Sallee, Charles Louis Jr. 1911–
Charles Louis Sallee, Jr. 1911–
Charles Louis Sallee Jr. is an accomplished artist and designer whose artwork is largely unknown among his peers but whose name surfaces in the majority of the reviews of African-American art during the years 1935 to 1945. Harlem Renaissance critic Alain Locke praised Sallee’s prints and portraits. Sallee’s portraits are “pencil sketches, water color and oils, primarily of women, and a few commissioned works of men,” wrote his sister June Sallee Antoine in a brief biography of him. “Throughout his productive life into the late 1990s, “she wrote,” Sallee produced drawings of landscapes, nudes, religious paintings, animals and design work for public and private dwellings. His portraits and other works are in public and private collections and are included in exhibits locally and throughout the country.” According to The Plain Dealer, “As a realistic painter and printmaker, Sallee has created images that now stand as important documents of African-American life. Working in a style typical of many American artists of the 1930s and early ’40s, he captured a time when the concerns of art were focused on common, day-to-day experiences.”
Charles Louis Sallee, Jr. was born in Oberlin, Ohio, in 1911, according to his sister, June Sallee Antoine. He was born to Charles Louis Sallee, Sr. and Coranell (Collier) Sallee. His family moved to the Sandusky area, where Charles Jr. was raised. His father was a successful construction contractor. As a child under his father’s tutelage Sallee learned to make floor plans but his real interest was in art. “I wanted to be an artist from the time I was 4 years old” he told The Plain Dealer. His early drawings were of bathers at the beach. In grade school and high school he drew cartoons, posters, and designed scenery. While attending Sandusky High School he learned about art, became the school artist, and drew portraits of every one of his high school teachers. He came away from high school with an admiration for Renaissance painters.
In the 1930s Sallee took art classes at Karamu House, the Playhouse Settlement in Cleveland created by Rowena and Russell Jelliffe in 1915. During the 1930s Karamu House nurtured gifted emerging black artists and introduced them to Cleveland’s art resources at a time when discrimination was high in the United
At a Glance…
Born Charles Louis Sallee Jr. in 1911 in Oberlin, OH; son of Charles Louis Sallee, Sr. and Coranell (Collier) Sallee. Education: Attended Karamu House (then known as the Playhouse Settlement) in Cleveland; attended lithography and etching classes at Huntington Polytechnic Institute, 1932–1933; studied with specific artists at Cleveland School of Art (now Cleveland institute of Art), 1934–1938; Case Western Reserve University, earned a BS, art education, 1939. Military Service: U.S. Army of Corps Engineers, WWII.
Career: Taught at Karamu House; Kennard Junior High School, Cleveland; Outhwaite Elementary School. Worked on Works Progress Administration projects, 1935–41, creating prints, then painting murals; worked on National Youth Administration projects, 1935–41; exhibited artwork in May Shows at Cleveland Museum of Art, 1935–1946, and in collective shows at Howard University, 1937, and Library of Congress in Washington, DC, 1940, the Tanner Art Galleries of Chicago, 1940, the Associated American Artists Galleries of New York, 1942, and Atlanta University, 1942; first personal show organized by North Canton Library, Canton, OH, 1940; worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a camouflage designer and cartographer; worked for interior design outfits in the Cleveland area.
Memberships: American Institute of Interior Design; National Society of Interior Design.
Address: c/o Mrs. June Antoine, 2699 Endicott Road, Shaker Heights, OH, 44120.
States. Sallee contributed drawings and etchings that are still kept and sometimes shown to the public at Karamu House. In the 1930s, through Karamu House, Sallee went to the Cleveland School of Art, now known as the Cleveland Institute of Art, and studied painting and portrait painting with Carl Gaertner, Paul Travis and Rolf Stoll. He also took courses in industrial and surface design with Cleveland Institute of Art’s Viktor Schreckengost and Kenneth Bates. Sallee helped pay for expenses by creating wall signs for beauty shops and bars, and restaurant menus. He was the first African American to be admitted to the Cleveland School of Art in 1934 and the first one to graduate from there in 1938. He finished at the head of his class.
As he graduated, he won an Agnes Gund Scholarship for his portrait of a Karamu House dancer titled, Bertha. The scholarship enabled him to study for a fifth year. He also studied lithography and etching at the Huntington Polytechnic Institute, during 1932 and 1933.
Sallee was chosen to work on Works Progress Administration projects from 1935 to 1941, initially doing prints which are being housed in the Cleveland Public Library WPA collection, then painting murals. One mural he painted was for the Portland Outhwaite Homes—this country’s first federal housing project. This mural is a neoclassical portrayal of the expectations and ambitions of black families moving to Cleveland. In his essay entitled “Cleveland Karamu Artists: 1930 to 1945” in the symposium Cleveland as a Center of Regional American Art, Alfred Bright wrote of Sallee’s prints, “Among these works are true examples of Sallee’s diversity and skill. The Postsetters (lithograph 1938) is a fine example of American social realism. Juke Box Jive (etching and aquatint 1939) is a beautiful example of Sallee’s drawing ability and masterful sense of design.” Sallee did WPA-commissioned work for Sunny Acres Hospital, the Cleveland Municipal Airport, and the Fort Hays Homes in Columbus, Ohio. While working in the WPA he also created etchings depicting The Life of the Common Man. They portray Cleveland’s laborers doing their jobs.
Sallee furthered his studies in art and educated students about art. In 1939 he received his B.S. in art education from Case Western Reserve University. Later he taught art at Kennard Junior High School in Cleveland and Outhwaite Elementary School. Also, he taught young people at Karamu House under the National Youth Administration program in which he also was selected to work between 1935 and 1941. During the Second World War he worked in cartography and camouflage in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He did service in England. On Liberation Day he was in France, and he wound up in the South Pacific.
