Black Printmakers and the WPA

Introduction by Nina Castelli Sundell
Essay by Leslie King-Hammond, Curator
Selected Images with Biographical entries
Elisabeth Lorin


"For the first time since the plantation days artists began to touch new material, to understand new tools and to accept eagerly the challenge of Black poetry, Black song and Black scholarship."1

By 1934 the economic destruction wreaked by the Great Depression had put between eleven and fifteen million people out of work. Ten thousand of these jobless citizens were artists. A year earlier, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the newly elected president, had signed into legislation the Federal Emergency Relief Act. Based on a system of work relief, this project's primary objective was simply to get people back to work, artists included. The government had no particular commitment to the arts, but it realized that artists "have to eat like other people."2 New Deal employment projects, however, didn't just put food on the artist's table. Through an innovative set of programs, the government set the scene for a richly productive era in American art.

In 1935 Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (later the Work Projects Administration) or WPA. Its purpose was to create all kinds of jobs at every level of the skill ladder, preserving professional and technical skills while helping individuals maintain their self-respect. Artists in the program were paid $15 to $90 a month for a wide variety of assignments. Work-relief programs functioned under this basic design from 1935 to 1939 when the WPA was renamed the Work Projects Administration and placed under the supervision of the Federal Art Project (FAP). The WPA/FAP lasted until 1943, when productivity and employment soared as the country marshaled its resources to fight World War II.

From 1935 to 1943 the WPA/FAP had four major areas of activity: the creation of art, art education, art as applied to community service, and technical and archaeological research. The most prolific divisions were those responsible for easel painting, murals, sculpture, and fine prints.

"Black Printmakers and the WPA" specifically addresses the area of fine prints and the community art centers where they were made. There, art education and community service combined to give significant numbers of Black artists the rare opportunity to be supported in their chosen line of work, to gain new avenues for expression, and to have contact with white artists, which under other circumstances would not have occurred.

The Black printmaker has only a few recorded historical antecedents. While there is documentation showing that Black printmakers were active in this country as early as 1724, the anonymity of the slave makes it almost impossible to trace individual achievements. We know that the only known portrait of the slave poet Phyllis Wheatley was engraved by Scipio Moorehead, a Boston slave, in 1773.3 Half a century later, three slaves, a father and his two sons, are known to have been active in the Boston printing shop of one Thomas Fleet, who had come to Massachusetts from England in 1821 to escape religious persecution.4 Only the two sons are identified by name—Caesar and Pompey—but all three men were said to have been "bred to press." These artisan slaves were trained in Fleet's shop to set type and to do woodblock engraving. According to Fleet, the father was an exceptional artist "who cut on wooden blocks, all the pictures which decorated the ballads and small books of his master."5

Patrick Reason (1817-c.1850), known to have been an engraver, draftsman, and lithographer, apprenticed as a youth to an engraver in New York. And Grafton Tyler Brown (1841-1918) owned and operated his own lithography firm in Oakland, California.

During the first three decades of the twentieth century, Blacks who followed this profession found outlets for their work in magazines, newspapers, journals, and other popular publications. Access for Black artists was primarily limited to the pages of publications that focused on issues of race relations and their sociopolitical ramifications. Magazines such as Crisis, Survey Graphic, and Opportunity afforded these artists the greatest amount of exposure.

It was not until the years of the WPA that Black artists found viable conditions to explore their own creativity, develop printmaking processes and gain access to new technologies. The graphic arts division of the WPA/FAP directly assigned artists in the Philadelphia program to develop original prints in all media, but many of the artists assigned to other projects also found time to experiment with print making. The main catalysts for creativity were the community art centers that sprang up in various urban centers and at Black colleges. The Harlem Recreation Art Center is the most famous for its list of alumni reads like a Who's Who in Black American culture: Selma Burke, Aaron Douglas, Palmer Hayden Jacob Lawrence, and Augusta Savage all worked there. But there were also vibrant centers in Cleveland, Chicago, Atlanta, Richmond, Oklahoma City, Memphis, Tennessee, and Jacksonville, Florida. One of the most exciting aspects of research into this era of American art is that a great many of the artists are still living and they are without exception still actively pursuing their art.

