Often remembered for his technical achievement as the co-inventor of the carborundum print, Dox Thrash’s paintings and prints of rural landscapes and urban slum life, as well as his stirring, moody portraits of African Americans, testify to his considerable artistic genius. Drawing inspiration from his Southern boyhood and his experiences in the cultural awakening that took place in Philadelphia’s African American community during the 1930s and 1940s, Thrash created works that found an appreciative contemporary audience at significant exhibitions and have since been incorporated into prestigious collections such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Born in Griffin, Georgia, Thrash lived with his parents and three siblings in a former slave cabin on the outskirts of town. Forced to leave school after the fourth grade to help support his family, he pursued art education through correspondence courses. He left home at the age of fifteen and, by 1911, was living in Chicago. While working as an elevator operator during the day, Thrash enrolled in night classes at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1914. His studies were interrupted in 1917 when he enlisted in the United States Army; he served for just over a year as a member of the famous 92nd Division “Buffalo Soldiers” all-black brigade in France before being wounded. It was during his recuperation that Thrash became a member of a vaudeville act that performed at military hospitals; upon his return to America, Thrash toured on a vaudevillian circuit before resuming his studies at the Art Institute in 1919. For the next three years, Thrash studied full time at the Chicago academy and also undertook private tutoring from William Edouard Scott, a recent Art Institute graduate and an established African American painter in his own right.
After graduating in 1923 and working odd jobs in various cities in the Northeast, Thrash settled in Philadelphia in 1926. There, he worked for Samuel Reading’s print shop, designing logos and posters. When he was not at the print shop, Thrash could be found in the studio space he shared with Samuel Brown, Jr., the leader of Tra Club. Thrash’s prints began to earn public recognition and inclusion in important local exhibitions in the early 1930s. Later that decade—while under the employ of the Work Progress administration’s Graphic Arts Division—Thrash and his colleague Michael Gallagher devised a new intaglio process that allowed for greater tonal variation and softer, more expressive hues. This advancement led to a distinct change in the appearance of Thrash’s own prints. The complex darks and translucent lights of Thrash’s cartographic Southern scenes convey an impoverished country lifestyle, but one strengthened by family, community, and religion. Meanwhile, his scenes of slum life feature faceless workers reminiscent of the heroic proletarians of nineteenth century European Social Realist paintings. In both cases, the resulting images are gripping commentaries on racial realities.
The stylistic shift in the artist’s work met with positive peer and critical response. In 1940, Alonzo Aden included fourteen of Thrash’s prints in the Tanner Art Galleries at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago. Solo exhibitions followed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (1942), Howard University (1942), and the Philadelphia Art Alliance (1944). The Atlanta University Annual featured Thrash’s prints in 1942, as did the Smithsonian Institution with a one-man show in 1948. Thrash was an integral member of the Pyramid Club, founded in 1937 for the “cultural, civic, and social advancement of Negroes in Philadelphia,” and he participated in the organization’s annual art expositions held from 1941-1957. In addition to being widely collected, Thrash’s example and groundbreaking printing technique significantly influenced the work of later African American artists Claude Clark, Raymond Stet, Charles White, and Elizabeth Catlett.