Sallee’s career as an artist gained momentum during the 1930s and 1940s. From 1935 to 1946 Sallee presented works such as Swingtime, Bedtime, Camp Site, England, and Chalk Mine, England in the May Shows at The Cleveland Museum of Art. His artwork garnered prizes for lithography and etching in 1938 and 1940. In 1946 he was awarded an honorable mention for one of his sketches. In 1937 he exhibited work in group shows at Howard University, then at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. in 1940. He also showed his artwork at the Tanner Art Galleries of Chicago in 1940. In 1942, along with other Karamu artists including Hughie Lee-Smith, Sallee exhibited his artwork at an Associated American Artists exhibition in New York co-hosted by Eleanor Roosevelt, where his art was singled out. This exhibition later traveled to Temple University in Philadelphia. Sallee also showed work at Atlanta University in 1942. His first personal show was organized by the North Canton Library in Canton, Ohio, two years earlier. Sunny Acres Hospital in Cleveland and the U.S. National Museum in Washington have his art in their collections.
Sallee appears to have done his best artwork during the 1940s. At an exhibition of Sallee’s work in 2001, The Plain Dealer observed, “The strongest of the works on view are from the 1940s, presumably done during or just after Sallee’s involvement with the WPA. These pieces, both prints and paintings, demonstrate that his talent goes beyond simply capturing a person’s likeness.”
One academic believed that Sallee’s drawings showed his tendency towards design and were better than his paintings. In his essay entitled “On Fertile Ground: The African American Experience of Artists Associated With Cleveland’s Karamu House” in the book Yet Still We Rise: African American Art in Cleveland 1920–1970, art professor Alfred Bright wrote “Portraiture was his main interest…. The haunting ‘oriental’ sparse-ness is characteristic of Sallee’s assured design instincts. He was a superior draftsman rather than a painter. His drawings have been likened to those of John Singer Sargeant and the post-impressionists …”
Sallee painted a lot after the war, but he began getting design commissions and eventually became one of Cleveland’s best interior designers. He told The Plain Dealer that at one time “I desperately wanted to do illustration for Ladies Home Journal and other magazines…. Most of all I wanted to do Time magazine covers, because I always loved doing portraits.” At the time he had no idea he would put painting on the back burner and make a successful career out of interior design. He also told The Plain Dealer how he got started in interior design. “My first big job was to convert a Jewish restaurant on E. 105th St. into a nightclub. It became the biggest club in town—The Tiajuana. I started by ripping out all the partitions and got an engineer to put up support posts. We put in a big revolving stage and bar stations in the center of the space. I also painted the mural of beautiful girls, and did a South Sea Island décor, which I remembered firsthand from the Philippines. The Tiajuana opened with Nat King Cole and brought in all the stars.”
A member of the American Institute of Interior Designers and a founding member of the National Society of Interior Design, Sallee has designed churches, suburban homes, Stadium clubrooms, corporate offices, nightclubs, ballrooms, hotels, and restaurants. His most famous interior designs included the ballroom at the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel and the clubhouse for the Cleveland Indians’ stadium. His clients have included Cleveland Trust, Standard Oil, and the Stouffer Hotel. He is now retired as an interior designer. But he continued painting portraits. Albert Bright has described Sallee in his “Cleveland Karamu Artists” essay as “One of the last living masters of American postim-pressionism and a true example of the genius of Karamu.”
Bertha, etching/aquatint, Cleveland Public Library, Fine Arts and Special Collections Department.
Swingtime, etching and intaglio, exhibited at May Shows, Cleveland Museum of Art, 1938.
Still Life etching and intaglio, exhibited at May Shows, Cleveland Museum of Art, 1938.
Bedtime, etching and intaglio, exhibited at May Shows, Cleveland Museum of Art, 1940.
Study for Bathtime, conte on paper, R. Kumasi Hampton, SOHI ART, 1941.
C.O. ’s Tent, England drawing, exhibited at May Shows, Cleveland Museum of Art, 1946.
Camp Site, England, drawing, exhibited at May Shows, Cleveland Museum of Art, 1946.
Chalk Mine, England, drawing, exhibited at May Shows, Cleveland Museum of Art, 1946.
Three Girls Eating, oil, 1975.
Coco Sallee, oil, 1987.
Cederholm, Theresa Dickason, editor, Afro-American Artists: A Bio-Bibliography, Trustees of Boston Public Library, 1973, pp. 245–246.
Cleveland Artists Foundation, Cleveland as a Center of Regional American Art, 1993, pp. ii, 72, 73, 80–83.
Cleveland Artists Foundation, Yet Still We Rise: African American Art in Cleveland 1920-1970, 1996, pp. 2, 23–25, 27, 32.
Robinson, William H., and Steinberg, David, Transformations in Cleveland Art, 1796–1946: Community and Diversity in Early Modern America, The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1996, p. 236.
The Plain Dealer, August 2, 1992, p. 3-H; November 16, 2001, pp. 30EA-31EA.
Case Western Reserve University Library Special Collections, http://www.cwru.edu/UL/SpecColl/WPA/wpaex.html
The New York Public Library, http://ca80.lehman.cuny.edu/gallery/web/AG/wpa/prints.htm
The Saint Louis Art Museum, http://www.slam.org/images/spex/BLKHIST/sallee.html
Additional information for this profile was obtained through a brief biographical sheet from Mrs. June Sallee Antoine, Charles Sallee Jr.’s sister, and essays by Alfred L. Bright, professor of art, Youngstown State University, Youngstown, Ohio.
—Alison Carb Sussman
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