This Legend and Legacy was written, based her own memories of Ann Dearsley-Vernon and those of Vernon’s associates, by Jennifer Schero, a doctoral student in the Department of Art Education at Virginia Commonwealth University on March 28, 2018
Born in Petts Wood, England, Ann Dearsley-Vernon began her life at the start of World War II in 1938. Growing up just outside of London in the turmoil of air raids, shelters, and bombings; she attended private school before the family eventually moved to the United States where her father felt there would be more opportunities. Beginning this new chapter living in a hotel in New York, the family soon settled in Scarsdale, New York. Soon after, Ann spent a brief time in Richmond, Virginia, before completing high school in Raleigh, North Carolina, at Needham Broughton Public High School. Wishing to pursue a studio art degree, she applied to two schools: Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina, now The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and Richmond Polytechnic Institute, now Virginia Commonwealth University. Accepted in 1956 to Women’s College, her first choice, Ann shared her experiences in a 2007 interview:
I was in heaven. It was the most freedom I’d ever had. My family structure was really very European and very strict, and very rigid. Not that that really hurt. But at the time of course, you know, we were all chafing against the bit so I thought Woman’s College was just wonderful. ... My five years at the Woman’s College, and I had five years because I took the first masters’ degree that was offered at UNCG (University of North Carolina at Greensboro) and I took it in a year because I had been privileged enough to go to summer school and I was lucky that I did not to have to work, so I had doubled up on my classes and graduated a little bit early and then got the MFA in a year and a half. No, I was just in heaven when I got there…(Carter, 2007).
Mentored by George Ivy, founder of the Art Department at Women’s College and curator of the Weatherspoon Art Museum, Ann shared,
Yes, he was amazing, and he was an amazing painter and he was also amazingly supportive of his students and he certainly was supportive for me. In fact, he found me my first job (be)cause it is always so hard getting that first job...which was teaching at what was then the Women’s College of Georgia in Milledgeville, Georgia (Carter, 2007).
Of note, it was George Ivy’s purchase of Willem de Kooning’s Woman which began, not only the collection of the Weatherspoon Museum, but Ann Dearsley-Vernon’s interest in expressionism and contemporary painting.
Other influences during her time at Women’s College included her drawing professor Helen Thrush (who later became the Art Department chair, with 30 years devoted to the institution) and her art history professor Elizabeth Jastrow (who taught for 20 years in Greensboro, NC). Interestingly, during her time at the college, there was not a space devoted to the art students and therefore their classes took place in the campus gymnasium, call Rosenthal.
...And we’d paint up on the balcony and all of a sudden here comes the modern dance class below and then my friend, Melissa Bassler, there’s another name that I’ve kept up with, I haven’t seen her for years. She lives in Cleveland [Ohio] but we always exchange Christmas cards, and I remember that Melissa got very, very upset. She was feisty too. She was from Raleigh and I had known her in high school, and she got very upset with the modern dance class and one day she threw a hand full of tacks down for the modern dance class to deal with. And the next day we came in and there had been retaliation from the archery class and there was this arrow stuck right through the middle of her canvas. [both laugh] So there was war between the art students and the Phys. Ed. [Physical Education] students. (Carter, 2007).
