Profile: Dox Thrash (1893-1965)

Dox Thrash was an African-American artist who was famed as a skilled draftsman, printmaker, and painter of African American life and as the co-inventor of the Carborundum printmaking process. The artist spent much of his career living and working in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Early life

Dox Thrash was born on March 22, 1893 in Griffin, Georgia. He was the second of four children in his family. Thrash left home at the age of fifteen in search of work up north. He was part of the Great Migration (African American) looking for industrial work in the North.

The first job that Thrash got was working with a circus and a Vaudeville act. In 1911, at the age of 18, he moved to Chicago, Illinois. He got a job as an elevator operator during the day, and used this source of income to attend school. In 1914 he attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

In 1917, the United States declared war on Germany and entered World War I. In September 1917, at the age of twenty-four, Thrash enlisted in the army. He was placed in the 365th Infantry Regiment, 183rd Brigade, 92nd Division, also known as the Buffalo Soldiers. During combat, Thrash suffered shell shock and a gas attack, but was not permanently injured.

Career as an artist

Front cover of Dox Thrash: An African American Master Printmaker Rediscovered, by John Ittmann.

After having served in the war, Thrash qualified as a war veteran and enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago with the support of federal funding. After finishing his education, he traveled intermittently from Georgia to Chicago, Boston, New York, and finally Philadelphia, working odd jobs – experiences that provided him with subject matter to later paint. Settling in Philadelphia by 1925, he took a job working as a janitor. In his free time, he continued his art career and used his talent to create emblems, like for the North Philadelphia Businessmen’s Association, and posters in exhibitions and festivals, including the 2nd Annual National Negro Music Festival and the Tra Club of Philadelphia. This gained him local recognition and opened doors for new artistic endeavors. By 1929, Thrash found himself attending nightly classes within these clubs, namely with Earl Horter of the Graphic Sketch Club, now known as the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial.

In 1937 Thrash joined the government-sponsored Works Progress Administration (WPA)’s Federal Art Project. Through the WPA, Thrash began working at the Fine Print Workshop of Philadelphia.At the Fine Print Workshop of Philadelphia, Thrash, along with Michael J. Gallagher and Hubert Mesibov, began experimenting and co-inventing the process of carborundum mezzotint, a printmaking technique. Carborundum printmaking uses a carbon-based abrasive to burnish copper plates creating an image that can produce a print in tones ranging from pale gray to deep black. The method is similar to the more difficult and complicated mezzotint process developed in the 17th century. He used this as his primary medium for much of his career and created his greatest works with it. One of his first pieces employing this nascent technique was his anonymous self-portrait entitled Mr. X.

With this new technique, the three gained increasing notoriety as they published more and more graphics within newspapers and featured more and more pieces within exhibitions. Their works often featured subtle commentaries about social and economic exploitation regarding the contemporary politics – of the Great Depression and the Second World War. By 1940, Thrash, Gallagher, and Mesibov all began to gain attention in local circles for their carborundum prints, although the role that each artist played in the development of the process was left unclear.

Thrash spent the later years of his life mentoring young African American artists. He died on April 19, 1965 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 2001 he was posthumously honored almost 40 years later with a major retrospective, titled Dox Thrash: An African-American Master Printmaker Rediscovered, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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