She attended a two-room public school for black children in North Buxton, Ont., and was the first black woman elected queen of the Beaux Arts Ball at the Ontario College of Art in the 1940s.
She has painted portraits of movie stars, captains of industry, presidents and first ladies, including Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton and Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy. She has made sculptures of Rosa Parks and Stevie Wonder.
Yesterday, at the age of 81, Canadian-born sculptor Artis Lane was part of history once again as Michelle Obama unveiled her sculpture of former slave and women's rights activist Sojourner Truth, the first memorial to a black woman in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.
The ceremony took place in Emancipation Hall at the newly opened U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. Ms. Truth was born into slavery as Isabella Baumfree in New York state in 1797, and escaped a harrowing early life to become an abolitionist, preacher, utopian idealist and fighter for the suffragette cause.
"I hope that Sojourner Truth would be proud to see me, a descendant of slaves, serving as the first lady of the United States of America," Mrs. Obama said to loud applause at the ceremony.
Actor Cicely Tyson, a friend of Ms. Lane's, was also on hand to recite Ms. Truth's legendary "Ain't I A Woman?" speech delivered at a women's rights convention in Ohio in 1851.
Ms. Lane has another unveiling on the books this week - one more modest, but no smaller in significance to her. The artist, who now lives in Los Angeles, will make the trip home to Chatham, Ont., on Saturday to unveil a bronze of Mary Ann Shadd Cary, her great-great-great aunt whose family immigrated to Canada in the 1850s and dedicated their lives to freeing slaves.
"Mary Ann Shadd Cary is my heroine, is my voice of protest that I pour into my visual images," Ms. Lane said in an interview.
Ms. Shadd Cary was a well-educated abolitionist, a teacher and the first black woman to publish a newspaper in North America; The Provincial Freeman was published in Ontario in the 1850s, and Ms. Shadd Cary used it to promote Canada as a haven for hard-working blacks. Ms. Truth and Ms. Shadd Cary were powerful advocates for social justice. They both revered U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and recruited black soldiers to serve in his army during the Civil War.
Artis Shreve was born on May 14, 1927, in North Buxton, a black village in Southwestern Ontario. Her family eventually settled in nearby Chatham, a community once called the Coloured Man's Paris, for its rich black history.
In 1942, at the age of 15, Ms. Lane won the Dominion of Canada award for portraiture. She says Alice McCoig, her art teacher at the time at the Chatham Collegiate Institute, helped her to win a scholarship to the Ontario College of Art in Toronto. Segregation was a part of her everyday life.
"When I would go to Miss McCoig's home to do extra artwork I had to walk a block behind her so that nobody would know," Ms. Lane said.
The move to Toronto brought more firsts, both good and bad. She was the first black student to be chosen as the queen of the Beaux Arts Ball at the college and "one of the rewards was that the top student who graduated did the portrait of the queen," Ms. Lane said. "But he refused to paint me - and he was a wonderful artist."
In her third year of art school, Ms. Lane met and married her first husband, Bill Lane, a black journalist and civil rights activist living in Detroit. She left the college, to the dismay of Miss McCoig, moved to the United States and continued her education at the Cranbrook Institute in Michigan. It was there that she started to gain notoriety, with early clients including members of the Ford and Chrysler families.
Those portraits "helped augment my being able to study," Ms. Lane said.
When her marriage fell apart in the mid-1950s she moved to California with their daughter to do a commission, and never came back. She met her second husband, TV and film actor Vince Cannon, and their celebrity circle of friends gave her plenty of subjects to paint.
In the 1980s her work began to evolve, as she focused on the theme of social justice.
"The two purposes in my work are social injustice and metaphysics together - celebrating the human figure and freeing the human spirit," Ms. Lane said.
Some of her seminal works from what she calls her "black heroines" period include sculptures of civil rights activists Mary McLeod Bethune and Dr. Dorothy Height that are installed in the National Council of Negro Women Building in Washington, D.C.
Her long-time friendship with civil rights activist Rosa Parks also inspired many of her important works, including a life-size bronze for the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Ala., the Congressional Medal of Honor Ms. Parks received from former president Bill Clinton (which Ms. Lane designed) and a portrait of Ms. Parks that appears in the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery.
Even though she's had more than brushes with some of history's great personalities, Ms. Lane says she was deeply touched to be asked to sculpt a piece for a Chatham, Ont., park. Freedom Park, where Ms. Shadd Cary's bust will reside, is across from Ms. Lane's childhood home and has been revitalized - a project spearheaded by Ms. Lane's cousin and historian Gwen Robinson and Chatham Councillor Marjorie Crew.
Ms. Lane says Ms. Shadd Cary was a self-effacing woman - so it may have surprised her to be immortalized in bronze. "But for her this would bring a kind of closure and signify redemption for the awful sin of slavery." She acknowledges, however, that two trips of this kind in one week is a challenge. "The only thing that gives me courage to come to Canada is that I will be with my family."
Special to The Globe and Mail, With a report from Associated Press