|::: CHARLES WHITE :::|
"Paint is the only weapon that I have ... to fight what I resent. If I could write, I would write about it. If I could talk, I would talk about it. Since I paint,
- Charles Wilbert White
"All of his art is a testimony to the vitality of American culture," Harry Belafonte wrote in the foreword to White's 1967 book Images of Dignity. The iconic actor and singer goes on to add: "And his art is tremendously American. He is an artist of world renown and ... this work has a universality which transcends the various schools of painting and which will withstand the merciless test of time and space ...."
An artist with a warrior's temperament, born during the last year of World War I on April 2, 1918, White was the sole child of Ethel Gary and Charles White, Sr., a Creek Indian. As a boy, White was influenced by the images of his Chicago neighborhood: Inanimate real estate such as dilapidated buildings and trash-strewn streets were the subjects of those early drawings. White's father died when the budding artist was just eight years old which left him in the exclusive care of his mother, a domestic worker. To keep him out of mischief she bought him a set of oil paints. However, perhaps she could not afford a canvas since he then proceeded to use them on the household window shades.
White ran errands, shined shoes, cleaned houses, and swept stoops to supplement the family finances. But entering his teens during the Great Depression, his social consciousness was beginning to awaken. His solace during those difficult years was his drawing board, and he continued to paint and sketch as much as time and available money made possible. He eventually entered a nationwide high school contest and triumphantly took home first prize. Later, White applied for a scholarship at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago and was granted financial support for full-time study. The world was beginning to take notice of a talent on the march.
Like many gifted artists of his generation, White joined the Works Project Administration (W.P.A) and, in 1940, was commissioned to create a mural depicting the history of the American Negro press. In 1941, White married the accomplished sculptor, Alice Elizabeth Catlett, from whom he was later divorced. Also that year, he earned a Rosenwald grant, which he used to tour the hostile territory of the segregated, southern United States. "In this process of rediscovering America, the racial forms and subjects which hereto had been kept in the background of Negro art assumed a prominent place in the foreground," White is quoted as saying in Images of Dignity. White would add assertively: "To the lasting benefit, I believe, of American art." Now the artist was able to speak about black heroes of American history and their contribution to American life. As a W.P.A. painter, Charles White would immortalize Booker T. Washington, educator; Frederick Douglass, statesman; George Washington Carver, scientist; and Marian Anderson, singer, a pantheon of human accomplishment on the same 18 by 20 foot mural.
Charles Wilbert White became an artist of his people and also their advocate. But, in doing so, he became an advocate of the universality of humanity. He always insisted upon expressing the dignity of the individual and respect for human beings - not some caricature imposed by hostile forces. As a spiritual product, perhaps unconsciously, of two races and two environments, he would reflect upon the fact that his grandfather was a slave in Mississippi and that his mother had lived most of her life in the South where little had changed from her father's era.
To look upon his drawings, paintings and prints is to be gripped by his search for essential truths in the daily life and beauty of his subjects. A comforting insight into the meaning of existence, man's aspirations and sorrows, his inner spirit -- but above all -- his dignity form the core of Charles White's love affair with life. And that is the tribute he paid to the men, women and children whom he depicted in his works.
His works are found in museums throughout the globe: the United States, Germany, Africa and Japan. A partial list includes the following: Museum of Modern Art; Whitney Museum of American Art; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Howard University Museum; Atlanta University Museum; Oakland Museum; Tuskegee Institute; American Federation of the Arts; Academy of Arts and Letters; Hirshhorn Museum, Taller de Grafica, Mexico City; Deutsche Academy der Künste, Berlin; and the Dresden Museum of Art.
White was the recipient of many awards as testaments to his acclaim. These include the Edward B. Alfred Award, 1946; Purchase Awards, Atlanta University, 1946, 1951, 1959, and 1961; National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, 1952; Atlanta University Award, 1953; John Hay Whitney Fellowship, 1955; Gold Medal, International Show in Germany, 1960 and 1965; Purchase Award, Howard University, 1961; Childe Hassam Award, American Academy of Art, 1965; Adolph and Clara Obrig Prize, 1971 and 1975; Isaac N. Maynard Prize, 1972. Before he died in 1979, he was also a recipient of an honorary doctorate from Columbia University in 1969.