In celebration of Black History Month, we take a look at three American artists of African descent with Cleveland ties.
William E. Smith (1913-1997) moved to Cleveland from Chattanooga, Tennessee at the age of twelve after his mother’s death. During the early 1930s, he studied at the Playhouse Settlement of the Neighborhood Association of Cleveland (now called Karamu House), one of the oldest ethnically and racially diverse cultural institutions in the United States. It was here that Smith found his passion for printmaking and began making linocuts.
Four of these linocut subjects, Mother and Baby, Sharecropper, My Son! My Son!, and Siesta, were acquired by the Cleveland Museum of Art. Featuring bold compositions rendered in sharp contrasts of black and white, Smith’s prints captured the Great Depression’s impact on the lives and conditions of the people around him. He exhibited widely in Cleveland, New York, Hartford, and Atlanta during the 1940s, before subsequently moving to Los Angeles, where he continued to be active in the art world. Jane Glaubinger, curator of prints, comments that “Smith portrayed his neighbors honestly and poignantly. These prints address the poverty and racism of the times.”
Born in Oberlin and raised in Sandusky, Ohio, Charles L. Sallée, Jr. (1911-2006) began making art at an early age; he once reminisced, “I’ve been drawing since I was four years old . . . . I liked to draw anything that moved!” During the 1930s, Sallée enrolled at the Cleveland School of Art (now called the Cleveland Institute of Art), becoming its first African American graduate. He later taught at Karamu House and throughout the Cleveland school system. During the Great Depression he also worked as a printmaker and mural painter on Works Progress !
Administration (WPA) art projects. After serving in World War II, the artist returned to Cleveland and established a successful career as an interior designer, working for such distinguished clients as Cleveland Trust, Stouffer Hotel’s, and the Cleveland Browns. Sallée’s most famous painting, Bedtime, earned national renown when it was highlighted in James A. Porter’s groundbreaking survey Modern Negro Art, published in 1943.
“Charles Sallée was a longtime friend and patron of the Cleveland Museum of Art, and often could be seen exploring the galleries,” recalls Mark Cole, associate curator of American painting and sculpture. “We are thrilled to have four of his works in our collection, including Bedtime, which came to us as a generous gift from the artist’s sister, June Sallée Antoine. She made this gift in memory of the artist and their parents, making it even all the more heartfelt and special.” In addition Charles’ sister gifted a drawing to the museum collection. Visitors will have the opportunity to touch the works of Charles Sallée on Sunday, February 5 from 1-3pm as part of our monthly Art Cart experience.
A security officer at the museum for two decades, Dexter Davis (born 1965), has emerged as a highly esteemed contemporary artist in Cleveland. He uses mixed media to express his views on urban violence that is displayed in the media and in real life. He uses scraps from his own works, recycled fabrics, wallpaper, and target paper to create images of hand guns, pained eyes, bloodshed, and skeletons. Davis’ works Black Heads, a unique, highly complex collage was acquired in 2010 and the woodcut and etching Spirit was acquired in 2008. Davis’ says his work largely represents a variety of his experiences from religion to politics to just living in the neighborhood.”
He also reflects on the impact of Smith and Sallée. “I appreciate the contributions that Smith and Sallée made,” Davis said. “When I was a student at the Cleveland Institute of Art, I had a chance to meet Sallée. They both were able to communicate what they believed in and that is what I am trying to do. I'm just trying to make people aware that you can have a voice and that you can use it and that everybody has their way of communicating and this is my way.”