’s book illustrations and Christmas cards showed her caring spirit.
Birth, adolescence and artistic development
The first of 11 children, Myrtle was born in Greenwich, Connecticut. She was raised in hill town Savoy, MA where her father, Stanley Desmond farmed and was a factory machinist and his wife, Ethel (nee Ward), was a musically talented homemaker.
At the Classical high school, Springfield, Massachusetts, Myrtle showed her artistic talent. She went on to Massachusetts School of Art and won a place at the Vesper George School of Art in Boston. We met in 1950 at a students party in the city, and married in 1953. Myrtle entered the Art Students’ League in vibrant 50s New York. She sketched life on the city streets tutored by the artist Reginald Marsh.
Then came a period of travel and art teaching in America.
With me at Michigan State College, Lansing, where I gained a Ph.D. in sociology, she kept up her art interests while coping with life in married students lodgings.
Myrtle crossed the boundaries between art and social change Jarvis Christian College for Negroes in northeast Texas, . In advance of her time, she founded an art department for the sons and daughters of the Black rural poor. With loaned exhibitions, she opened a dialogue with culture hungry whites long doubly segregated from Blacks and the arts.
Myrtle’s art and social views re-emerged in post-colonial Africa.
She founded the art department and lectured at Ahmadu Bello University, Nigeria. In Algeria, she designed posters for post-independence government agencies. Her campaign posters rallied people for mutual aid, literacy, sanitation and workers’ management.
“One depicted the liberated population, young and old, marching joyfully towards a new age of literacy for all,” wrote Eve Sangster in her oral history book, West Street, Hertford, the First Two Thousand Years (2003), describing Myrtle’s contribution to art in postcolonial Africa.
Her trans-continental Journey to Hertford
In the 60s era of civil rights struggles, Myrtle cut a striking figure – close-cropped hair, simple smocks, proud and Afrocentric. However, this urban American perspective ended when Myrtle settled in Britain with me and our four daughters. I had a post in London as a Professor of urban planning and a colleague had suggested Hertford as a pleasant town within easy commuting reach.
Myrtle was notable for her artistic style, community activity and consistency of beliefs.
She made friends and established her niche in the art world. She exhibited with acclaimed English artists and water colourists Trevor Chamberlain and Julie Harrison in the Hertford Museum in 1975-76. Her art embodies the Hertford sentiment that “to live elsewhere would be to settle for less”.
As a leading member of the local residents’ association and of the Hertford Civic Society, Myrtle helped neighbours safeguard West Street, the old Roman road on which we lived. Her co-authored booklet Hertford Sketches (2016) is in the town library, tourist office, and Hertford museum.
Myrtle is survived by me; our children, Lucille, Katharine, Gage and Ellen; our grandchildren, Liam, Sam, Indigo, Lottie and Max; two great-grandchildren; and by four sisters, Sheila, Joan, Diane and Jacqueline; and a brother, William.
Tributes and obit-features
Hertford Sketches, supports town art and tourism, paintings of Myrtle Desmond Blair and Photographs by Thomas L Blair –
The Guardian (printed newspaper)
27 July, 2017, p.33
The Guardian, online – https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/jun/18/myrtle-blair-obituary
Hertfordshire Mercury (printed newspaper)
4 May 2017, p.12