The community art centers provided young Black artists with new experiences in the arts, experiences from which they had been largely excluded by the segregated social conditions of the times. As teachers in the centers, professional Black artists were able to gain access to printing presses and tools. A very special relationship between artists, teachers, and students evolved during this time. Roles freely shifted or merged, as teachers and students explored new technologies together. Riva Helfond, one of the artistteachers at the Harlem center, recalled the lithographic process, and learning "how to manipulate the technique involved in printing from these mysterious, beautiful surfaces."6

In 1945, painter and art historian James Porter wrote, "The opportunities afforded... so far through the WPA Federal Arts Projects raise the hope that equal opportunities will soon appear through private and commercial patronage and that the prejudice and mistrust that have restricted the Negro artist and warped his milieu will be abolished."7 While such hopes have yet to be fully realized, during the years 1935 to 1945, Black artists—and in particular Black printmakers—attained remarkable artistic and technical levels of achievement.

Artists in the WPA graphic arts division produced more than 200,000 fine prints from more than 11,000 designs. They used the traditional media of woodblock, lithography, etching, and aquatint extensively, but the division's claim to fame was its artists' successful experiments with new techniques. As WPA historian Francis V. O'Connor observed, "This aspect of the WPA/FAP's activities was most noted for its many technical innovations—especially its perfection of color lithography and the serigraph (silk screen) for creative purposes and the invention of the Carborundum etching."8

A large share of the credit for such innovations goes to the Philadelphia graphics division—the only one of the WPA's community centers to be specifically designated a fine-print workshop. The program had to its credit four young Black artists—Dox Thrash (1893-1965), Claude Clark (b. 1915), Raymond Steth (b. 1918) and Samuel Brown (b. 1907)—who were intensely committed to developing and expanding the print medium. Thrash, Clark, and Steth were assigned~directly to the prin't department, Brown was officially attached to the watercolor department, but he found the need and the time to test his skills at print making.

The kind of close working-relationships and creative energy fostered by the centers is exemplified by the Philadelphia group. Thrash, the head of the graphics division, had only three other artists, who were white, in his section. None had much experience with the various print-making processes. Roswell Weidner one of the shopmates, described the scene: "We worked there every day. Five days a week. Nobody kept time on us, but we all were gung-ho....This was a great opportunity...we all helped each ether. The blind helping the blind."9

Weidner admits that it was a shock for him to find himself working with Thrash, a Black man. Yet he said, "To me, he was a man." And besides, Weidner recalled, the shop's energy was completely focused on the development of various print processes. "He was a nice guy, but he didn't talk. He came in and worked and we got along, and there it was. Print making, that was the extent of the whole thing."10

The Carborundum print can be directly attributed to Thrash. Carborundum is the trade name for a coarse, granular industrial product made of carbon and silicone that is used for grinding and polishing. The Carborundum print grew out of Thrash's use of Carborundum crystals to resurface used lithographic stones. Thrash experimented by manipulating various grades of Carborundum crystals until he achieved a wide range of tints and tonal variations in the final print.11 In notes for a book he was planning to write, Thrash acknowledged his colleagues for their assistance in "perfectinn" the method, but he cleariv and definitively stated, "I do claim credit for the discovery. "12

Because Carborundum was a commercial trade name, Thrash called his prints "carbographs" and later "Opheliagraphs," after his mother. The evolution of the Opheliagraph proved Thrash to be a virtuoso printmaker. The Iyricism he was able to extract from this dense medium produced portraits such as Charlott, Whiskem, and Abraham, which reveal a vast range of tonal variation. The complex darks are sparked by transluscent lights, enhancing an emotional depth and sensitivity not seen before in Black portraiture in this country. Under the sensitive hands of Dox Thrash, the manipulation of the Carborundum print process realized masterful achievements.

Clark, ohen working along with Thrash, also experimented with the Carborundum tint process, adding and experimenting with color. As today, it was not uncommon for an artist to take a single image and play in various ways with its potential. In the Groove and Boogie Woogie are Carborundum prints that Clark executed both in black and white and in color. Etchings and aquatints, however, appear to have been Clark's favorite media, since they allowed him to develop more precise draftsman's skills. These prints explored the elements of gesture and line in the popular dance movements of the period.

