Haitian-born artist Frenal Mezilas uses different artistic styles to inspire his work. He hopes his art can represent not just the Haitian community but other communities as well.  Credit: Elizabeth Sagarin

Now 70, painter David G. Wilson has had many opportunities to show his artwork over the years. But he will never forget how organizers of a Long Beach juried art exhibit dismissed him 37 years ago.

“All the rejected artwork was on one side of the hall, but mine was in the back,” the retired New York City teacher recalled. “I do not want to make it a racial issue, but it appeared so to me.”

That long-ago rejection led him to the Long Island Black Artist Association, a group launched in 1968 by four Nassau artists struggling to find places willing to showcase their works.

“I feel comfortable there, and many of the shows I’ve gotten are because of the Long Island Black Artists,” Wilson, of Springfield Gardens, Queens, said. “It’s like when the Impressionists were rejected and they banded together and showed their works wherever they could.”

David G. Wilson at an exhibit of his work at...

David G. Wilson at an exhibit of his work at the Manhasset Public Library in January. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

For more than 50 years, the Long Island Black Artist Association has sought to inspire the creative spirit, provide support and secure exhibit space for its members, who in addition to Long Island also live in Queens and Brooklyn. From stained glass to abstract paintings, their work has been displayed in museums, libraries, churches and nonprofit art galleries. Their creations have also adorned the walls of Bloomingdale’s furniture outlet in Westbury and given plaintiffs and defendants something to look at in the State Supreme Court building in Mineola.

Though membership has declined, the group has had more than 170 members over the years, including the renowned painter, activist and author Romare Bearden, who helped establish the Studio Museum in Harlem; painter and chronicler of the Black American experience Charles White Jr.; painter and printmaker Ann Tanksley; painter Robert Carter, the first Black artist to present a solo show at The Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington; and painter Eleanor Merritt, a charter member of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.

Frank Frazier, the collagist and painter who designed posters for the Congressional Black Caucus’ inaugural balls for former President Barack Obama, was an early association member.

Frazier, now 80, was just back from the Vietnam War and displaying his paintings on the grass at an art fair in East Meadow’s Eisenhower Park in 1970, rocks keeping the wind from blowing them away, when he said two of the group’s members spotted him.

“They took me under their wing,” said Frazier, now a Dallas resident whose works command five figures. “They were very instrumental to me being out there in the jungle.”


In the mid-1960s, painter Aaron Scott said he and several other Black artists started meeting regularly in a tiny room in the Roosevelt Public Library.

They would discuss their dreams; current affairs, including the civil rights movement; art and other matters. One frequent topic was how they couldn’t find many galleries that would accept their work, he said.

“Art was not something that we saw in the Black community, but we knew there were a lot of great artists around,” Scott, 85, of Freeport, recalled. “We wanted to expose it to the community. ... We wanted to expose art to the people around us.”

Artist Aaron Scott working in his home studio in Freeport.

Artist Aaron Scott working in his home studio in Freeport. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

So in 1968, four of the artists at those meetings — sculptors James Counts and Raymond Miles, woodcarver and sculptor Ernest Snell and painter and thread artist Charles Winslow — started the Long Island Black Artist Association.

None of the original founders is alive today, but their memories live on in early members like Scott and Frazier.

Scott said the group, looking for places to show its members’ work, focused on libraries as the best places to fulfill their goals: “We knew that libraries had people coming in all the time and children coming.”

Getting libraries on board was a struggle at first, as was amassing enough work for a group exhibit, since the association initially only had about eight members, Scott said.

They got a boost when Frazier reached out to Bearden, who was a friend. Bearden, by then the first art director of the prominent advocacy group the Harlem Cultural Council, got the association its first exhibit in the early ’70s at the Harlem State Office Building, now known as the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building, members said.

Frazier said he also pushed the group to think beyond simply exhibiting their work. Under his influence, they opened Art Works Gallery in Roosevelt (now-closed), where several association members taught free art classes, and he began an artist in residency at Roosevelt High School, where he said his students included budding comedian Eddie Murphy and Chuck D of the hip hop group Public Enemy.

He remembers feeling frustrated with some of the members, who were content to show their work on the weekends, while he and others wanted to pursue art as a full-time career.

“They’d rather work their jobs instead of taking a chance on being full-time artists,” he said. “There were heavy, heavy arguments about that: ‘Why would I leave this job that paid me, back then $200 a week, to try to run around selling artwork?’ ”

But for painter James Whitten, a retired postal worker from Jamaica Estates, Queens, he said art was never about making money: “For a lot of us, it’s a labor of love.”  


These days, association members meet monthly, and for many who grew up with little to no Black artist role models, these gatherings have been life-changing.

