Art therapy is a relatively new discipline, and one that opened a critical door for Carroll Sockwell. He benefited from the program conducted by George Washington University in Washington, DC, his birthplace. His obituary in the Washington Post started with the following statement: Washington artist Carroll Sockwell, 49, died Thursday after a fall from Rock Creek Bridge, not far from Foggy Bottom where he grew up. It was the end of a brilliant but sporadic and troubled career complicated by alcohol.” He had committed suicide.

Sockwell grew up the youngest son in a military family household. He attended public school in the District of Columbia, and while still a pupil he spent time in St. Elizabeth’s, a psychiatric hospital where his mother had also been committed for schizophrenia. There he met Elinor Ulman, an art therapist who taught at the Corcoran School of Art. Encouraged by her, he decided to pursue a career in art, and, at seventeen, he moved to New York City for a period of four years. He encountered painters who exemplified Abstract Expressionism, including Willem de Kooning. He later said: “I was almost the only black. It was hard to be accepted.”

Sockwell returned to Washington in 1963, just as the city was emerging as an art center. He frequented The Phillips Collection where he saw examples by Paul Klee, Arthur B. Dove, and Georges Braque. At the young age of 20, he was commissioned to paint a 40-foot-long mural at the District of Columbia General Hospital. He worked as a curator at the Barnett-Aden Gallery, co-founded by James Herring and noted as a showcase for African American art in an intimate setting alongside work by white artists. During the time of its existence—though not necessarily while Sockwell was associated with it—the gallery exhibited work by David Driskell, Alma Thomas, and Merton Simpson. In addition, Sockwell was familiar with the Washington Color School, represented by such painters as Sam Gilliam and Morris Louis; the former later organized an exhibition of Sockwell’s works.

Like them, Sockwell was an abstractionist, who combined gestural strokes and geometry. He often worked in charcoal or pastel rather than the traditional medium of oil paint. He labored to carve out his own identity, maintaining that he was influenced by music and his own emotions: “I am interested in composition, line, the intellectual side of art. I’m not really interested in the prettiness but rather the strength of art. I want my art to be my own personal statement.” When asked what he had been thinking about in the creation of his abstractions, he responded, “Abstract art… had nothing to do with what the artist was thinking… abstract art is a mirror. You see your own emotions, because what is coming out of that canvas is coming out of you.” The mid-1970s were an extremely prolific time for the artist, as he often struggled to make major sales despite having keen interest from galleries and fellow artists. In 1971, he was featured in a group show at the Whitney, titled “Contemporary Black Artists in America.” Fifteen of the 75 exhibiting artists, including Sockwell and Gilliam, withdrew from the exhibition in protest to its curation by a group of white men. Further artists such as Felrath Hines, Norman Lewis, and James Denmark refused to be included in the first place. In 1974 the Corcoran Gallery of Art mounted a solo exhibition of his work; its director at the time, Walter Hopps, was effusive about Sockwell’s work.  At the time of Sockwell’s death, his work was being shown at the Washington Project for the Arts and included a large, five-panel charcoal drawing. It is atypical as it has a potent title, The Wrecking of the Berlin Wall, but despite references to recent history, the work is totally abstract. During the last six months of his life, Sockwell was prolific and appeared to manage working on his art while resting and recharging. However, a long-standing deep criticism of himself and a dependency on alcohol were taking their toll on his mental health and his relationships–both personal and professional–resulting in what may have been a psychotic episode, ultimately cutting his own life short.