Steth, working primarily in aquatint and carbograph, produced a powerful series of studies that reflect deeply and often critically on Black life and culture in America. Where Thrash was a master technician, Steth was a master of content and commentary. A natural storyteller in the tradition of the African griot, Steth poignantly recorded the life of the Black community in such prints as Apostolic, which shows the congregation of a church caught ir' the fervor of spiritual ecstasy. Steth's narrative attains epic proportions in his series The Evolution of Swing, which traces the bistory of Black music from Africa through slavery to jazz. In Beacons of Defense the role of the industrialized urban worker is played out in the crossfire of beam lights crisscrossing the composition.

The breadth of many of Steth's compositions reflects the influence of the Mexican mural movement of the twenties. The Mexicans had thrown off Spanish and other European influences to develop an indigenous style, one that was intended to speak to everyone, not just to the culturally advantaged. Their ideals, and their vivid monumental forms, inspired scores of New Deal artists, both Black and white, who felt they, too, were working to bring about a new social order.

Like the Mexicans,.Steth addressed demanding questions of grave social and political consequence. Such haunting images as Debris, Patton St. Derelict, Despair, and / am an American delineate the Black man's bitter experience in an America where all men were supposedly created equal. The most searing indictment from Steth's stylus is a composition entitled Heaven on a Mule. Two Black children wearing makeshift wings of twigs and netting sit on a broken-down mule and look across a barren field littered with discarded objects. To the leh of the picture are the children's father and mother and a dog, all fitted with the same wings. Steth gives the figures angelic forms to evoke their yearning for deliverance from despair. This print clearly demonstrates the freedom Black artists had under the WPA to express their unique perspective on the American scene.

Brown, the watercolorist, did not spend as much time in the graphics workshop as the other three Philadelphia artists, but he did try his hand at a small variety of themes. Best known among his prints is Writing Lesson, which, like his watercolors, focuses boldly and directly on a single subject performing a task. Abstract is a more experimental composition. In its overall departure from the primarily figurative style of the American Scene artists, it shows the effects of a new familiarity with European forms of abstraction.

Community art centers provided many artists with their primary exposure to print-making processes, but they not only taught the craft, they also provided exhibition opportunities for the artists and students involved in their projects. Without the centers, many artists never would have had the time to spend on creative experimentation and artistic growth. One of the most active centers was Karamu House, founded in 1915 in Cleveland, which took its name from a Swahili word meaning "center of community." Karamu House was an interracial hub designed to address the cultural needs of one of the worst slums in the city. Although by the time of the Depression it was already recognized for its renowned theater group, it was not until Karamu House received funding from the WPA/FAP that it established a strong, visible presence in Cleveland. The funds enabled Karamu House to hire well- trained Black artists as teachers.

The artists who came to Karamu House eventually formed the Cleveland Karamu House Artists Association, Inc., in 1935.'13 The association's membership included Hughie Lee-Smith (b. 1915), Elmer Brown (1909-1971), Charles Sallee (b. 1913) and Fred CarIo (no dates available).

Like New York and Philadelphia, Cleveland boasted a strong group of artists committed to the development of individual forms of expression. This climate of seriousness and purpose was fostered by Karamu House's stated objective, which was, in part, to define:

"First, the direction of the Negro's creative abilities into the mainstream of American life, thus removing him from the isolation which has been so costly to initiative and ambition. Secondly, to enable the Negro to tell his own story to the community and the Nation, making directly known his sufferings, his dissatisfaction, his aspirations and his ambitions."14

James Porter wrote that, in 1937, Sallee was the leader of a powerful group of artists who would make a difference in the quality of prints created under the WPA."15 Porter pointed to Sallee's etchings Bertha, Emetta, Swingtime, and Post Sitters as evidence of Sallee's strong hand and observant eye. In Elmer Brown's Wrestlers, the power and energy of the Black athlete, a little-documented subject, suggests the wide range of issues the Karamu artists chose to explore.

