In 1936, at the age of 76, Dora Graham McCollister registered at the Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, Florida, for the winter term. She would spend the next few years before her death capturing life in that city’s black-only Newtown area.
Mrs. McCollister, a prominent member of the village of Clarksburg in Ross County, Ohio, northwest of Chillicothe, had a decades-long interest in art. She was a graduate of the Columbus (Ohio) Art School, studied at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and attended the Art Students League in New York City. Her memberships included the Columbus Art Students League and the Woman’s Art Club of Cincinnati.
She and her husband, James, a farmer, businessman and landowner, had traveled in Florida. That may help explain her decision to attend a nascent art school now known as the Ringling College of Art and Design. Her husband died in 1935, and Mrs. McCollister headed for Sarasota the next year.
In spring 1937, she became the first Ringling student “to receive the Bachelor of Fine Art degree,” according to the Sarasota Sunday Tribune. The event was marked by a graduation exhibition at a Sarasota gallery. The newspaper noted that on view were “several Sarasota landscapes and water scenes in oil, a portrait of a negro, and a still life.” Critics, the newspaper report went on, found her work “individual” and “refreshing.”
Mrs. McCollister didn’t stop there. She continued her Ringling studies through 1944, picking up the occasional first prize and honorable mention in school exhibitions. She also attended a Ringling summer residency program at a Blue Ridge retreat in Little Switzerland, North Carolina, now known as Wildacres.
Worth noting is Mrs. McCollister’s range of subject matter. The mention of the “negro portrait” in the Sarasota newspaper article is an indication of her interest in Newtown. The Sarasota suburb was established in 1914 “exclusively for colored people,” according to its founding documents. It was created to move blacks to the outskirts of the city from their downtown community of Overtown, or “Black Bottom.” Mrs. McCollister’s paintings from there date from the early 1940s. Payne Fine Arts is honored to offer some of the artist’s “New Town” paintings.