Ellen Powell Tiberino 

Philadelphia Museum of Art Members Magazine Spring 1992


Ellen Powell Tiberino's portrait drawing Sister Jennieva conveys the powerful personality of Sister Jennieva Lassiter, the artist's cousin who served as a missionary to Tanzania for eighteen years and helped to establish a school for Tanzanian girls. The nun stares directly at the viewer as she holds her rosary beads and crucifix in prayer. Tiberino animated the long outlines that define the nun's clothing and used short pencil strokes to model her face and hands. Tones created by smudging and erasing pencil lines add greater depth to the figure and her voluminous robes. The exaggeration of Sister Jennieva's features reveals Tiberino's interest in captuing an impression of the nun's inner spirit, her vitality, and her wisdom.

Tiberino once commented that her subjects were not always beautiful because she tried to paint life as directly as she saw it. Some of her most poignant and personal works date from her last fourteen years, when her art became a record of her life with cancer. The macabre details that Tiberino drew in The Operation reflect her sharp wit in response to the inhumanity of some doctors. More positively, Tiberino's portrait of Sister Jennieva may relate not only to the nun's personality but also to the artist's own Catholic faith, which helped to sustain her throughout her long illness.

A graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Ellen Powell was born in 1937 and grew up in the MAntua neighborhood of Philadelphia. She won a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where she studied with Hobson Pittman and Julius Bloch. She became the first black woman to win the Cresson Travelling Scholarship in 1959, which allowed her to travel and study in Europe. Throughout her adult life she lived in Philadelphia, where her home was frequently a gathering place for the city's artists. Her determination to depict life in her community is evident throughout her work, such as the relief sculpture about the 1985 MOVE bombing in West Philadelphia that she completed with her husband, the artist Joe Tiberino. The project was exhibited at Temple University's law school in 1986. After a long struggle with cancer, Ellen Powell Tiberino died in 1992.