Hughie Lee-Smith was another crucial addition to the Karamu House faculty. Lee-Smith is a brilliant draftsman who uses line and shape to depict his subjects. Artist Life No. 7 and Artist Life No. 3 are two of the surviving lithographs of the period that give early testimony to the breadth of his skills and abilities. Lee-Smith was a master teacher as well, who influenced numerous younger artists with not only his technical mastery but also his impassioned and uncompromising dedication to his art.

New York City has for at least a century been acknowledged as the cultural capital of the United States. It was therefore natural that Harlem continued to evolve as a Black cultural center in the tradition of the Harlem Renaissance of the twenties. Harlem was a magnet, and even though much of the creative fire and energy of that prior decade of phenomenal activity had subsided, the Harlem Art Center became a major focal point of activity for the WPA community-center projects.

The Harlem center was run by painter Gwendolyn Bennett. Many now-famous Black artists passed through its doors as teenagers. Their training became a crucial component of the historical legacy of Black America, since this was one of the few times when younger Black artists developed under the tutelage of other Black artists.

Many of the artists, while ultimately gravitating towards painting and sculpture, tried their hand at print making. Robert Blackburn (b. 1920) and Ronald Joseph (b. 1910), two of the youngest pupils at the center, were both taught by Riva Helfond who was herself but a few steps ahead of her students in learning the various print processes. Lithography, etching, woodblock, and silk-screen were explored. With the rapid exchange of technical information and the relentless exploration of the various print media, it was often hard to tell the teachers from the students, as roles became blurred in the excitement of the work.

Blackburn's early lithographs include remarkable works, such as Abandoned Coal Chute, Rooftops, Checker Game, and People in Boat, all done around 1937, when he was only seventeen. Blackburn's keen observation of details, his deft draftsmanship and his youthful creative abandon gave him an early sense of freedom to test the limits of his medium. Joseph, who is still active, was equally skillful and gifted in his early compositions, such as Graphic Workshop, Tenement Window, Bob Blackburn, and Under the Elevator.

As teachers at the Harlem center, Charles Alston (1907-1977), Ernest Crichlow (b. 1914), and Norman Lewis (1909-1979) had great impact on younger Black artists. They sought not only to teach but to learn. Prolific producers of prints, they took advantage of every opportunity to gain access to a press. While we know that there were great stretches of intense productivity during this period, the prints themselves have not survived to bear witness. Crichlow lamented that "there were no Black curators at that time who went about to save and preserve this work. I have no idea where my work is now."16 It is well known by now that innumerable works of art produced under the WPA were warehoused, distributed without being catalogued, or in many cases lost. All that remains for Crichlow is Lover, a composition that reveals the prelude of a rape. It is an ominous lithograph, small but powerful in its tale of a Black woman accosted in a bedroom by a hooded member of the Ku Klux Klan. It stands as a riveting expose against the traditional themes of the American scene.

Alston was no less challenging in Who likes War? or Justice at Wartime. Alston chose to challenge American clichés of justice and freedom by showing the Statue of Liberty grimacing menacingly at the viewer. Yet Alston had a deep capacity for lyricism as well, which he expressed in rural landscapes such as Barn and Broken Down Silo and Stud Poker. For Alston, the tonal range of the lithograph afforded wide variations in style and mood.

Lewis was another master who had a great effect on many young Black artists. Lewis emerged early as an abstractionist and sought every opportunity to experiment in style, medium, and subject matter. Po// Tax and We Are Americans Too, eloquently rendered with a passion for detail, relate the trauma of America's disenfranchised Black people. Lewis also toyed music and the bars that housed the great masters of jazz. He rendered homage to their contributions in Musicians and Untitled Group, two prints in which the rhythms of music play a large part in the expressive manipulation of composition and figure.

Richard Lindsey (b. 1904) was another Harlem center artist whose works from the WPA era are lost to us. His only extant print, Colonial Park, gives ample evidence of his abilities as a printmaker with a strong eye for landscape.

