Red. The color of blood and of North Carolina’s rich clay soil. The powerful color of the clay comes from the iron oxide mineral, hematite, stemming from the Greek word for blood, haima.
Born on November 28th, 1907, in Charlotte, North Carolina, Charles Henry Alston spent his early childhood with his grandmother, learning the process of extracting the pure red clay from the earth, creating sculptures of animals, human figures, and one of North Carolina itself.
“I’d get buckets of [clay] and put it through strainers and make things out of it. I think that’s the first art experience I remember, making things […] I made a head of Abraham Lincoln. And I even got ambitious enough to try a nude figure… I almost got a severe whipping out of that because at one point I got stuck on the exact formation of a woman’s breast and I asked my aunt to let me see her breast.”
Like the iron that facilitates our blood flow and gives the clay its reddish hue, Alston’s relationship with his grandmother in conjunction with his exploration of clay nourished his artistic inclinations and stimulated his interest in the human form.
Girl in a Red Dress (1934) by Alston, reminiscent of the work of one of his idols, Modigliani, is said to be based on the glorious jazz singer Bessie Smith. The girl’s long, elegant neck and steady gaze are framed by a white collar and the color red: present in her earrings, her dress, and the reddish hue of her skin.
In 1950, Alston became the very first African American instructor at the Art Students League of New York.
Part of the League’s permanent collection is an abstract image from Alston’s later years, Red, White, and Black (c. 1960). Again, we are confronted with the color red. A shape on the left side of the painting mimics that of a fetus in a womb. His work appears to retain a gentle quality while simultaneously progressing onto a different plane of understanding of form and color.
Located at the base of the spine, the root chakra is also associated with the color red. Symbolizing our basic survival needs and stability, this chakra is often defined by our upbringing, our family. Alston’s family pursued their own individual artistic endeavors. His mother, Anne Elizabeth, was an embroiderer and painted in her old age. His father, who gave Alston the nickname “Spinky”, was a minister who channeled his creative energy into writing and was said to have courted Anne Elizabeth by illustrating love letters for her. One of Alston’s five siblings, Wendell, had a talent for drawing cars and trains, which Alston admired and frequently copied.
Alston’s father, Reverend Primus Priss, was born into slavery in December of 1856 in Chatham County, North Carolina. Alston drew on the experiences of his father to illustrate the first edition of The Delta Wedding (1946) by Eudora Welty. The plum book cover is decorated with tiny white flowers and at its center is the distant view of a plantation, ornately framed. In his illustrated map, Alston shines a light on the hands behind the production of the work; the black laborers are seen working in the field, while the Fairchilds, the white owners of the plantation, are jovial and dancing next to the main house. There is tension here between the wedding celebration and those who have made the event possible. Alston combines his artistic talent and his ancestral knowledge to bring to light the labor (as well as racial) divide.
In 1910, when Alston was three, Reverend Primus Priss died of a brain hemorrhage. Shortly after, in 1915, his family moved to Harlem, New York City, newly merged with the Beardens through marriage – thus began Alston’s lifelong friendship with his young cousin Romare Bearden. Many other African American families of the South were moving to urban areas in the North in such vast numbers that it became known as “The Great Migration.” Alston presents this relocation in his painting Family in Cityscape (c. 1964-66) inspired by a visit to the South when he was 31, during which he witnessed the solidarity that existed between families despite their impoverished circumstances. Many traveled north looking for financial prosperity and a brighter future, as implied by the brilliant yellow sun in the top left corner of the painting.
Once in Harlem, Alston found a way to use his creativity by becoming involved in art clubs as well as magazine work throughout high school, as art editor of the Clinton Magpie, and university.
Although granted a scholarship by the Yale School of Fine Arts, Alston chose to attend Columbia University in pursuit of a broader education. Initially undertaking a degree in architecture, Alston shares in an interview with Al Murray in October 1968: “That was a big mistake because the math floored me.” After attempting other “practical” career paths, including a pre-medical degree, Alston returned to his home: the fine arts.
He became involved in publications such as the Jester, Columbia’s one and only humor magazine founded on April Fool’s Day of 1901, and The Morningside, an academic literary magazine. For the latter, Alston utilized his printmaking ability to produce the cover for the issue published in April 1929. The specific technique he implemented was woodcut: one creates a relief using wood; that which is carved out is the blank space and what is left is the imagery.