In the past, they’ve met in each other’s homes, art centers or public buildings. Now, they meet at Westbury Arts. Members will typically show an example or two of their art, bounce ideas off one another and give advice on the business of being an artist, such as how to price a work.

Marcia Odle-McNair, a retired teacher from Westbury, said she prizes the camaraderie she has found at meetings, saying fellow members affirmed her artistic choices. Odle-McNair, 67, uses acrylics to paint translucent, geometric shapes that overlap, forming new shapes and colors.

“Visual artists, for the most part, work on an island,” she said. “It’s nice to be around fellow artists. It relit a flame in me to explore.”

The association’s current president, Galvin Bisserup Jr., 77, of Roosevelt, is a professional photographer who often alters his images with various exposures and digital techniques. In his career, Bisserup has taken student school photos, shot weddings and worked other jobs, but he complained at association meetings that he wasn’t getting the sales he wanted.

Galvin Bisserup Jr., shown here with some of his photographs.

Galvin Bisserup Jr., shown here with some of his photographs. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

So his fellow artists gave him tips on “dressing up” his works and refining his composition in photos, among other suggestions. Before the advice, he said, he might enlarge a wedding photo and simply put it in a frame, but after, he might add double or triple matting with a frame that suited the wedding shot.

Members have offered tough love as well, said Whitten, who recounted with a chuckle when photographer Windsor Nared told him, “I used to be a lazy artist too.”

Now, said Whitten, his late mentor’s words often pop up in his mind as he works, pushing him to keep improving.  


As artists have found new avenues to promote their work, like social media, and attendance at association meetings has declined from about 30 members to around 10 due to deaths, the future of the group has been put into question.

“There is that concern, but I’m not going to worry about it,” Whitten said. “We survived 55 years.”

Many members see children as the key to their continued relevance. Part of their mission is to inspire the young, and as they teach them about art, the members hope to draw them one day into the association.

Earlier this year, for example, one of the group’s newer members, mixed-media artist Frenal Mezilas, of Lindenhurst, led a painting class for about 20 children at Westbury Arts.

Mezilas, 44, said he emigrated from Haiti to the United States in 2011 with no art connections. A painter, his work often also features clay or papier-mâché masks, a nod to his time working in a Haitian factory making items for tourists.

Frenal Mezilas, in his home art studio, is a newer...

Frenal Mezilas, in his home art studio, is a newer member of the association. Credit: Elizabeth Sagarin

Mezilas, who teaches art to people with disabilities, credited the association with giving him opportunities like giving talks about his work and giving him a chance to discuss his art with others.

“You learn a lot of things you don’t learn at school,” he said. “I always try to do something new and innovative in every painting I have. They usually ask questions on how I do the artwork." 


Michael A. Butler, a Sag Harbor artist who recently curated an exhibit at the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook, said there’s been a push in recent years for more artists of color to be included in art galleries, museums and exhibits.

“I remember years ago, maybe 30 years ago, major institutions would go like, ‘We don’t know any Black artists,’ so we were never really featured in any exhibits,” said Butler, who does not belong to the association. “There seems to be a change in mindset where people seem to be more actively seeking out artists of color, and that includes Native American people and Hispanic people as well as Black artists.”

But despite the gains that have been made, association members believe discrimination still exists in the art world. Some said they have stopped entering their works at juried exhibits because they’re denied entry, while others won’t go to art galleries, saying they’ve been stung by rude behavior there.

“I don’t think the Black artists are expected to have the success that the white artists have,” said former association president Rosa Hanna Scott, 86, of East Hampton.

Rosa Hanna Scott in her in East Hampton home with...

Rosa Hanna Scott in her in East Hampton home with several of her paintings. Credit: Randee Daddona

Rather than show in galleries, members feel more welcome at places like libraries and churches.

For years, the Lakeview Public Library in Rockville Centre has featured a different artist from the association every month. In its foyer, art pieces are spaced out and the lighting is tailored for a pleasant viewing experience.

“It’s certainly a cultural enhancement for the community,” said patron Carl West, 69, of South Hempstead. “You can see it without pressure. You can stand up close, you can stand away.”

West said he makes a point of attending every new exhibit.

Library director Camina Raphael-Lubin said many patrons are fans of the exhibits.

“People bring their kids or their friends,” she said. “It’s almost like a little art gallery type of situation.”


Westbury Arts, 255 Schenck Ave., is hosting a retrospective of the Long Island Black Artist Association’s work, “Fifty-five Years of Black Creativity,” through March 22.

The show is free and open Thursdays, noon-4p.m.; Fridays, 2-6p.m.; and Saturdays,10 a.m. to 2p.m. 

Find more information at westburyarts.org, 516-400-2787.

Latest Videos

Newsday LogoSUBSCRIBEUnlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months