Dox Thrash, American (1892 - 1965)

American printmaker and painter

Born:   Griffin, Georgia. 22 March 1892

Education: Studied art through correspondence school until 1909; School of the Art Institute of Chicago. 1 914-17; Graphic Sketch Club, Philadelphia 1918- 23.    

Military Service: American Expeditionary Force, 1917-18.  

Career:     Printmaker, Pennsylvania Federal Arts Project, 1934-1942, Co-inventor of carborundum print process. Worked as a railroad porter, elevator operator, house painter, steward, dancer, and advertising designer.

Awards: Graphic Sketch Club Exhibition honorable mention. Philadelphia, 1933,

Died: 1965.

Individual Exhibitions:
1942    Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1942
            Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

1944    Philadelphia Art Alliance

Group Exhibitions:
1939    Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland

1940   New York World's Fair
           American Negro Exhibition, Chicago
           TannerArt Gallery, Chicago

1941   South Side Community Art Center, Chicago
1942   Atlanta University, Georgia
1946    Pyramid Club, Philadelphia
1948   Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
1970   James A. Porter Gallery
1971   Newark Museum, New Jersey


History Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; National Archives, Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Philadelphia Public Library; Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

By THRASH: Article: "History of My Life" edited by Ruth Fine
Lehrer, in Philadelphia, Three Centuries of American Art, Philadelphia, 1976.

On THRASH: Books-B1ack Printmaker and the W.P.A., exhibition catalog, New York, Lehman College Art Gallery, 1989; Alone in a Crowds Prints of the 1930s and 1940s by African American Artists from the Collection of Rebe and Dove Williams, exhibition catalog, by Rebe and Dave Williams, New York, 1994. Articles- "Originator Describes New Copper Etching Process at Howard University," in Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 31 January 1942; "Carborundum Tint, a New Printmakers Process" by Richard Hood, in Magazine of Art, November 1938, p. 643; "Bridging Identities:   Dox Thrash as African American and Artist" by David R. Brigham, Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Studies in American Art, 1990.

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         Dox Thrash, printmaker and painter, is chiefly remembered for his invention (along with Michael Gallagher and Ilubert Mesibov) of the carborundum print, while he worked for the Philadelphia graphics division of the Works Progress Administration's Federal Arts Project between 1934 and 1942. Thrash resurfaced lithographic stones with carborundum, a coarse, granular industrial product made of carbon and silicon crystals, to produce images with soft, expressive hues and great tonal variation. His carbographs, or Opheliagraphs (named after his mother), depict a wide range of subject matter, including urban and rural landscapes, industrial laborers, portraits, Philadelphia street and slum life, and other genre scenes.

            Thrash first studied art in 1900 through correspondence courses in rural Georgia. He left the South in 1909 for Illinois, where he took part-time art classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and received private tutoring from William Scott. After Thrash was wounded in action while serving with the American Expeditionary Force in France (1917-Is), his disability pension allowed him to resume courses at the Art Institute until 1923. He then lived an itinerant life in Boston, Connecticut, and New York, "hoboing . . and painting people of America, especially the 'Negro' according to his autobiography. Settling in Philadelphia, Thrash studied privately with Earl Honor of the Graphic Sketch Club and painted signs for a living in the early 1930s.

            Among Thrash's earliest known work is a series of African American portraits and ideal heads, posed in full-front, three-quarters, and profile views and executed in carborundum print, etching, aquatint lithography, watercolor, ink wash, pastel, charcoal, and graphite. Most have a moody, introspective quality, such as Abraham (n.d.), My Neighbor (1937), and Marylou (c. 1940), all carborundum prints that depict sculptural black faces emerging from shadows and staring into the distance, Despite their titles, the artist conceived of them less as individual portraits and more as types, given their mask-like qualities and subtle range of tonal variation. Other works, such as the etching Silas (before 1943) and the graphite drawing Man with Harmonica (n.d.) demonstrate Thrash's skill in employing broad, gestural lines in carefully modeled facial structures.

            Occasionally Thrash employed a deeper message in his portraits, as in at least four works that suggest a connection between reading and success. (With his fourth-grade education, the artist's own literacy was limited.) In the carbograph Life (c. 1940), a pig- tailed girl quietly scans a magazine, while in the etching Morning Paper (before 1943), a bespectacled, middle-aged man in suit, hat, and how tie peruses a news paper. Here Thrash followed such artists as Cassatt, Homer, Chase, Eakins, and Bellows in the American artistic tradition often presenting people reading.

            Complex darks illuminated by translucent lights are evident in Thrash's carbographic rural landscapes, such as Georgia Cotton Crop(c 1938), Cabin Day sand Deserted Cabin (both c. 1939), and Boats at Night (1940). rn the manner ofthe regionalists, such as Thomas Hart Benton, these refer to the artist's birthplace and the lives of black sharecroppers in Georgia Cotton Crop, a family of six pause forlornly in front of a shadowed, ramshackle shotgun house among scattered piles of picked cotton under darkening skies.

         Thrash also depicted the horrors of racial persecution in the South, as In Untitled (c.1938-40) in which huddled survivors mourn a lynching victim carried by two men.   Similar smoky atmospheres dominate Thrash's urban landscapes, as In the lithograph Freight Yard (n-d-), where two nameless, faceless workers stand near a train pulling out of the yard in the shadow of Philadelphia's city hall and skyscrapers. In contrast, an anonymous jackhammer laborer, given monumental scale and seen from below in the carbograph Defense Worker (before 1943), shows Thrash's adaptation of a theme treated by social realists, that of the heroic proletarian.

            Among those influenced by Thrash's printmaking techniques and subject matter were his colleagues Claude Clark, Raymond Steth, and Samuel Brown, as well as Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett, and Robert Blackburn.

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