This coming Friday, West Harlem Art Fund will moderate a panel discussion on Mexican Muralism and its impact on American art. If you are familiar with the subject, you know that the movement was immortalized by Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Siqueiros. But their reach crossed North America too with several artists of color who could identify with their inclusion of Black and Brown people.
One such artist stands out. His name is not as well known as Charles White or Elizabeth Catlett but during the span of his life, he made significant inroads.
Charles Alston had a real vision. And he was willing to share his vision and support others with theirs.
He worked with a number of Black artists who protested to the federal government to include them in the Federal Art Project. These artists formed the Harlem Artists Guild and challenged discriminatory practices. They were successful in pressuring the WPA to hire an unprecedented number of African-American artists. In fact, Alston became the first African-American supervisor for the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project and the team that created the famed Harlem Hospital Murals.
Alston had credentials. After his family moved to New York City in 1915, he attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. Then he attended Columbia University in 1925, joined Alpha Phi Alpha, and wrote for the school paper the Columbia Daily Spectator. He got his Master’s in 1931 from Teachers College. While working on his Masters, Alston began teaching at the Harlem Community Art Center, founded by Augusta Savage in the basement of what is now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
He formed The 306 Group also known as “306”. The name of the group was derived from the address of the studio space, 306 W. 141st Street (now a public school), used by Charles Alston and Henry Bannarn. It was a collective of African American artists who worked and socialized together in Harlem, New York City in the 1930s. Many of these artists also worked with the Federal Art Project.
Notable artists who were part of this group include Jacob Lawrence, Elba Lightfoot, Augusta Savage, Norman Lewis, and Romare Bearden.
He also taught at the City University of New York from 1970 to 1977. His work is part of the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Alston sought to show the dignity of Black people in his art. And you can see that his exploration was fluid. He was also a sculptor and illustrator. Alston’s later works used abstraction to stir emotions. But I like the fact that he was presented with an art award from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1958.