Born Ann Graves in Homewood, Pennsylvania in 1934, Ann Tanksley is an artist of everyday life. After graduating from Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in 1956, she moved to New York. Soon after graduating, Ann married John Tanksley and had two daughters. For them, she gave up her artistic inclinations and became a mother full-time. Her education wouldn’t continue until after her daughters left for college.

It was in New York that she pursued a formal art education from such establishments as the Art Students League and Parsons School of Designplus the New School for Social Researchunder the tutelage of masters like Norman Lewis and Balcomb Greene. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s is what truly moved Tanksley to pursue art with more vigor. Her early art was spent exploring her own rage and the communal anger of black Americans, but she eventually found this form of social commentary was hurting her. She would explore other religions and travel to Senegal, Haiti, and the Caribbean, and from then on, she was inspired to change to a more tropical color palette and a more celebratory tone. She still focused on black people living in poor conditions with low wages, but now she focused on an uplifting black narrative. The 1970s and 1980s would see Tanksley gain popularity. For two years in the 1970s, she served as an adjunct art instructor at Suffolk County Community College, and in 1981, Tanksley received a grant from Harlem Cultural Council. During this era, she worked with a variety of mediums and methods, including oil, watercolor, and printmaking. She usually wrote poetry before completing a piece, and her subject matter regularly included outlined figures filled in with flat color. Often a group of figures, perhaps laborers or female domestic workers, they sit or move together as a community rather than as disconnected individuals. Instead of creating personal scenes, Tanksley depicted universal black experiences; she was quoted saying “my art is black art.”

In the mid-1980s, Tanksley found herself drawn to writings by Harlem Renaissance icon Zora Neale Hurston, a black woman who recorded and took as inspiration the folk tales and experiences she heard from American slaves. Psychoanalyst Hugh F. Butts asked Tanksley to illustrate his book on Hurston, which prompted her to take printmaking workshops with Robert Blackburn. Tanksley made sixty monoprints depicting scenes from Hurston’s writings, and though the book was never published, she circulated all of them to critical acclaim. From 1989 onward, she saw the environmental devastation from a hurricane in Jamaica, and she was inspired by human perseverance and flourishing even in chaos. This theme would continue to appear in her pieces through the 1990s. One such piece is Picnic, which depicts a celebration held by Gullah women on the southeastern coast, inspired by the 1991 film Daughters of the Dust. Tanksley’s work is held in multiple permanent collections around the United States, with a history of exhibitions in New York, Chicago, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Oakland, and Nairobi. She has also had solo exhibitions in Washington D.C., Jamaica, and in multiple locations in New York.