When people are asked to name celebrated artists, the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol would come up most often because of their worldly, most famous works of art such as the Mona Lisa, The Starry Night, Three Musicians and 1000 Soup Cans respectively.
As a lover of art, I appreciate pieces that capture the Black American experience. More so, I love familiarizing myself with pieces of art by key Black American artists of the early 1900's. I am enamored by sketches of that era because forms of artistic expression, especially in paintings and drawings, seemed to be the only form of communication in telling our stories when Blacks could not be in text books and major publications in a positive or honest light.
Therefore, I have highlighted three prolific Black artists during the Great Depression era whose work impressed and touched me today.
John Woodrow Wilson
Born in 1992, John Woodrow Wilson is a noted sculptor, painter, and printmaker, John
Wilson is best known for his powerful portraits of African American men that results in vivid figurative images done in bronze, oil, charcoal, graphite and print. Wilson’s interest in figural art can be traced to his childhood in Roxbury, Massachusetts, where he took life drawing classes taught by students at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In 1939, Wilson was accepted into the school on a full scholarship. He studied with the German émigré artist Karl Zerbe, who exposed Wilson to German Expressionist art and encouraged him to explore social issues in his work.
In 1943, when he was 21, Wilson created a revolutionary series called Deliver Us from Evil, which conflated images of Nazi oppression of the Jews with depictions of social injustices against blacks in America. While he continued to explore themes of racial discrimination and class oppression, Wilson developed a greater international focus and an interest in monumental art through his studies in Paris and Mexico.
In 1953, he returned to the United States to raise his family in an African American community and to participate in the growing civil rights movement. Wilson also helped to develop the art department at Boston University, where he served as a professor until 1986. After his retirement from academia, Wilson began making prints with James Stroud at the Center Street Studio in Boston, including a suite of etchings that illustrate Richard Wright’s short story Down by the Riverside and several prints based on his monumental sculpture Eternal Presence and on the King commission.
While there is little information about the history of William E. Smith (b. 1913, d. 1997), I am showcasing his three of his most notable pieces from the Black experience of the 1930's and 40's. The Lamp Post, 1938 in linoleum cut, Pay Day, 1941 in linoleum cut, and Recreation, 1944 in pen and ink with graphite on paper impressed me most. As America experienced the Great Depression and as Black Americans were not treated as fairly as whites before the Civil Rights era, these paintings capturing the joys and tranquility of Black people highlight against the norms of Black expression, which is particularly about the blues and hard work. The symbolism of hope in these paintings show the lightheartedness that served as a necessity for Black Americans.
Dox Thrash was born in Griffin, Georgia, on March 22, 1893. He was the second of four children in his family. Thrash left home at the age of fifteen in search of work up north. He was part of the Great Migration (African American) looking for industrial work in the North.
The first job that Thrash got was working with a circus and a Vaudeville act. Three years later, he moved to Chicago, a town that was opening its mind to Black artists. He got a job as an elevator operator during the day, and used this source of income to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago at night.
Dox finished his education and worked odd jobs, moving from place to place and struggling to
support himself. In 1925, he settled himself in Philadelphia and took a job working as a janitor. In his free time, he continued his art and used his talent to create a poster for the 2nd Annual National Negro Music Festival. This gained him local recognition and opened doors for new artistic endeavors. He became active in the Tra Club of Philadelphia, giving his work a wider audience.
Thrash is most widely known for his work on the Federal Art Project from 1936-1939. While working on this project, he invented the process of carborundum mezzotint, a printmaking
technique. Carborundum mezzotint uses a carbon-based abrasive to burnish copper plates creating an image that can produce a print in tones ranging from pale gray to deep black. The method is similar to the more difficult and complicated mezzotint process developed in the seventeenth century. He used this as his primary medium for much of his career and created his greatest works with it.
Thrash spent the later years of his life mentoring young African American artists. He died in 1965 and was posthumously honored almost 40 years later in Philadelphia with a show called, “Dox Thrash: An African-American Master Printmaker Rediscovered”. He is best known for his realistic depiction of African American life in the 20th century.