As a senior, Ann Dearsley-Vernon was editor of the college’s publication, Coraddi, and was even recommended by faculty to meet poets Robert Frost and Robert Lowell. It was also during this year that she became part of what was termed the, “Black Stocking Girls,” a rebellious group considered avant-garde in relation to the conservative South. The group would become famous, not for their shock value, but for their efforts to rebel against segregation. On February 4, 1960, Ann joined two other Women’s College students, Eugenia “Genie” Seamans and Marilyn Lott, in being the first documented white protestors at the now famous Woolworth’s counter Sit-In (Wirtheim, 2015). Recalling the day, Ann offered:
We just waltzed on in and of course the crowd gave way for us because here we were three white girls with our jackets on and the assumption with all these people who were gathered there was that we were going to be on the white side. What other position would we take? Somebody gave the seats and then the waitress came up and said—I don’t know what the waitress said to Genie and Marilyn but the waitress said to me, “Do you want a cup of coffee?” And I was really, really tense and I said—I do remember saying very clearly, “There’s somebody else here before me.” And then the cat was out of the bag and I’m sure it was startling for everybody but I don’t know what the other girls said. So we didn’t accept the cup of coffee. But I had taken a sketchbook and I made all these sketches and they were these little sketches that got reproduced...But, then, it was all extremely quiet. Everybody had brought their books. The whole top of the counter was completely covered with books. I actually have some sketches that I made at that time of the students either side of me. And without knowing the Nashville Code, because the Nashville Code had not even been developed at that time, we all instinctively followed the Nashville Code. So, it was looking straight ahead. Don’t make eye contact with the people who are harassing you. Stay very calm. Don’t respond in any way. Certainly, don’t in any physical way respond to being taunted. So, everybody just suddenly realized that the group at the counter had been joined by three white girls in a jacket, in a WC [Woman’s College] jacket, who were supportive. And the sit-ins just quietly continued. So, I don’t think any dramatic thing happened, just a general acceptance, “Oh, my gosh. We’ve got some white girls from WC who are here to support us. (Carter, 2007).
According to Dearsley-Vernon, she was expelled from WC-UNC by the Dean, Katherine Taylor, and then later reinstated after her father called from London demanding that Taylor change her mind (Wirtheim, 2015). Although Dearsley-Vernon returned to complete her year, she was not allowed to walk during her graduation ceremony as there were still concerns over the volatility over the sit-Ins. The following year, 1961, Dearsley-Vernon graduated with her MFA in Art and went on to teach at the University of Georgia in Milledgeville.
Following this time, she made her way north to the state of Virginia to teach art in Williamsburg. Then, in 1973, Ann Dearsley-Vernon visited an exhibit at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia. At the time, the museum was displaying the work of Pablo Picasso, who had recently passed away. After the visit, she wrote a letter to the museum wherein she praised the exhibit and offered opportunities to improve the labels and touring potential. According to Dearsley-Vernon, she was contacted within a week to meet with Mr. Walter Chrysler. After they met, Ann Dearsley-Vernon was hired as the Director of Education to oversee a small volunteer staff (Earle, 108).
Having worked at the Chrysler Museum many years later, I had met Ann Dearsley-Vernon on a number of occasions. I was therefore familiar with her many connections to the corps of docents who had been part of the museum for over fifty years. I sat down to meet with Ann’s friends and work colleagues in March 2018, to learn more about Ann:
Sally Schmidt: One interesting thing about it was when she was here, the [Chrysler] museum had a relationship with ODU (Old Dominion University). In other words, she brought in artists from ODU and they spoke here and they were part of the museum.
Ruth Sanchez: They were part of the art scene, and not just Norfolk. At the time Ann was here, they were all working together.
Sally: They were together. It was a neat community. And I lived across the street, and they were all around
Ruth: It wasn’t Virginia Beach and Norfolk. It was just all one group with one goal in common. They were for the arts and making sure to spread the word and let everyone know what was going on.
Sally: And she built this community. You know. She was the one who put it together and held it together.
Ruth: She was involved in every kind of committee, board, group, activity to support the arts, the artist, art institutions and organizations...
Sally: I did not work with her, per se. I knew her because I was in her neighborhood. She lived here in Ghent.
Ruth: She lived down the street, on Fairfax.
Sally: I knew her from the neighborhood. She was a wild woman! I was part of the art scene too, because it was a community. I knew all these people that she had. For example, Dick Cosset, he was a curator. She just created all these artist groups together.
Ruth: A lot (of the artists) were unknown; well, back then, (they) were unknown.
Sally: There was a real comradery. There was a real artist community and the museum was part of it.
