Detroit artist Gilda Snowden dies at 60, was ‘generous with everybody’

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Gilda Snowden, a prominent Detroit artist and much-loved professor at the College for Creative Studies for 31 years, died unexpectedly Tuesday morning of heart failure. She was 60.

Snowden’s work was as exuberant as her personality, her paintings characterized by bright, bold splashes of abstract color. She often worked at a huge scale and had a number of outsized pieces in a well-received Highland Park group show this summer, “Large Paintings @ the Factory.”

The Detroit Institute of Arts owns five Snowden pieces, one of which, “Monument,” is displayed in the African-American galleries. In 2009, she was awarded a prestigious Kresge Artist Fellowship.

Those who know her work well characterized it as brave and unflinching.

“From her scrappy Cass Corridor assemblages to her late, vibrantly colorful abstractions,” said art historian Dennis Nawrocki, “Gilda’s art reflected the seemingly unquenchable tenacity and gusto with which she made art and lived her life.”

Friends and colleagues reacted with stunned incomprehension.

“It’s such an unbelievable loss,” said Treena Flannery Ericson, gallery director at Detroit’s Scarab Club, where Snowden served on the art advisory committee for the past 12 years. “When you think of this community of artists and people who love art, there’s nobody like Gilda. She was just so generous with everybody.”

CCS President Rick Rogers remembered Snowden as “a great figure at the college — a pillar of the institution. She brought energy, wisdom, graciousness and kindness to everything she did.”

Snowden was famous for her willingness to nurture students, colleagues and other artists.

“She was always so positive about things. She just inspired students,” said CCS head of fine arts Timothy Van Laar, her immediate boss. “They’re pretty devastated. A couple today said Gilda told them they could be artists, and that’s why they decided they could do it.”

Snowden attended virtually every gallery opening in Detroit, Van Laar added, documenting the events in highly popular videos posted to YouTube along with her observations.

“She pretty much archived years of art production in Detroit,” he said. “You’d show up at an exhibit, and Gilda was there, greeting everybody. And she always got a ‘selfie’ with you. She was famous for that.”

Detroit Institute of Arts director Graham Beal, who served with Snowden on several committees over the years, said, “Gilda was wonderful. Open and positive — in a way, like her paintings, full of life and color.”

Snowden grew up in northwest Detroit and received her master of fine arts degree in painting from Wayne State University in 1979. She is survived by her husband, William Boswell, and their adult daughter, Katherine Snowden Boswell.

Services will be held at Detroit’s James H. Cole Funeral Home, according to the family, but no date has yet been set.