Lula Mae Blocton (BFA ‘69) reflects on her journey as one of the first Black students to receive a BFA at U-M
June 19, 2023
The year was 1966 at the University of Michigan, and it was more than evident when Lula Mae Blocton (BFA ‘69) was ever absent from her art history lecture, which was made up of about 300 students. As the only Black student in the course and only the second-ever Black graduate to receive a BFA from U‑M, Blocton was subject to pressure, expectations, and racism, unlike her peers.
But up five flights of stairs in a makeshift facility on central campus, Blocton would find her refuge at the art school.
“The art school was my sanctuary,” Blocton said. “I stayed there as many hours as I could. That was where I could just forget everything else, make my art, and not have to deal with a lot of what was going on.”
Now, 50 years later, Lula Mae Blocton is reflecting on her life and career dedicated to visualizing her rich and complicated racial, cultural, and personal history.
An Upbringing in Ecorse
For Blocton, in 1965, getting accepted into college at the University of Michigan was no small feat. It took determination and perseverance.
Blocton often felt the weight to succeed. She was one of seven children in the small town of Ecorse, Michigan. Her parents, originally from a rural community near Selma, Alabama, did not finish high school and prioritized academics for their household.
“My parents wanted us to succeed, and they knew in order to succeed, we needed an education,” Blocton said.
Blocton recalls that while she found a passion for art in elementary and junior high school, it wasn’t viewed as a viable career path then.
“By the time I got to junior high school, I was drawing as well as the instructor. He kept trying to let me know that I had talent and I should continue with art,” Blocton said. “But in my high school, it was never emphasized as a legitimate career. Misbehaving folks were the artists…I wanted to be college bound.”
Blocton didn’t realize that her future could be in art until she got to the University of Michigan.
Finding Peer Support
College wasn’t easy for Black students like Blocton at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Blocton was accepted into U‑M as part of the second class of the university’s Opportunity Award program, which admitted around 100 students. While students were enrolled in the university, they were required to take remedial courses and weekly tutoring sessions, Blocton remembers.
“I was scared to death of not succeeding. I think they were trying to be helpful, giving us remedial classes, but it made us feel even more different,” Blocton said. “Some kids didn’t get through the first semester because of the pressure. You tried to take the high road, but we were still treated like we were not part of the university.”
But with adversity came lasting friendships, Blocton says. In her time at U‑M, Blocton befriended Janet Taylor Pickett (BFA ‘70, MFA ‘72), an art major and Ann Arbor native.
Pickett first influenced Blocton to pursue art as a degree at U‑M.
“Through these classes, we found each other. I found my good friend, Janet,” Blocton said. “I would go over and visit Janet at the art school and look around. My love for art just came right back – the sense that it was a part of me.”
“My love for art just came right back – the sense that it was a part of me.”
From there, Blocton dove into the art school in her second year at U‑M. She received mentorship from supportive professors like Samia Halaby and spent hours in the studio. While she started later than some students, Blocton built a portfolio that prompted her acceptance into a graduate program at Indiana University.
“I made well enough art to get into a very good graduate program,” Blocton said. “It’s amazing that I got such a solid educational background from Michigan.”
Navigating NYC post-Stonewall Uprising
Blocton has her fair share of stories from the 1970s post-graduation – especially as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community in New York City.
She attended one of the city’s first-ever pride parades. She collaborated with community members through art shows. She explored dynamic lesbian clubs with her now-wife of 50 years and fellow artist, Shirley Bernstein.
“It was wonderful to be in New York, with the gay pride parades and rallies,” Blocton said. “It was just so affirming.”
But with the aftermath of the Stonewall Uprising lingering a year later, tension was present towards the LGBTQIA+ community.
Blocton recalls a date with her wife at Bonnie & Clyde, a “lesbian nightclub popular with African American women and politically active lesbians,” (NYCLGBT Historic Sites Project). The couple was enjoying the evening when policemen with riot gear entered the premises.
“All of a sudden, I looked up, and there was a row of cops that came in with riot gear. There must have been about 50 of them. They came right by the bar, all the way through the club downstairs, back up again, and out the door,” Blocton said. “No one was arrested. It was just an intimidation factor.”
