Now in its 15th year, the Montgomery County Executive’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities celebrates individual artists, scholars, organizations and cultural patrons. This year, County Executive Ike Leggett chose visual artist Lila Oliver Asher, now in her mid-90s, as the Lifetime Achievement honoree.
Asher, a Chevy Chase resident and Pennsylvania native, attended the Fleischer Memorial Arts School in Philadelphia, received a four-year scholarship to what is now known as the University of the Arts and studied with American portrait painter Frank Linton. In 1946, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked as a professor in the art departments of Wilson Teachers College and, most notably, Howard University from 1947 until her 1991 retirement.
Retirement did not end Asher’s activity in the studio. She continues to create paintings and prints. A WTOP article quoted her as saying, “I wouldn’t know how to go on without it,” referring to her career in making art.
“All of this year’s award recipients have made important contributions to the arts and cultural richness of Montgomery County,” Leggett said. “Lila Oliver Asher…has advanced the arts through her talented work and her work as senior professor of the Department of Art at Howard University.” He noted that Asher’s “brilliance is captured in her book, ‘Men I Have Met in Bed: A Wartime Sketchbook,’ which poignantly and visually shares the stories of the wounded young World War II soldiers who returned home to military hospitals.”
Asher accepted the award on Oct. 24 at the Cultural Arts Center in Silver Spring. Before the ceremony, CultureSpotMC talked to the honoree about how art progressed from her passion to her profession to her life’s work.
Do you identify most as a painter or a teacher?
I think I am an artist…who taught at Howard University for many years.
Your life as an artist began as a volunteer in World War II. You visited U.S. Armed Forces hospitals around the country and did about 3,600 charcoal sketches of service members. How did this experience shape you and your work?
I had originally thought to be a portrait painter but was viewing that questionably—realizing I would be obliged to make ladies in evening gowns look very pretty. I think all these [service member] portrait sketches cured that, and I went on to other things. In doing the drawings, I did develop [as an artist] and learned to [sketch] more quickly than before.
When is the last time you did a charcoal sketch?
I did a couple of self-portraits many years ago.
What was the most exciting country in which you lived?
I lived three months in Japan and found the difference in cultures fascinating. Women were not respected much, but when I offered my [business] card—which I was always prompted to do—the word “professor” made a real difference. Judges and teachers are very respected in Japan. There were many other differences that surprised and interested me.
Also, I wanted so much to see India. So I took an overnight bus to the Adjunta Caves. There was a transportation strike and [bus] was the only option. The driver demanded money even though I had already purchased the ticket. There were no other English speakers on the bus so I paid. We drove and I followed the ladies when there were rest stops. I slept fitfully in my seat at the window leaning on my camera and wallet. Nothing happened, but it was scary.
This line is on your bio: “Instructor Plastic Surgery Fellows.” Tell us about that.
George Washington University decided it might be a good thing for their plastic surgeons to be able to draw. They contacted me and I taught a class of Fellows. Some were able to draw and some were not. During the classes, they were called out many times on emergencies, which did not help their progress.
What are you best known for: your charcoal portraits, prints, watercolors or your book, “Men I Met in Bed,” which chronicles your Armed Forces hospital visits?
I think it would be the prints and work in line. After that, perhaps my book.
When did stained glass come along?
After I retired from [Howard] University, I noticed a Montgomery County class in stained glass. It had always interested me and having more time, I signed up. After the first session, friends asked me to make a large piece to replace a glass panel near their door. It was six feet tall. My instructor had no idea of my background and was skeptical of my doing such a thing. But with her advice on supporting the size and installation of the glass, I was able to complete [the piece] to their great satisfaction. [From there,] I was off on other commissions.
It has been said that your work “celebrates the joys of everyday living.” Is this accurate?
I have always known that artists are best when they do what they know. What I know is the experiences of family love and especially relations with the wonderful and varied people I have had the pleasure of [having] in my life.
What’s it like to have your work reviewed? Does it please you or misrepresent you?
I am always pleased to have a review of my work. It is so satisfying to know that a knowledgeable person sees it as good and of interest. I suppose I like reviews because I have never had a negative one.
What word best describes how it feels to earn a lifetime achievement award?