Thrash, Dox 1893–1965
Dox Thrash 1893–1965
A well-known artist during the 1940s and 1950s, Dox Thrash is best remembered as a printmaker who developed one of the most innovative printing techniques of the twentieth century—the use of carborundum to etch copper plates instead of tools or other etching techniques.
Thrash wanted to be an artist from the time he was a young boy. The second of four children born to Gus and Ophelia Thrash, Dox Thrash was born in a former slave cabin in Griffen, Georgia, a rural area between Macon and Atlanta, on March 22, 1893. He left school after having finished only the fourth grade and then proceeded to nurture his artistic talent by enrolling in art correspondence courses. At the age of fifteen, Thrash, like many young men and women living in the South during that era who sought wider job opportunities, performed with traveling circuses and vaudeville shows.
In 1911, at the age of 17, Thrash moved to Chicago. After several years working at odd jobs, including the position of an elevator operator and railroad porter, Thrash enrolled for classes at the Art Institute of Chicago and also received private tutoring from William Scott. However, World War I interrupted his art studies, and in 1917 Thrash entered the Army. He served as a private in the 365th Infantry Regiment, 183rd Brigade, 92nd Division, an all black unit that later came to be known as the Buffalo Soldiers. Thrash, who served in the Army for fourteen months, was gassed and wounded on the final day of armed conflict, November 11, 1918, while serving in France. He also suffered from “shell shock.” Upon his return to Chicago, he resumed performing in vaudeville acts and, on limited basis, continued his art education, taking evening classes at the Art Institute. By 1920, aided by his disability pension, Thrash was able to return to full time studies at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he remained until 1923.
After leaving Chicago in 1923, Thrash lived an itinerant life, moving from place to place, including Boston, Connecticut, and New York. It is interesting to note that Thrash lived in New York during the hey-day of the Harlem Renaissance. In his History of My Life, edited by Ruth Fine, Thrash described his activities during those years as “hobo-ing” and painting people of America, especially the ‘Negro.’” In 1926, Thrash settled in Philadelphia, where he studied with Earl Horror at the Graphic Sketch Club. Thrash made his debut as an artist in 1931 at the Catherine Street YWCA in Philadelphia, which featured an exhibition of his oil and watercolor paintings, but it was not until 1933, at the same branch of the YWCA, that he had his first exhibition of prints.
In 1937, at the height of the Depression, Thrash joined the government-sponsored Federal Arts Project as a seasoned printmaker, and worked for Philadelphia’s Fine Print Workshop division. During his first year at the Workshop, Thrash discovered that carborundum, a granular substance made of silicon crystals and carbon, typically used to resurface or remove images from lithographic stones, was an excellent medium for preparing the surfaces of copper printing plates. Along with fellow artists Michael Gallagher and Hubert Mesibov, Thrash experimented with carborundum and developed
Born on March 22, 1892, in Griffen, GA. Education: Art Institute of Chicago. Military Service: United States Army (Buffalo Soldier), 1917-18.
Career: FAP, printmaker, 1934-42; inventor or carborundum printmaking process, 1937; performer; house painter; railroad porter, elevator operator.
Awards: Graphic Sketch Club Exhibition honorable mention, Philadelphia, 1933.
a new technique for preparing copper plates for printmaking. Typically, images are created via a copper plate by roughening the surface with various tools or acids, leaving the rest of the plate smooth. Ink is then applied to the entire surface and then wiped off, leaving the roughened areas filled with ink and the smooth areas without ink. The plate is applied, with pressure, to paper and the ink is thereby transferred onto paper. For a carborundum print, the carborundum is mixed with a glue-like binding agent and applied to the copper surface and allowed to dry. The areas covered with carborundum retain ink just as an etched area would retain ink. The carborundum can also be removed from the surface by a variety of scratching tools and burnishers, which impart an unusually broad spectrum of textures, creating a velvet-like richness. Although this technique became a popular method among many printmakers at the Fine Print Workshop, it is Dox Thrash’s name that is most closely linked to the carborundum print. Origninally, Thrash wanted to name this new technique the “Opheliagraph” for his mother, who died in 1936.
Although Thrash focused primarily on portraits early in his career, after he found his niche in printmaking, he expanded his imagery to include works depicting contemporary issues, particularly images reflecting the social evolution of African Americans during the first half of the twentieth century. Thrash’s work became well known during 1940s and 1950s and was exhibited in several galleries from coast to coast. In 2002 the Philadelphia Museum of Art presented a retrospective of his work, Dox Thrash: An African American Master Printmaker Rediscovered, a major exhibition which featured over one hundred drawings, watercolors, and prints. The items chosen to be exhibited demonstrated Thrash’s mastery with many different media as well as the broad range of his subject matter.
For the first time the public was able to appreciate Thrash’s remarkable ability to treat with equal mastery such disparate subjects as a female nude and the struggle for social justice. Thrash, who had survived a war, lived the hobo life, witnessed the Depression, and lived in New York during the Harlem Renaissance, created compelling images of the rural South, scenes of the hard life in the urban North, and poignant depictions of people from various communities.
During World War II, Thrash created a series of prints with a patriotic theme, particularly images depicting the defense effort such as workers in factories. By the end of 1941, many FAP artists sought Civil Defense related jobs. Although he had become a well-known artist by the 1940s, when Thrash applied for a job at the Philadelphia Navy Yard as an insignia painter, he was turned down. In a letter that Thrash wrote to the Fair Employment Practice Committee he asserted, “I was informed that this job was not available for a member of my race.” He later found work with the Sun Ship Company in Chester, Pennsylvania, where he worked until 1945. Afterward, Thrash gained employment with the Philadelphia Housing Authority as a house painter.
For the following two decades, Thrash remained a prominent artist in Philadelphia, exhibiting his work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Print Club of Philadelphia, now called the Print Center, and the Pyramid Club, the first African-American cultural and social club in Philadelphia. Dox Thrash died in 1965 and is buried in Beverly, New Jersey, at the United States National Cemetery.
Exhibiton catalogue, Black Printmaker and the W.P.A., New York, Lehman College Art Gallery, 1989.
Article by Thrash, in History of My Life, edited by Ruth Fine Lehrer, in Philadelphia, Three Centuries of American Art, Philadelphia.
—Christine Miner Minderovic
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