Ruth: The hub, I would say, right?
Sally: Yes. And then she was gone, and it was gone. And it was all gone.
Ruth: It was a small department. I don’t think she had...Lynn was here. She had some kind of assistance, but I’m not sure who was working with her. Her office was next to the [Kaufman] Theater. There used to be a little office there.
Sally: And there was a kitchen under the stairs.
Ruth: Her office was a little cubby hole that you might put your mop and your broom and your cleaning supplies.
Jennifer: Who did the touring?
Ruth: Ann did! She was great at touring! The bigger the group, the better! She projected and there was no question about, “I can’t hear you,” when she was in the gallery.
Sally: And she was very enticing. Everybody listened to every word she had to say. She always made the tours extremely interesting.
Ruth: She knew just about everything. You would tell her, “Ann I need you to do a tour” and she would say, “I can do it.” That was her theme. You can do it. I can do it. Yes.
Jennifer: So tell me about working for Ann. What was your job?
Ruth: I came as the Administrative Assistant . I booked tours and then eventually I scheduled the Docents as I became familiar with the process.
Jennifer: Did she start the Docent program?
Ruth: She started the Docent program. You know the Junior League? The ladies were here and they were doing tours. But she decided that she needed to organize it better. And so that’s how she started with them. Some of the ladies who were involved with the museum were part of her training program. So, she trained them according to...they didn’t have SOLs at the time.
Jennifer: Was it just you and Ann?
Ruth: There was Lynn, who was in charge of adult programming, well not just adults. She did adults and school children programs, supplies, camp...Ann was overseeing the education department but she was always out - reaching out to the galleries or involved with other museums or involved with the school systems in all the school districts. That was one of the ways that we got involved with the Norfolk Public Schools tour. [This annual tour of all fourth grade students continues today.] She was always looking out for the underdog. She wanted to help. She was involved with supporting youths, and the at-risk students...with women’s groups. She was very involved with anything that had to do with women, especially the YWCA. She won many awards. That’s why when she had her heart attack, stroke, someone told her to tell it through art. And her art sold! She made friends anywhere she went. I’ll guarantee you that anywhere you went out with Ann, you would have a good time, enjoy it, and wish you could do it again.
Sue Ellen Kaplan: I still remember some of the things she suggested. If she gave you a positive review you were like, “Oh, my goodness.” I remember one docent-in-training said something like “boys and girls” and she [Ann] said, “No, they really don't like to be called boys and girls.” So those are the things...there are times that I will try something and I was wondering, “I wonder if Ann would like that.” I still think about it because she was so positive - you knew where she stood, and if things we needed to improve upon, she was she was going to share that. Which was great -that was the only way you could grow.
Ruth: I always remember her motto was, “You can do it.” There was nothing you couldn't do as far as Ann Vernon was concerned.
Interestingly, one of my first memories of meeting Ann was in 2010, after then Education Director of the Chrysler Museum, Scott Howe, attempted to reprise the (then defunct) Hampton Roads Student Gallery. A juried exhibition of hundreds of high school junior and senior two- and three-dimensional art, Student Gallery had thirty-plus years of sharing the talent of Hampton Roads’ young artists, as well as providing prize money to students who placed with honors. However, in 2008, the winning high school artist was not given their award because the Virginian-Pilot publisher “deemed the work inappropriate” (Annas, 2008). According to a 2008 Associated Press article,
Ann Dearsley-Vernon, a former education director at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, said, "It's the most bizarre thing, especially when you see the nude [self-portrait], which is the sweetest, least-revealing nude." Dearsley-Vernon has been a paid consultant and a judge for the Student Gallery contest. Dearsley-Vernon and Shelley Brooks, who coordinates exhibitions and arts programming for Tidewater Community College's Visual Arts Center, started a fund drive to raise cash for the rejected winners. "We're going to try to make some public recompense to this young lady," Dearsley-Vernon said (AP, 2008).