Despite his talent, Alston encountered certain restrictions as a black student at Columbia. He was barred from attending life drawing classes, and instead was limited to still life drawing. And yet, this only invigorated his interest in studying the human form: “I think primarily I’m a figure painter and I’m concerned with people.”
Graduating university in 1929, Alston stepped into the world as the stock market crashed, marking the beginning of the Great Depression. However, he did not let this deter him – instead, the obstacles served to catapult many of his future artistic connections and community- focused endeavors.
Alston remarks on this shocking historical moment in an interview with Dr. Harlan Philips:
“You lived a secluded life on the campus; that’s your world…you think you can lick the world…Then you come out and the whole thing has fallen down around your ears…you can’t get a job. You can’t do anything. […] So then came the Depression… nothing was happening anywhere. I’d stand in line waiting for my check with [artists like Gorky and Stuart Davis] … It was that way for everybody.”
In the heart of the Great Depression, Alston painted Midnight Vigil (1936), capturing the melancholic cries and desperation of this period. The soft light of a kerosene lamp on a small table gives birth to looming shadows on the wall – the sadness becoming larger and extending beyond the bodies of those in the room. In the middle of the painting is an older man with his head bowed in resignation. The others, their arms outstretched and beckoning, plead to a higher power for mercy, for a miracle. In the foreground is a woman in a blue dress with her face raised and eyes closed, seemingly surrendering to the divine will.
A year after graduating, Alston began teaching workshops at the Utopia Children’s House.
Among the many children who attended, Alston mentored two budding artists. One grew to become an accomplished lithographer and was awarded multiple scholarships and awards by the League in the 1940s: Robert Blackburn. He had a sharp mind and absorbed Alston’s teachings like a sponge: “Bob could watch you do something and in five minutes he could do it.” The other was Jacob Lawrence, 13 years old at the time and a child of the Great Migration. Alston describes Lawrence as a “grave little kid” who experimented with collage and mask-making. He recalls: “If I gave [Lawrence] crayons…there was always a very personal, strange kind of expression. I don’t think at the time he had ever seen African masks or anything like that, but he used to do these fantastic masks and draw them in brilliant colors.”
The seed of mentorship was planted with this community program, and these relationships truly blossomed over the years. (This bears a great resemblance to the work done by the Art Students League Seeds Program.)
In his early adult life, Alston financially sustained himself by continuing to pursue magazine work. He illustrated for magazines such as Fortune, for the issue titled “The Negro’s War” published in 1942; Mademoiselle (a women’s magazine founded in 1935); Collier’s (a general interest investigative journal founded in 1888); and The New Yorker, in an issue published on October 6th, 1934. In this issue of The New Yorker, Alston designed the cover illustration: a custodian plays pretend, simulating the stance of a music conductor, poised at the podium facing empty seats, broom in hand as if it were a baton. Through the depiction of the custodian, we are faced with the prospect of our dreams, hidden talents, and vision for our own future.
Alston continued to pursue magazine work for a prolonged period until, over ten years later in 1947, he would express to his future wife, “I can’t do this anymore”; from that moment forward, Alston stepped away from commercial work to focus on painting and collaborative public projects.
One of Alston’s significant commercial contributions were weekly caricatures for a British music magazine called Melody Maker. The UK embraced jazz before it was accepted by the broader audience in the United States. Through this employment opportunity, Alston was able to travel with prominent jazz musicians of the Harlem Renaissance, capturing their essence while they performed during recording sessions and broadcasts.
Day to day living in Harlem was abundant and bustling with activity. From 133rd to 135th Street on Seventh Avenue, “you’d stroll along…in your best clothes and look over the passing parade of beautiful gals,” Alston reminisces. At the center of the creative hub for black art, Alston lived in close proximity to the key artists, musicians, and writers of the Harlem Renaissance: Dizzy Gillespie, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, Bobbie Henderson, among others.
In his oil painting Blues Singer #4, Alston portrays a beautiful, full-figured woman with elbow length gloves, hair pulled back, drawing attention to her cheekbones. The rectangular blocks of colors in the background contrast with the boldness of her red dress. A white flower, placed on her left shoulder, adds a fluffy lightness. The painting is a visual representation of blues music: soft blue-gray tones gently enveloping a smoldering fire.