Blocton’s activism corresponds to her artwork, which is known to reveal the intersectional identities of the LGBTQIA+ and Black communities.
“Being at the University of Michigan, I was learning the basics and the fundamentals of art-making,” Blocton said. “It took me a while to see how I could incorporate those concepts in my art to connect with the LGBTQIA+ community, and I’ve done that through color.”
Over the last 25 years, Blocton has created paintings involving the Rainbow flag, representing the LGBTQIA+ community. She also integrates black and white fields and African patterns to illustrate her cultural identity.
The authentic African designs develop patterns that “explore the contrast between geometric and curvilinear forms.”
Through her paintings, Blocton uses a perception of transparency through color layering.
“The consistency of my work is the transparencies – the idea of being able to see a color and see another color through it,” Blocton said.
The paintings also contain personal significance and meaning, according to Blocton. When asked if she had a favorite piece (it can change every few days), Blocton points to her series, Awakening (2015). The colorful 22“x16” works combine the African patterns, color spectrum, and transparency techniques Blocton has become known for.
“The pattern is from a tribe in South Africa – designed by women. And there’s a message a lot of times with the pattern,” Blocton said. “These were the first paintings I did the year of becoming sober.”
In addition to her abstract paintings, Blocton has produced several self-portraits, which offer subtle nods to her wife and the LGBTQIA+ community.
“I was able to include a lot of the important things in my life. In just about every portrait, my wife appears. There was one where I’m wearing a t‑shirt my wife made for an AIDS fundraiser,” Blocton said. “These self-portraits were a visual way for me to come out.”
Blocton’s fifty-year creative career carries a significant influence.
While Blocton is a prolific artist, she’s also known as an impactful educator.
Blocton spent 25 years as a faculty member at Eastern Connecticut State University before she retired in 2013 as an emeritus professor. In her time at ECSU, Blocton established the Art Department and developed the BA in Studio Art, and served a term as Department chair.
“I felt like I could help young people,” Blocton said. “Teaching gave me a real emotional connection with young, developing artists.”
In the 1990s, when Blocton learned that LGBTQIA+ students felt unsafe on campus, she made it her mission to establish what became the school’s Pride Center.
“Some really negative things were happening. We worked with the administration, found a safe space, filled it with books, and made sure that everyone on campus knew that it was a place that is welcoming for gay students,” Blocton said. “It was so important and satisfying to be a part of that. It’s still in existence.”
A faculty job also gave Blocton the opportunity to travel to Africa, which allowed her to incorporate African patterns in her work. She was selected as a delegate for People to People, Citizen Ambassador Program of Art Educators to Egypt, Israel, and Turkey.
Blocton’s work is still on display, inspiring people around the world. Her signature paintings are featured in art publications and displayed at various exhibitions.
She is in selected art publications: Lesbian Art: A Contemporary History, African American Woman Artists: A Critical Assessment, The Best of Colored Pencil 5, 3 and 2, Creative Inspirations, Gumbo Ya Ya: Anthology of Contemporary African-American Women Artists, and many exhibition catalogs.
In 2020, her painting, Summer Ease,entered the permanent collection of the Columbus Museum of Art after traveling with the exhibition Art After Stonewall 1969 – 1989. Other paintings and drawings are in the collections of First Fairview Capital Inc., Eastern Connecticut State University, The Connecticut State University System, Albright Knox Museum, Prudential Life Insurance Company, The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, and Indiana University.
Blocton thinks it is important to share her story with the University of Michigan – the only school she dreamed of attending in the late 1950s.
“They say that when people pass, a library passes with them,” Blocton said. “It’s been fun to even think about a lot of the things I can share with everyone.”
Blocton is still painting. At age 77, she is working on her largest piece yet, while incorporating the colors of the Progressive Pride Flag.
Art is still Lula Mae Blocton’s sanctuary. Nowadays, she doesn’t have to climb five flights of stairs to get to the art studio as she did in Michigan. Up one flight of stairs, in her home in Connecticut, Blocton can escape to the studio she designed with her wife. The walls are covered with abstract works that symbolize her life and legacy as a trailblazer for the Black and LGBTQIA+ creative communities.
“Here I am, from really such modest beginnings,” Blocton said. “I can look back at my life and say that I was able to make a difference.”