An excerpt from Chapter 6: Alone in a Crowd: Prints of the 1930s and ’40s by African American Artists


Fig. 2. Raymond Steth, Heaven on a Mule, ca. 1935-43. Lithograph, 8.8 x 11.2 in.

It worked. Sources we’d never dreamed of owned this material and offered us prints. We took them all. We eventually acquired more than one hundred prints from this sweep of the marketplace. Word of our aggressive buying tactics spread, and out of the blue I got a long distance phone call from Raymond Steth, one of the featured artists in the Lehman College collection, whose magnificent prints we had abandoned hope of acquiring as no dealers had them.
Ray introduced himself and said he’d heard we were collecting.
I responded, “Yes, and we’d very much like to acquire your work, especially your great Beacons of Defense and Evolution of Swing, and, of course, Heaven on a Mule.”
“I have them, and others I made at the same time, too.”
Pulse starting to race, I quickly responded, “We’d like to buy them all. You name a price, and we’ll meet it, and you can ship the prints or we’ll send someone to Philadelphia to collect them.”
“No, I’d rather bring them up to New York and show them to you.”
“Christ,” I thought, “I’ve been too aggressive. I shouldn’t have raised the topic of price.” But at least I didn’t frighten him away.
A few days later, slight, small, frail seventy-five-year-old Raymond Steth appeared in my office on Wall Street, thirty-three floors up in a vertical glass box, carrying a bulky portfolio of his prints. He wanted to look us over. Most of the prints in his portfolio were the last impressions he owned. My office walls were covered with WPA-era prints, and this must have reassured Steth. We were deemed worthy: he offered and we bought. He asked us to promise to never sell his prints, and to seal the deal we agreed to eventually donate everything we bought from him to a major museum. Later, when Reba traveled around the country lecturing on the traveling exhibition she created from our African American prints, if the venue was commutable from Philadelphia, Ray Steth would be there. Reba returned home from one of these encounters and remarked, “Ray Steth was right there, sitting in the front row as I talked.”
“Well, weren’t you flattered?”
“Yes, but it’s nerve-racking to try to explain an artist’s imagery or technique when your subject is staring at you, hanging on every word.”
“Did he frown or smile?”
“Neither. He just listened intently. But afterwards he came up and we shook hands. Then he smiled.”
Steth’s story has a bittersweet ending. Shortly after our exhibit was shown at the prestigious Philadelphia Museum of Art, Ray was named artist-in-residence at the Pennsylvania Academy. His hometown had finally recognized him, but sadly he was unable to enjoy his honor for long. He died two years later. Heaven on a Mule (ca. 1935-1943, Fig. 2) graced the announcement of his death.
It is a remarkable print, an emotional experience. A poor family—two children astride a mule, a husband and a wife, and a dog—are on a small hill, bowed in prayer. All wear crude, homemade wings, including the animals.
Their scant belongings—a frying pan and a few rags of clothing—lie on the ground nearby. Steth explained that there was a religious cult that believed that if you put on wings, went to a hilltop with all your earthly possessions, and prayed, angels would come and take you to heaven. In the print, a commotion in the clouds overhead hints that the angels are on their way.


Small Victories: One Couple’s Surprising Adventures Building an Unrivaled Collection of American Prints by Dave H. Williams

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