William Henry Johnson (1901-1971) was a loner, one of the last artists to be hired to work at the Harlem center before it closed in 1941. His highly personal and expressive, pseudo-naive style and his deliberate choice of subject matter were of great concern to many Blacks in the community as well as to fellow artists. But the depth of his commitment to documenting Black life in America can be seen in such prints as Folk Family, Ezekial Saw the Wheel, Off to War, and Hunger. Woodblock and, especially, silk-screen were Johnson's favorite vehicles. A woodblock entitledFarm Couple at Well took time out from serious subjects to make a visual pun on Grant Wood's endlessly reproduced American Gothic. Johnson was obsessive in his exploration of the serigraph. Whenever he ran out of paper to print on, he used the daily newspaper so he wouldn't have to break the flow of his production.17

Chicago's Southside Community Art Center opened its doors in December 1940, a latecomer to the roster of WPA facilities.

The SSCAC was successful, despite its short run, largely due to the presence of such artists as Charles White, Gordon Parks, Archibald Motely, Charles Sebree, and Margaret Burroughs. It is difficult to determine the extent to which print making played a role in the SSCAC's curriculum, and in fact only Burroughs is known to have executed prints there during this era.

Burroughs also has the distinction of being one of the few women known to have experimented with print processes. It appears that most Black women artists were assigned to the easel and sculpture projects, and there is little evidence to suggest their interest in printing. Riva Helfond, a white woman, who taught and made prints at the Harlem Recreation Center, instructed Robert Blackburn and Ronald Joseph in lithography and participated actively in the cultural life of the time.

The community centers may be seen as one arm of the WPA/ FAP's program in art education; projects centered at Black colleges and universities were the other. Segregation was still very much a part of America's cultural and political landscape, and Black institutions were the only fountainheads of educational development for Blacks.

Perhaps the most vibrant of these institutions was Atlanta University, a unique complex that included Spelman College and Morehouse College. In 1931 the Atlanta University system hired the well-known painter Hate Woodruff (1900-1980) to help develop a fine arts curriculum as well as to teach painting and drawing. The following year the university opened a gallery space to showcase the works of not only its own faculty and students, but also artists of national and international reputation.

While employed by the university, Woodruff was also hired on the WPA/FAP project. The scope of his assignments is not clear. "During my spare time I did my project," Woodruff recalled laconically. "The inspector would come around once or twice every two or three months to see how you were getting on."8 From around 1935 to 1943, Woodruff worked at a multitude of projects, completing easel paintings, murals, and blockprints. The blockprint became one of Woodruff's principal media to communicate expressively the visual characteristics of his people. His style was heavily influenced by the Mexican muralists, especially Diego Rivera, with whom Woodruff studied. (It happens that Woodruff was one of the few assistants the irascible Rivera could bear to work with.) Rhythm, strong lines, and dramatic narrative inform such works as By Parties Unknown, Three Musicians, Giddap, and Returning Home, blockprints that reveal the vitality Woodruff was able to bring to this medium.

One of Woodruff's students in the WPA project was Wilmer Jennings (b. 1910). Although trained and nurtured by Woodruff, Jennings felt free to experiment in different media, including lithography and wood engraving. The two disparate media afforded him a wide range of graphic possibilities. Jennings was a master of the wood engraving: Still Life with Fetish shows a brilliant and detailed rendering of a vase, a plant, and an African sculpture.

The most significant creative activity of the WPA/FAP projects took place in Black communities in the major urban areas of the East Coast and the Midwest. But to fully explore the realm of the Black printmaker, it is imperative to consider the singular activity and contribution of Sargent Johnson (1887- 1967), who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Johnson migrated to the West Coast from Washington, D.C., in 1915 and studied art periodically from the twenties to the forties. He maintained a high profile on the national art scene, even though he worked without the benefit of a closely knit support group of other Black artists. He was one of the most consistently exhibited artists in New York's Harmon Foundation expositions during the twenties and thirties. By 1936, he was with the W PA/ FAP sculpture division, and during his tenure he was the only Black to achieve the positions of senior sculptor, assistant supervisor, assistant state supervisor, and ultimately unit supervisor.19

As in other locales, it was not uncommon for artists assigned to one project to pursue their interests in other areas, since facilities were so accessible. While Johnson's primary emphasis was on sculpture and ceramics, late in the thirties he began to develop a deep curiosity for print making, especially lithography. Access to WPA/FAP facilities allowed him to explore the technology and use new materials. Soon he was making prints, and these prints expressed a strong sense of racial consciousness and pride. The use of line and movement in the abstract, stylized composition of Dorothy clearly reflects his deep love for his people. In 1935 he told an interviewer from the San Francisco Chronic/e:

