Ellen Powell-Tiberino, Philadelphia’s most prominent and prolific black female artist whose paintings reflected the rawness and grace of life, died Friday at her home after a 14-year battle with cancer. She was in her early 50s.
Mrs. Tiberino, who worked out of her Powelton Village home, was a non- apologetic artist who forced the viewer to examine what was moving in the ordinary, such as her painting of an aging, overweight dancer who still seemed to glide effortlessly.
“I paint life, and life is not always beautiful,” she said in a 1988 interview.
In recent years, she did many pastel and pencil works from her hospital bed. “She never stopped working,” said Evelyn Redcross, a friend and one of the principals of the October Gallery in the city. “Her hospital rooms were full of pictures. She really fought the fight. She’s a strong character and she prevailed as long as she could. Few people could match her courage.
“Her work was very dramatic. She very often was able to show you the other side of midnight. She was able to show you the sides of life that you may not want to deal with.”
An example was the three-dimensional, seven-foot relief sculpture that she and her artist-husband, Joseph Tiberino, did after the 1985 MOVE tragedy in which five children died. The work depicts a wailing child whose hair is on fire and the image of former Mayor W. Wilson Goode near a mask of death. Her works also included depictions of lynchings and other painful remembrances of black rural and urban history.
Paul Grillo, academic coordinator of Tyler School of Art at Temple University, said yesterday, “Ellen’s work stands at the forefront of not just African American art, but as a lyrical representation of the arts of the 20th century. She rendered the human form with almost botanical richness of color and detail and, conversely, allowed natural organic forms to be rendered as almost human.”
Mrs. Tiberino’s works – which encompassed oils, pastels, pencils and bas- relief sculpture – sometimes evoked controversy and criticism. Commenting on her work in an interview several years ago, she said, “It reaches people, no matter whether the person likes it or hates it – either way, it’s successful.”
Mrs. Tiberino grew up in the city’s Mantua section. She converted to Catholicism at 13 and won a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. While there, she became the second black woman to win the prestigious Cresson Traveling Scholarship, which took her to Europe.
She returned to Philadelphia, and in later years, her Powelton Village home – which is full of paintings, sculptures and other works by her and her husband – became a place where artists met. Fellow artist Roland Ayers has said of Mrs. Tiberino’s works: “She’s a very painterly painter. She handles paint the way they did in the 16th, 17th centuries. The work has a feeling of light from within.”
But Mrs. Tiberino, who in 1977 became the first artist to have a one-person exhibition at the city’s Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum, also knew the somber side. One of her paintings, The Operation, which Redcross says was inspired by Mrs. Tiberino’s cancer, shows surgeons standing over a body. The black and white painting also depicts two skeletons, representing death, who seem to be gossiping over the body.
“When I am asked where I get my inspiration,” Mrs. Tiberino said in 1988, ”I say it’s all my life, my friends, everything I’ve seen and known and I want to make it all come together and make sense and make people see. There’s a feeling of joy that comes with it.”
Surviving are her husband; daughter, Ellen; sons, Raphael, Leonardo and Gabriel; her mother, two sisters and three brothers.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Thursday at St. Agatha and St. James Church at 38th and Chestnut Streets. There will be a viewing before the service.
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