Because of this outcry and effort on the part of Ann Dearsley-Vernon and other artists, Hampton Roads Student Gallery was given a new life in 2010, complete with clearly outlined parameters for entry, as well as prize money unassociated with any one entity.
Just as she had done in her college days, Ann Dearsley-Vernon continued to champion for those she felt were unjustly oppressed. This continued into her twilight years. When asked in 2010 if she saw any current social issues that needed a sit-in, she shared,
[I’m] Very involved in Virginia with a group called “Equality Virginia” which asks for legal protection for gay, lesbian and transgender individuals. And I see that as a new frontier for a kind of Civil Rights action. And I, also, know that prejudice of all kinds has not gone away, and will probably never go away. And, so, the idea that we need to be continually vigilant for all people who have less, or who are weaker, or who are not in a position to have an equal voice. I think you have to stay vigilant for that the whole time (Carter, 2010).
At age 73, Ann went through a life changing series of events due to childhood rheumatic fever that damaged her heart. After having a pacemaker implanted, and then three cardiac arrests, Ann Dearsley-Vernon received an experimental heart therapy. Called a HeartMate, she wore the small computer at her waist. Shared in a 2011 article,
Before a year post-surgery had elapsed, Vernon, ever the educator, had created a presentation about the various dimensions of her entire experience. Last spring, she delivered it to 250 awed students in the Health Sciences Academy at Bayside High School in Virginia Beach. Vernon, also a talented artist, illustrated that talk with some captivating paintings from a new series inspired by the good, the bad and the ugly of life with ’VAD. They are currently being exhibited in a solo show at Mayer-Fine Art (DiJulio, 2012).
The visuals mentioned above were Ann Dearsley-Vernon’s paintings, which was her method of working through the emotional issues surrounding her new heart. These works can still be seen today on YouTube, along with an interview, in the video titled, “Mechanical Heart Patient’s Art” (Virginian-Pilot, 2012).
Sadly, Ann Dearsley Vernon passed away suddenly on December 13, 2015. She had spent an evening with friends enjoying the symphony. A fitting end to a shining artist, educator, and activist.
Annas, T. (2008, April 05). Art lovers raise money for teen who lost Student Gallery title. Retrieved April 01, 2018, from https://pilotonline.com/news/article_cefbcf7e-2e54-5e31-a266-de72f7d193b7.html
Carter, B. (May 21, 2007). THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA AT GREENSBORO INSTITUTIONAL MEMORY COLLECTION [Interview]. Retrieved March, 2018, from http://libcdm1.uncg.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ui/id/59614
Carter, B. (April 14, 2010). THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA AT GREENSBORO INSTITUTIONAL MEMORY COLLECTION [Interview]. Retrieved March, 2018, from http://libcdm1.uncg.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ui/id/59622
Earle, P. (2008). Legacy : Walter Chrysler Jr. and the untold story of Norfolk's Chrysler Museum of Art. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.
The story of the 'Women's College Three'. (2015, February 05). Retrieved March 20, 2018, from https://carolinianuncg.com/2015/02/03/the-story-of-the-womens-college-three/
Simpson, E. (2015, December 16). Ann Dearsley-Vernon, civil rights fighter, artist, educator, dies at 77. Retrieved March 22, 2018, from https://pilotonline.com/news/local/obituaries/article_d702e42a-12ca-56d6-802f-1d7ef4c9053b.html
Nude art causes students to lose cash prizes from Norfolk newspaper; donors step in to pay. (2008, April 09). Retrieved April 02, 2018, from http://www.richmond.com/news/nude-art-causes-students-to-lose-cash-prizes-from-norfolk/article_92a3605e-ab52-592d-ad4e-013074c2b16f.html
Virginian-Pilot. (2012, August 03). Mechanical heart patient's art. Retrieved April 02, 2018, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=11&v=vRPiJySceg8