Verna Hart knew what she wanted to be when she was only 5. “My creative journey began in my kindergarten class,” she recalled. “I chose the easel as my daily activity, instead of the blocks, dolls and water table options.”
Encouraged by her parents and refusing to be confined by the contours in coloring books, she made the walls of her family’s home in Queens her canvas. She drew cartoons and other scenes on them, delighting her siblings and even her parents. By the time she was 8, her father was already introducing her as a professional artist — the very thing she would remain until her death on April 26 at 58.
Ms. Hart’s prismatic and colorfully expressionist paintings, usually inspired by the jazz she heard in New York nightclubs, have been shown in gallery exhibitions, featured on record album covers (including one for Branford Marsalis) and used on the sets of movies and television shows — including Spike Lee’s 1990 film, “Mo’ Better Blues,” for which he commissioned her “Piano Man,” and “The Cosby Mysteries,” the 1990s crime-drama series on NBC starring Bill Cosby.
Her work appeared on a commemorative postal stamp in Anguilla (where her painting “Fresh Catch” won first place in its International Arts Festival in 1998), and in faceted glass murals depicting a fanciful jazz combo that were commissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. That work, “Jammin’ Under the El,” was installed at the Myrtle Avenue-Broadway elevated station of the J and M subway lines in Brooklyn in 1999.
Ms. Hart’s paintings, like many of those of Romare Bearden, Stuart Davis and Jackson Pollock, were inspired by the dynamic improvisation of jazz.
“Jazz is the medium of my work,” Ms. Hart wrote on her website, adding, “My works are visual evidence of a painter’s deep reflection of the natural rhythms of jazz.”
Verna Regina Hart was born on Jan. 28, 1961, in Harlem to Earl Alphonso Hart, a detective sergeant in the New York City Police, and Pauline (Shomo) Hart, a homemaker who also worked in a restaurant and as a school crossing guard. Verna’s family moved to Middle Village, Queens, when she was 4.
“My father introduced me to a ‘professional artist’ when I was 8 years old,” Ms. Hart wrote. “I can still envision him in his studio wearing painted coveralls surrounded by his vibrant large canvas.
“That encounter was my ‘reality check,’ ” she added. “He was an artist, and I wanted to be one, too.”
The artist was Bearden, the celebrated collagist and author who helped found the Studio Museum in Harlem and was a president of the Harlem Cultural Council. Ms. Hart would stop by his studio to watch him paint, she said. Giving her encouragement, he would later buy her work during her first solo exhibition.
Even before she graduated from Andrew Jackson High School in Queens, Ms. Hart took painting classes at the Cooper Union. After graduating from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan with a bachelor of fine arts degree in painting, she earned a master’s of fine arts in painting from Pratt Institute and a master’s in education supervision and administration from Bank Street College of Education, both in 1991.
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She taught art at Springfield Gardens High School in Queens and at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York in Brooklyn. The State Department selected her “Piano Man” for its “Art in Embassies” cultural diplomatic program in 2017, including it an exhibition in Cape Verde.
Ms. Hart moved to Wilmington, Del., nearly 20 years ago so that her daughter Eubie could be treated for cerebral palsy at the Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children.
Ms. Hart died at her home in Wilmington. Her son, Romare (named after her mentor), said the cause was a seizure while she slept. In addition to him, her survivors include her daughters, Eubie and Zaire Hart, and her brothers, Frederick and Kevin Hart and Raymond Smith.
Ms. Hart had continued to paint in Wilmington and travel back and forth to New York. She had been planning to open an art gallery in Harlem, where she used to visit jazz clubs with her sketch pad and soak up the music.
Jazz, she said, served “as a catalyst to inspire my experimentation with improvisation, form and technique.”
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