Emerging out of the Chicago black arts movement, Charles Sebree was an immensely versatile and multifaceted visual artist who also distinguished himself as a set designer, costume designer, dancer, and playwright. Charles Sebree's best known work are his paintings of harlequins and saltimbanques; his most characteristic "signature" are the soulful and communicative eyes of his subjects. Eluding categorization, Sebree's paintings, which reveal influence of Picasso, Modilgliani, Klee, Kandinski, and Russian icons, exude an extraordinary iconic, archetypal power.
Unfortunately, during Sebree's lifetime, his art did not receive the recognition it deserved. In fact, not much was known about Sebree's career and life until the pioneering research done by Melvin Marshall and Blake Kimbrough, curators and African-American art specialists. Having conducted extensive biographical research, which included numerous interviews with people who collected Sebree's work and knew him well, Marshall and Kimbrough published a groundbreaking study of Sebree, in the International Review of African American Art, offering many insights into Sebree's remarkable career.
Summing up Sebree's life as an artist, Dr. Eleanor Traylor told Marshall and Kimbrough, "Few get recognized during their lifetime. One doesn't live for that. You live for the association with other beings, the joy of usefulness, joy of purpose, joy of love. He was a revolutionary spirit. I cannot use terms, cannot used currency of language that we identify things by because he believed in another vocabulary." Duke Ellington once described Sebree as being "beyond category."
Grew Up Drawing During the Depression
Sebree was born on November 16, 1914, in White City, which was located several miles from Madisonville, in Eastern Kentucky. An only child and one of only a few children living in White City, Sebree spent much of his time drawing and creating stick figures out of mud and twigs. He first learned to draw using a stick to trace outlines in the soil, a skill learned from his Uncle John Robinson, a coal miner, who was also a locally known naïve painter and cartoonist. During the mid 1920s, many Southern blacks moved to northern cities. Following suit, Sebree and his mother moved to Chicago when he was ten years old. He attended public schools, and impressed several of his teachers with his artistic ability, particularly Mrs. Honan, who showed some of his work to the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago. His drawing, Seated Boy, was purchased by the Society for twenty five dollars and was featured on the cover of their magazine. For several years following, Sebree showed his work at the Renaissance Society.
When he was fourteen, in 1929, Sebree was living on his own. He was young, black, and living in Chicago at the onset of the Depression. All three of these facts forced Sebree to learn extraordinary survival skills. According to historian Ann Tyler, many young black boys, such as Sebree, made money by running numbers, a job that put them in legal jeopardy. Despite these hardships, Sebree graduated from high school in 1932. Wanting a formal art education, Sebree then attended the Chicago School of Design, and the Art Institute of Chicago. During his college years, Sebree broadened his artistic horizons and joined the Cube Theater Club, where he met the noted dancer and anthropologist, Katherine Dunham, who eventually became an influential force in Sebree's life. Bedazzled by Dunham's energy, Sebree designed sets and costumes for her dance company, and, for a short time, participated in her company as a dancer. While Sebree was involved with the Cube Theater and its members, he learned a great deal about the African diaspora. There he met Alain Locke, who would later become Sebree's mentor and confidante. Locke, who thought highly of Sebree's work, included him in his seminal book, The Negro in Art. Locke introduced Sebree to Countee Cullen, who hired him to illustrate his children's book, The Lost Zoo.
As Marshall and Kimbrough uncovered more information about Sebree, they reconstructed the amazing network in which Sebree lived. For example, Thornton Wilder, who gave Sebree a stipend to paint, introduced Sebree's work to Gertrude Stein, who had close associations with many of Europe's most famous artists. In their study, Marshall and Kimbrough quote an excerpt of a letter from Sebree to Locke dated April 2, 1940, in which Sebree wrote, "When Gertrude Stein and Ferdinand Leger told me that I would be a big American painter some day I felt a little honored, but when I heard that Picasso had said that I was on the right track I really felt honored."
Art Work Not Stopped by War
Between 1936 and 1938 Sebree worked for the New Deal's Works Progress Administration (WPA). During this time Sebree lived in a diverse and integrated artistic and intellectual environment, participating in both the black Renaissance movement and the white bohemian art scene. A participating artist of the South Side Community Arts Center, whose vitality has been compared to that of the Harlem Renaissance, Sebree was also involved with the Cube Theater. Sebree befriended and spent time with some of the most celebrated artists, writers, musicians and social thinkers of the time, including Langston Hughes, Eldzier Cortor, Hughie-Lee Smith, Archibald Motley, Charles Pratt, Gertrude Abercrombie, and Horace Cayton. Essentially, Sebree surrounded himself with artists who supported and challenged each others' ideas, creating an environment that was stimulating and thought provoking. Importantly, as a homosexual, Sebree felt comfortable in an environment in which homosexuality was accepted. In fact, many of his friends and associates were also homosexual. Artist Camille Billops, told Marshall and Kimbrough, "you have to understand that during this time being gay didn't mean that you were in the closet, it meant that you were in a tunnel so, no, it was not freely talked about."
