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Black Culture Experience: Black Voices in Visual Arts

As we close out our Black Culture Experience this Black History Month, we end with visual art. Paint, bronze, and marble create stories of community and culture. In this entry, we salute Charles Alston, Earnie Barnes, and Selma Burke for their contributions to the arts from sculpting the portrait of FDR, now seen on our dime, to making a painting seen around the world on television. The Arts Council of Fayetteville/Cumberland County is proud to celebrate these North Carolina natives in this final edition. 

Black Culture Experience | Charles Alston
Black Culture Experience | Charles Alston

Charles Henry Alston (Charlotte, NC) was an incredibly talented artist who made significant contributions to the world of art. Born on November 28, 1907, in Charlotte, North Carolina, Alston was a painter, sculptor, illustrator, and muralist who lived and worked in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. He was active during the Harlem Renaissance and was a teacher who inspired many young artists. 

Alston is best known for his murals, which showcased his unique style and vision. He designed and painted murals at the Harlem Hospital and the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building. In 1935, he became the first African-American supervisor to work for the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project (FAP) in New York. As part of this project, he oversaw a group of artists creating murals for the Harlem Hospital. This was the first government commission ever awarded to African-American artists. Beauford Delaney, Seabrook Powell, and Vertis Hayes were among the artists who worked on the project. Alston also created his own contribution to the collection, called "Magic in Medicine" and "Modern Medicine". These paintings were part of a diptych completed in 1936 depicting the history of medicine in the African-American community. Beauford Delaney served as an assistant. 

Alston was inspired by the work of Aaron Douglas, who had created the public art piece "Aspects of Negro Life" for the New York Public Library a year earlier. Alston researched traditional African culture, including traditional African medicine, when creating the murals. "Magic in Medicine", which depicts African culture and holistic healing, is considered one of "America's first public scenes of Africa". Alston was also a talented sculptor. One of his most famous sculptures is "Head of a Woman" (1957), which shows his shift toward a "reductive and modern approach to sculpture....where facial features were suggested rather than fully formulated in three dimensions". 

In 1970, Alston was commissioned by the Community Church of New York to create a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. for $5,000, with only five copies produced. Alston's bronze bust of Martin Luther King Jr. (1970) became the first image of an African American to be displayed in the White House. When Barack Obama became the first black president in 2009, he brought the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. into the Oval Office, replacing a bust of Winston Churchill. This marked the first time an image of an African American was displayed in the president's work quarters. Furthermore, the bust became a predominant work seen in official portraits of visiting dignitaries. A second copy of the famous Martin Luther King Jr. bust is now displayed in Washington for the public to view up close. 

Alston's legacy continues to inspire and influence artists today. He was a trailblazer who paved the way for future generations of African-American artists. His contributions to the world of art are significant and will continue to be celebrated for many years to come.

Black Culture Experience | Ernest Eugene Barnes Jr
Black Culture Experience | Ernest Eugene Barnes Jr

Ernest Eugene Barnes Jr. (Durham, NC) was an American artist, born on July 15, 1938. He was known for his unique style of elongated characters and movement, which continues to captivate audiences today. Barnes's art was inspired by his own life experiences, and his work reflects his deep understanding of the human body and its movements.

Before he became an artist, Barnes was a professional football player, actor, and author. Although he often expressed ambivalence towards his football experience, he credited it with providing him with unique observations of the body in motion. He believed that the elongation of his characters conveyed a feeling, attitude, and expression that he had learned from his years as an athlete.

Barnes's artistic journey began in college, where he was mentored by Ed Wilson, a sculptor who encouraged him to paint from his own life experiences. Wilson believed that the artist who is useful to America is the one who studies his own life and records it through the medium of art, manners, and customs of his own experiences. Barnes took this advice to heart, and it became the foundation of his artistic development.

Despite facing challenges, Barnes's dedication to his craft never wavered. He sold his first painting, "Slow Dance," for $90 to Boston Celtic Sam Jones when he was just 21 years old. Sadly, the painting was lost in a fire at Jones' home, but this did not deter Barnes from continuing to produce art that deeply resonated with audiences.

Today, Barnes's legacy lives on through his art, which has influenced many artists around the world. His unique perspective on movement and expression continues to inspire new generations of artists, making him one of the most influential artists of his time.

The Sugar Shack | Ernest Barnes Jr
The Sugar Shack | Ernest Barnes Jr

Black Culture Experience | Selma Burke
Black Culture Experience | Selma Burke

Selma Hortense Burke (Mooresville, NC) was an accomplished sculptor and a prominent member of the Harlem Renaissance movement. She created many pieces of public art, often depicting prominent African-American figures such as Duke Ellington, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Booker T. Washington. Her work explored human emotion and relationships while also rendering the symbolic human form in ways that were both dignified and symbolic.

Burke worked in a wide variety of media, including wood, brass, alabaster, and limestone. Her public sculpture pieces can be seen at various locations, including the Hill House Center in Pittsburgh, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, Atlanta University, Spelman College, and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. Her last monumental work, created when she was 80 years old, is a bronze statue of Martin Luther King Jr. in Charlotte, N.C.

One of Burke's most famous works is a bas relief portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which may have been the model for his image on the obverse of the dime. She competed in a national contest to win a commission for the sculpture, and the resulting 3.5-by-2.5-foot plaque was completed in 1944 and unveiled by President Harry S. Truman in September 1945. Her work on the plaque was based on sketches made during a 45-minute sitting with Roosevelt at the White House, during which she asked him to sit still so that she could capture his likeness.

Burke received numerous accolades throughout her lifetime, including several honorary doctorate degrees and the Women's Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement Award. She was also a member of the first group of women to receive lifetime achievement awards from the Women's Caucus for Art in 1979, alongside Louise Nevelson, Alice Neel, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Isabel Bishop. Despite facing challenges and obstacles throughout her life, Burke remained dedicated to her craft and continued to create beautiful works of art until her death at the age of 94. Her legacy serves as an inspiration to all who strive to pursue their dreams and make a difference in the world.


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