"It is the pure American Negro I am concerned with, aiming to show the natural beauty and dignity in that characteristic lip and that characteristic hair, bearing and manner; and I wish to show that beauty not so much to the white man as to the Negro himself."20

The eight years of the WPA/FAP, 1935 to 1943, were a short period of history, but a crucial one for American artists. In the cases of Black artists, it had a phenomenal impact, providing them with support to develop in a vocation that otherwise would have been almost impossible to pursue. All the artists in this exhibition continued to develop their careers in the visual arts. In the cases of Hale Woodruff and Robert Blackburn, they moved on to establish institutions that helped to preserve and promote the Black artist within American society.

In 1941, Woodruff, the primary force behind the "Atlanta School" of Black artists, established the first competition of artists at Atlanta University. This ultimately became the Atlanta University Art Convention. By 1948, Blackburn had begun the long, arduous task of developing the Printmaking Workshop in New York. The workshop has not only been an invaluable center for the artistic and technical development of the print process for the Black artist, but has achieved national and international recognition.

It is possible that artistic creativity and cultural enlightenment might have prevailed during the Depression without the sponsorship of the WPA/FAP. It is unlikely, however, that there would have been the great wave of experimentation and technological advancement to which all the artists in this exhibition contributed. The government did little at the time to protect or further the overall civil rights of the Black American, but it did make certain opportunities available to all. And Black artists around the country took full advantage of every possible chance to provide history with a visual legacy of their times, their culture, and their ideals.

Leslie King-Hammond, Curator


1. Vernon Winslow, "Negro Art and the Depression," Opportunity Journal of Negro Life, XIX (February 1941), pp. 42, 62.

2. Francis V. O' Connor, Federal/ Support for the Visual Arts: the New Deal and Now, New York Graphic Society, Ltd.,1969, p. 17.

3. See the collections of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, and the Moorland/ Spingarn Special Collection, Howard University, Washington, D.C., which house the only known extant examples of Moorehead's prints.

4. See Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America with a Biography of Printers and an Account of Newspapers to Which is Prefixed a Concise View of the Discovery and Progress of the Art in Other Parts of the World (Worcester, Mass., from the Press of Isaiah Thomas, Isaac Sturtenant, Printer, 1810).

5. Ibid.

6. Riva Helfond was an instructor assigned to teach at the Harlem Recreation Center in the late 1930s who taught Robert Blackburn the rudiments of this craft. See Through a Master Printer: Robert Blackburn and the Printmaking Workshop, (Columbia, S.C.: The Columbia Museum, 1985), p. 1.

7. James Porter, Modern Negro Art (New York: Dryden Press, 1943), p. 133.

8. Francis V. O' Connor, Federal Support for the Visual Arts: the New Deal and Now, New York Graphic Society, Ltd., 1969, p.29.

9. Interview with Roswell Weidner, Artist, October 31, 1986, by David R. Brigham, Print Division, Philadelphia Free library, p.7.,10. Ibid.,p.9.

I 1. Originally, collaborative credit had been given to this process, which included Thrash's colleagues Michael J. Gallagher and Hubert Mesibor. See The Carborundum Print, W.P.A. Technical Series Art Circular, No. 5, September 10, 19,40.

12. The majority of the text, "History of My Life," by Dox Thrash,
is published in Ruth Fine Lehrer's Philadelphia: Three Centuries of American Art
(Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1976), p. 553.

13. See Al Bright's unpublished paper "Black Artists and the Cleveland Experience 1930s and 1940s,'' presented at the Visions Foundation Symposium, September 1988.

14. James Porter, Modem Negro Art (New York: Dryden Press, 1943), p.128.

15. Ibid, p.159.

16. Conversation and interview with Ernest Crichlow on November 22, 1988, by author.

17. Extant works located in the National Museum of American Art reveal that several of the images in the Jitterbug series were executed on newsprint.

18. See Hale Woodruff: 50 Years of His Art (New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 1979), p. 81.

19. The Oakland Museum, Sargent Johnson Retrospective, p. 18.

20. San Francisco Chronicle, October 6, 1935.