Nancy Elizabeth Prophet (March 19, 1890 – 1960) was born in Rhode Island, to parents of mixed Native American and African American ancestry; her father was Narragansett.
In 1914, at the age of 24, Prophet enrolled in the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. While at RISD she studied painting and drawing, especially portraiture. Prophet married Francis Ford, who had briefly attended Brown University, in 1915. They later divorced and had no children.
After graduating from RISD in 1918, Prophet tried to make a living as a portrait painter, but times were hard in Rhode Island at the end of World War I. To compound Prophet’s economic problems, there was racial segregation in relatively liberal Providence (which had integrated its public schools in the 1860s); theaters and restaurants had whites-only sections. Prophet is said to have told the poet Countee Cullen that she once had a sculpture accepted to a show in Providence on the condition she not attend the opening, so she withdrew the piece.
In 1922 Prophet moved to Paris, a haven for American artists and musicians of color. While there, she developed her signature style: a realistic portrait head carved in either wood or marble, often presented as emerging from the uncarved block. Prophet returned to the United States in 1932 and moved to Georgia, where she taught at Spellman College and Atlanta University. Returning North in 1945, Prophet found herself unable to make further headway in her career and was forced to take domestic work in order to make a living.
Pictured: Congolais, cherry, 1931, installed at the new Whitney Museum (courtesy Hyperallergic)
For more images of Prophet’s work: http://portraitsculptors.org/FeatureImg/Prophet/Feature_NancyProphet.html