Many black artists, including Sebree, were becoming better known among the mainstream art community during the late 1930s, partly due to the exposure that was offered by the WPA and partly because of the natural integration that typically happens within an avante-garde art community. However, when the United States entered into World War II the climate changed drastically. For example, Sebree was scheduled to show his work in New York at the Downtown Art Gallery as part of a series of shows featuring up-and-coming black artists, organized by Edith Halpert. Only one artist, Jacob Lawrence, had the chance to show his work before Pearl Harbor was attacked; after Pearl Harbor, the project was abandoned, and Sebree had missed an opportunity to gain more recognition. By the late 1940s, Lawrence was considered to be the most prominent black artist in the United States. While Lawrence's fame is not undeserved, it is interesting to note how world events can shape art history. Ironically, the work shown at the Downtown Art Gallery, was The Migration of the Negro, a series of paintings depicting the migration of southern blacks to the north, a historical event that brought Sebree to Chicago as a young boy.
Sebree was drafted into the army in 1942. He was stationed in Illinois, at Camp Robert Smalls, Great Lakes Naval Base, in an all-black division. It was here that he met his life long friend, poet, and playwright, Owen Dodson and first encountered overt prejudice and racism. Sebree was also angered that he was serving his country in order to preserve rights that were denied to blacks. During the years they spent together in the military, Dodson and Sebree produced morale-lifting plays for their fellow enlisted men. As a result of these experiences Sebree's work became increasingly more politicized and while his artistic style has been described as social realism, his subjects were always people, rather than the urban or rural landscapes that are typically portrayed by other social realism painters. During this time both Dodson and Sebree paid homage to Dorie Miller, a black sailor whose act of heroism during the attack on Pearl Harbor earned him the Navy Cross. Dodson's play, Ballad of Dorie Miller was first presented at Camp Smalls. Shortly after the play's debut, Sebree finished Boys Without Penises, which, according to critic Tony Finch, reflected "the issues that were foremost on his mind, namely, mob violence, death, redemption, and the yearning to be free."
Remained in Artist Communities
After the war, Sebree moved to New York where he once again enjoyed a tight knit community of artists just like he did in Chicago. A salon that materialized at the home of Frank Neal and his wife, Dorcas, was Sebree's link to artists from a wide spectrum of disciplines. He became a big jazz fan, making friends with Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, and Billy Strayhorn. The "infamous" Neal apartment gatherings were described by Strayhorn, whose biographer, David Hajdo wrote in Lush Life, "Everything was criticized. No one came away unscathed. It was very sociopolitical." Sebree was inspired and energized by his life in the midst of a group of extraordinary artists. Once again, he branched out, and began to write plays. In 1949 Sebree wrote My Mother Came Crying Most Pitifully, which in turn spawned two more plays, Mrs Patterson, and The Dry August. Mrs. Patterson, a play about a young southern black girl whose desire is to be rich and white, opened in Detroit and featured Eartha Kitt, who earned her first Tony Award nomination for Mrs. Patterson. In 1954, Mrs. Patterson made its Broadway debut.
Despite his attachment to particular groups and places, Sebree had a nomadic streak, moving frequently and often in a rush. This lifestyle may explain his predilection, in his art, toward small formats and subjects reminiscent of a nomadic existence. In 1955, however, Sebree decided to settle, choosing Washington, D.C., where many of his friends lived, including Dodson who taught at Howard University. He did not foster close ties with gallery owners. In fact, Sebree was distrustful of many gallerists and represented himself, establishing a small group of dedicated collectors. Sebree's gallery was his bedroom, where he spread his paintings out on the bed. Sales of his work were often frenzied affairs. Collector Bunny Sanders told Marshall and Kimbrough, "He had foreign Washington dignitaries' wives in his bedroom picking out artwork. There was always an eclectic crowd of people in his apartment buying art; it was always a great experience when you got the art you wanted."
Sebree, who frequently sought groups of artists, joined a writing group at Howard University, organized by poet May Miller Sullivan. Mindful of the group's request that only original material be presented, author Toni Morrison brought a story about a little black girl who wished she had blue eyes. Morrison recalled that it was Sebree who "hounded" her to write, and that he was the first person who made her think she could be a writer. Morrision told Marshall and Kimbrough, "He saw some special ability that needed to be nurtured and coaxed." In 1993, eight years after Sebree's death, Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature for her book, The Bluest Eye.
Sebree lived the rest of his years in Washington, D.C., where he died from cancer on September 27, 1985. Sometimes described as cantankerous, Sebree is remembered as a lively storyteller and enthusiastic supporter of young artists. Marshall and Kimbrough wrote, "Much like his contemporaries, the artist felt intimately connected to the African American community but refused to be limited to it. His magic was pervasive and lives on in the memories of everyone he touched. But his full place in American art history has yet to be established."