Monday, January 19, 2015

Dox Thrash's Visceral Portraits of African-Americans

Greetings to all my inked up comrades, and welcome to 2015! This year promises to bring you a lot of new articles on artists, exhibitions and books on our favorite subject - prints! I enjoy hearing your comments on these articles and welcome hearing from you about any new printshops, upcoming workshops, and retreats.

To start the year off, we will look at the work of Dox Thrash (1893-1965), an African-American printmaker originally from Griffin, Georgia, who migrated north as part of the Great Migration. He settled in Chicago and then Philadelphia, producing work on the subject of African-American life. His work is largely recognized as portraying a positive view of African-Americans,promoting the idea of strong characters and bold portraits.
Thrash left home at the age of fifteen in search of work up north as part of the Great Migration (African American). He initially got work with a circus, then he moved to Chicago, and got a job as an elevator operator. He studied art, first through correspondence courses and then at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he completed his studies in 1923. During WWI, Thrash joined the army and fought in the Buffalo Soldiers brigade, where he suffered shell shock, but did not suffer any permanent after affects. In 1925, he settled in Philadelphia and took a job working as a janitor. Once in Philadelphia, he decided to study printmaking at the Graphic Sketch Club, now the Fleisher Art Memorial. In his free time, he continued his art and gained recognition for a poster he designed for the 2nd Annual National Negro Music Festival. He also joined the Tra Club of Philadelphia. He was an important member of Philadelphia’s Fine Print Workshop, a division of the Work Projects Administration’s Federal Arts Project, from 1937-1942, and his career flourished with this support.

Thrash mentored many young African American artists. Forty years after his death, Thrash was posthumously honored in Philadelphia with an exhibition called, “Dox Thrash: An African-American Master Printmaker Rediscovered”.
Thrash' view of the south included old cabins with a nostalgic view of his youth. Families living, working and playing around the homestead. laundry onthe line, the family bound together out of survival and out of necessity to survive as a unit. Some of his work depicted the horrific lynching common in the south prior to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, but some also present a solemn, even romantic view of man communing with his environment. These prints have the feel of 19th century French paintings and the works of Corot.
Thrash focused on subjects from the city, memories of his early life in rural Georgia, and nudes and portraits. Narrative, sentiment and African-American experience are the key elements of Thrash’s work; his innovative techniques are important only in so far as they dramatically express his subjects.There are several prints showing scenes of rustic cabins in idyllic landscapes. One print, titled "Sunday Morning", shows a woman dressed up and striding along in profile. (The subject of this print has been theorized as being Thrash’s mother walking to church.)
It was the strength of his African Americans portraits that Thrash emphasized over and over, reflecting his African American audience back at themselves, hinting at the psychological expense of attempting to conform to pre-existing white norms while presenting a new vision of the group as strong, positive role models overcoming their past and adversities.
Thrash's style is soft, dark and evokes passion. His line is classically structural and his tones softly Romantic, but the depth of his passion for his fellow man is evident in every rough, coarsely drawn line. His body of prints, which number over 100, are worth a look and can be seen in Ittmann's book which is listed below.
Thrash working in his studio.

Ittmann, John. Dox Thrash: An African-American Master Printmaker Rediscovered. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art; Seattle, Washington: University of Washington Press, 2001.

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