Charles Henry “Spinky” Alston was a black artist of the Harlem Renaissance. It was “Spinky” Alston who designed the album covers for jazz musician Duke Ellington and book covers for poet Langston Hughes. Born from a family of painters, he learned the art from his father. After his father passed, his mother remarried the uncle of artist Romare Bearden. In 1929, Alston served as director of the Utopia House, a boy’s camp in Harlem, where he started an art program.
Charles Alston was born in 1907 in Charlotte, NC. As a child, he looked up to the work of his father, Reverend Primus Priss, who wrote illustrated love letters to his mother. Alston would also try to recreate his brother’s drawings of cars.
A few years after joining the Utopia House, Alston taught and mentored Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden in his “306 group” of Harlem artists. The group also included sculptor Augusta Savage. Alston and friend Henry Bannarn directed the Harlem Art Workshop which was funded by the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project. Because of his efforts to recognize Harlem Renaissance artists, the Harlem Artists Guild was born.
Alston’s works entitled “Modern Medicine and Magic in Medicine,” formed part of a series of murals for the Harlem Hospital Center, created by Alston and 35 black artists who served under his direction. Unfortunately, his murals were discouraged by the hospital’s top administrators, Lawrence Dermody and S. S. Goldwater. The men objected to the murals because of the number of prominent African Americans depicted in the scenes. Despite this fact, the project gained financial backing from Louis Wright and was given public attention. Not only did Alston walk away successful, but he met his wife during his work with the project, Dr. Myra Logan, a surgeon at the hospital.
Much of Charles Alston’s work was published in The New Yorker and Fortune magazines. He would become the first black instructor at the Arts Students League and would sell one of his pieces to the famous Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. His most popular works include those titled “Family” and “Walking”. His art was most recently seen at Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey. Charles Alston died in 1977.
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