Behind the curtain: Dorchester exhibit highlights Black graphic arts greats omitted from history

By Debra R. Messick, Special to Dorchester Banner
Posted 2/22/23

For anyone unfamiliar with the field of graphic arts, spend an hour with Pierre Bowens and come away an impassioned fan.

You don't have to visit a museum to view what are essentially everyday …

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Behind the curtain: Dorchester exhibit highlights Black graphic arts greats omitted from history


For anyone unfamiliar with the field of graphic arts, spend an hour with Pierre Bowens and come away an impassioned fan.

You don't have to visit a museum to view what are essentially everyday masterpieces; they're everywhere – posters, album covers, ads, logos, book illustrations, even the designs behind objects known and loved, like childhood favorite, the View-Master.

In addition to offering an outlet for his artistic talents, Bowens was drawn to the field's potential for providing steady employment and regular paychecks.

While dedicated to his craft, Bowens was painfully aware just how few design artists of color, like himself, seemed to be represented professionally at conferences and meetings.

To understand this sense of isolation, Bowens began a personal quest to collect historic graphic design artifacts. What he found was reassuring, yet disturbing.

Numerous African Americans had been actively engaged in design arts, yet there was no mention of them in graphic design textbooks, what Bowens calls 'the historic canon," leaving no way for future artists to understand that they're truly not alone.

To help shed light on these unsung contributions, Bowens, now a professor of graphic design at George Mason University, helped create the online course, “Black Design in America: African Americans and the African Diaspora in Graphic Design.”

He also organized the topic's traveling exhibition, “The Sin of Omission,” featured through Feb. 25 at Dorchester Center for the Arts.

Leading a walk-through tour of the exhibit from 4 to 5 p.m. on Second Saturday (Feb. 11), Bowens wore a purple shirt emblazoned with black script reading “Black History is American History,” accompanying the image of Charles Dawson. One of Chicago's leading Black designers during the 1920s and ’30s, Dawson attended the Tuskegee Institute before becoming the first Black student admitted to New York's Art Students League. During 1912, he worked as a pullman to earn money for admission to the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago.

In World War I, Dawson was a lieutenant in the segregated 36th regiment, the Buffalo Soldiers. Returning to Chicago, he created advertising for Valmor and Overton Cosmetics companies designed for Black consumers. But he also offered a loftier vision in his 1934 Chicago World's Fair poster, “O Sing a Mighty Song,” promoting the event's pageant of Black music.

Another Chicago notable in the exhibit is Thomas Miller, who worked with leading agency Morton Goldshall Associates for 35 years, working on Motorola rebranding, featuring the 'batwing' image, the Peace Corps logo, Betty Crocker Chicken Helper and - as chief designer - the 1970s 7Up soft drink packaging redesign.

Miller once turned down a job requiring him to participate in the common practice known as “working behind the curtain,” meant to appease white clients who wouldn’t accept a project with a Black designer, requiring them to be virtually invisible. Refusing to acquiesce and risking the loss of work was a luxury most Black designers just couldn't afford.

In 1961, industrial designer Charles Harrison's formidable skills led Sears and Roebuck to abandon the company's longstanding unwritten policy prohibiting the hiring of Blacks. During his 32-year career, Harrison became Sears' first Black executive, leading a design team responsible for 750 items, including the internationally successful redesign of the Model F View Master for use by children.

The exhibit includes two Harlem Renaissance designers, Louise E. Jefferson and Aaron Douglas. Both were founding members of the Harlem Artists Guild and illustrated for The NAACP magazine The Crisis and the scholarly publication “Opportunity: The Journal of Negro Life.”

In 1936 Jefferson illustrated a songbook, “We Sing America,” banned and burned by the governor of Georgia, due to its images of Black and white children playing together. Artistic director of Friendship Press, upon retiring she traveled to Africa, using her drawings and photographs to write “The Decorative Arts of Africa.”

In the 1930s, Douglas created a mural for Fisk University's library and a series of murals, “Aspects of Negro Life,” for the Shomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. In 1936, he established Fisk's Art Department, serving as its chairman until his 1966 retirement.

Of special local interest is Seldon Dix Jr., a Bridgeville, Delaware, native whose prolific career took him to ABC as assistant art director of the Promotion and Time Magazine as associate graphic director of the Promotion Art Department.

Among Dix's creations on display are Ronald Reagan's 1981 inauguration program and a Ray Charles album cover, designed with a tactile pictorial representation of Charles. Dix retired to Salisbury, where his wife and daughter still live.

Though graphic art is often thought of in a modern context, the exhibit features a display dedicated to “The Black Slave Artisan,” which notes how northern colonial Black slaves worked in print shops setting type and carving engravings. Apprenticeship systems also contributed to such skills, notably in the case of publisher Thomas Fleet Sr. of Boston, who included woodblock cut prints reportedly crafted by his slave, Peter Fleet, in his 1769 book “The Prodigal Daughter.”

Among the more familiar images found in the exhibit are Ebony Magazine ads by Herb Temple, senior art director and designer Emmit McBain of the Vince Cullers Group, who collaborated on Afro Sheen's landmark Wantu Wazuri piece, captioned with the words: "In Swahili or English, the meaning is the same … beautiful people."

For more information, call DCA at 410-228-7782, visit or their Facebook page.

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