Similarly inspired by the music of the Harlem Renaissance, Dancers (1949) combines elements of the Cubist style and the vibrancy of jazz: four figures dancing, legs bent, and hips swaying. The dynamic sounds of jazz are conveyed by fractured, rhythmic movement and patchwork of a rainbow of colors. This painting perfectly encapsulates the euphoria jazz music brings to those who let it flow into and through their bodies.
At the tail end of this artistic renaissance, in 1934, Alston formed a collective called the 306 Group that met in his personal studio (named so after the address, 306 W 141st Street). Many artists attended these meetings, including sculptor Augusta Savage and Alston’s cousin Romare (“Romy”, as he was affectionately called) Bearden. The group also attracted writers including Richard Wright, Claude McKay, and Alain Locke. The young 17-year-old painter Jacob Lawrence also became involved in the collective’s artistic exchange and rented a corner in Alston’s studio.
In a handwritten letter addressed to Alston, Romy Bearden calls him “Spinky” and mentions looking for him during a Duke Ellington concert. Bearden learns that Alston has missed the concert due to illness. Throughout the letter, Bearden expresses his concern for his close friend’s health and condition, offering “Spinky” his home while he is away on vacation in St. Martin’s.
This letter is a testament to the profound impact of jazz music: it became embedded into the daily life of these prolific artists and no doubt helped solidify the connection that existed between Bearden, Alston, and those in the Harlem community.
Alston was instrumental in establishing a landing pad and a community of mentors for younger artists moving from the South into the Harlem neighborhood. In many ways, the 306 Group was the root system that fostered the growth of a diverse number of black artists, many of whom became involved with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a government New Deal agency established in 1935 that funded public projects, providing jobs to the unemployed and “unskilled.” Five percent of the 5 billion dollars allocated went towards Federal Project Number One, specifically assisting those in the creative field, including writers, visual artists, theater professionals, musicians, and actors.
In 1936, Alston became the first African American supervisor for the WPA Federal Art Project. Four years later, inspired by the prominent Mexican muralists of the time, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, Alston designed six murals for the Harlem Hospital funded by the WPA and led a team of artists and assistants who collectively painted these murals. Unfortunately, four of the murals were rejected by the hospital administration for being too “Negro-focused.” The two that remained expressed the polarity that continues to exist in the medical field.
The first, titled Magic in Medicine, was surely a tribute to the customs of Alston’s Southern background. Two years prior, in 1938, he was awarded the Rosenwald fellowship and took a trip down South, a place he found himself rediscovering as an adult, having left at a very young age. Standing above is a Fang reliquary figure of Gabon, used as tribute and protection for the ancestors, representing the link between life and death. The figure guards the skulls of the deceased from evil spirits and is often decorated with a wig of cowrie shells. The cowrie, said to have been drawn up from the depths of the ocean by the orisha spirit Olokun of the Yoruba religion, was used as currency and thus symbolic of wealth and power. In the lower half of the mural are the medicine women, surrounded by the natural elements, using herbal remedies to cure the ill, a tradition carried on in the South.
In the second mural, Modern Medicine, the central focus is a microscope with the microbiologist Louis Pasteur hovering above the scientific instrument. Below are doctors, nurses, and scientists dressed in white, emphasizing the sterile, uncontaminated nature of the practice. Hiding behind the microscope are men in suits, most likely representative of the business side of western medicine.
It was during this project at the Harlem Hospital that Alston met his future wife, Dr. Myra Adele Logan, a surgical intern at the time. She is focal point of the mural Modern Medicine, shown holding a child.
Myra’s surgical coats found new purpose and life at the League. One of the students to receive Alston’s artistic guidance, Enid Zimmerman, graciously shared her experience of the class: “When [Myra’s] lab coats were wearing thin, [Alston] distributed them to whoever in the class wanted to use them to cover clothing from becoming decorated with oil paint or other art media… Alston usually wore one of these lab coats in class over his clothing which I remember was more formal than the jeans and sweatshirts instructors of art classes often wear today.”
With the onset of World War II in 1943, Alston quickly found a way to apply his artistic abilities to the war effort by becoming a staff artist.
His illustrations included depictions of important figures such as the first African American woman pilot Willa Brown, the heroic actions of mess attendant Elvin Bell, the accomplishments of George Washington Carver’s successor Austin Curtis, the welding device inventor Charles Henry Fletcher, and abolitionist “champion of the people” Frederick Douglass.
Teaming up with painter and muralist Hale Aspascio Woodruff, Alston set off on an assignment to design a home office building for the Golden State Mutual Life insurance company in California in 1948. They were accompanied by public relations agent Leonard Grimes, responsible for documenting their travels.
Though the circumstances of the expedition were different from that of their predecessors, in that Alston and Woodruff were paid artists, whereas the black migrants traveling through the Sierra Nevada in the late 1800s were laborers, much of their experience as African Americans was the same. During a quick stop on the border of California outside of Reno, Nevada, the owner of a restaurant denied the three men a drink of water, Grimes recounts. The artists used their first-hand experience and historic understanding dug up along the journey to inform the creation of a two-paneled mural, vividly illustrating the vital contributions of the black people to the development of the West Coast.
In 1970, Alston paid tribute to the most well-known leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr. Two years after his assassination, Alston sculpted a portrait of Dr. King and cast it in bronze. Five casts were made, one of which was placed in the White House in 1990, becoming the first sculpture of an African American to be displayed in the executive mansion. During the Obama administration, the cast was placed next to the bust of Abraham Lincoln, taking over the spot originally designated to a bust of Winston Churchill.
Along with the Civil Rights movement, on July 5th, 1963, came the founding of Spiral, a collective of artists inspired by the March on Washington. As cofounder, Alston got together with artists and writers on a regular basis for two years in Greenwich Village to tackle the racial inequality through the act of artistic expression.
The name of the collective was based on the concept of the Archimedean spiral: a line that begins at a fixed center point and radiates outward at a constant rate, much like the line one sees on a vinyl record. The spiral reminds us of the cyclical nature of living, recognizing the echoes of the past that influence our future.
The Spiral collective discussed important philosophical questions of the time and put on their one (and only) group show to reflect those ideas called Works in Black and White: “We, as Negroes, could not fail to be touched by the outrage of segregation, or fail to relate to the self-reliance, hope, and courage of those persons who were marching…we hoped with our art to justify life…to use the black and white and eschew other coloration.”
Though short-lived, due to lacking a common cohesive goal outside of the Civil Rights movement and, in Alston’s opinion, being “too weighted on the side of the Cause [and] on self-conscious themes,” there was still a fruitful exchange amongst this diverse group of black artists that continued to influence those who followed.
Alston gave guidance at the League up until 1971. His life’s work and involvement with the League is a reminder of the importance of the collective process and forming connections with our chosen family. League student and painter Enid Zimmerman reflects on the importance of family in Alston’s paintings and how his influence trickled into the work she created for his class:
In the oil painting The Family (1955), Alston approaches the idea of the family unit with colorful warmth. The daughter is standing in the foreground with playful pigtails. The father’s hands are placed protectively on the shoulders of his son, who holds a glowing red ball. They are all facing the mother, looking to her for guidance, admiring her graceful beauty.
This painting pays tribute to the mother: she is seated and placed in a position of reverence and is central to the painting. Much like the High Priestess in the tarot, her blue dress appears to flow with the wisdom of the deep waters of the feminine archetype. In the Yoruba religion, blue is also the color of the orisha spirit of the ocean, Yemaya (meaning “mother of fish”). She is the mother of all the other orishas, both nurturing and forgiving.
The main female figure in Alston’s life, his wife Myra, died on January 13th, 1977. A mere three months later, on April 27th, Alston died after struggling for several years battling cancer. The short period between the couple’s time of death could be interpreted as a physical manifestation of their strong energetic bond.
Aside from the album cover Alston produced for Duke Ellington in the late twenties, he also designed one in 1953 for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s album release of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet and orchestral composition, The Firebird. The piece is about a bird with enchanted feathers that helps a prince by locating the only means of destroying his immortal foe: the latter’s soul preserved in an egg hidden within the trunk of a tree. Alston’s design is a clean geometric depiction of the Firebird: gold, red, and white, defiant against a black background with a flaming tail, pointed and sharp.
The Slavic Firebird resembles another beast with flaming feathers: the phoenix. Upon its death, this mythical creature bursts into flames and is reborn from its own ashes. Much like the phoenix, Alston welcomed the death and rebirth cycle in his own creative process. He reinvented himself often throughout the years, exploring varying methods and techniques, and inspired a younger generation of artists to fearlessly engage with this mysterious spiraling life.
In 1970, the jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard released his iconic 12-minute jazz piece Red Clay. The smooth, buttery formations slide against our energetic body much like soft clay in our hands. Whether metaphorical or literal, it is through death that we become the clay of the earth and give nourishment to new life.