Posted by: tuulenhaiven | January 3, 2015

Pittsburgh People: Mozelle Thompson, Matt Baker, Jackie Ormes, Chuck Connelly (oh, and Andy Warhol I suppose…)

Here’s an unwinding thread I’ve been following down back alleyways and across bridges throughout Pittsburgh lately:

A friend got me to read Pittsburgh author Ed Piskor‘s Hip Hop Family Tree comics. (I’ve talked about this before!) Piskor mentioned on FB that he’d dug the Mozelle Thompson album artwork show at the Most Wanted Fine Art gallery. Who is Mozelle Thompson? I wondered.

I found an article on Geek Pittsburgh about the show, and the man – one of the most prolific record album cover illustrators of all time and one of the very first African American artists to ever put brush to LP cover. Born in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Thompson kept busy throughout the 1950s and up until his death in 1969. He was more-or-less forgotten in his home city until local DJ J. Malls stumbled across an album decked out in Thompson paints.

“…Pittsburgh really hasn’t historically celebrated many African American visual artists,” J. Malls (Jason Molyneaux) told Anthony Letizia (author of Geek Pittsburgh). He set out to help change that, collecting Thompson illustrated albums and patching together a biography of the artist. His efforts culminated in the show at Most Wanted Fine Arts in November, and I managed to slip in to see it on the last day.

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I loved the show! Thompson’s appreciation for fashion and costume design is apparent throughout his album work, and his lines are gorgeous. I want to see if I can track down some of his book illustrations – Pumpkinseeds, written by Steven A. Yezback, would be a lovely find.

When I spoke to curator Jason Molyneaux on the last day of the show he seemed pleased with the overall interest and attention he had stirred up. He seemed unsure of where to go from there, however. Further documentation and preservation is necessary, but that takes time and money, and the grant he’d drummed up had been exhausted.

I’m someone who knows about Mozelle Thompson now, though, thanks to Molyneaux, and I’ll do my little part to spread awareness – keep an eye out in the record and bookstores, and of course tell YOU!

Back to my threads:

Tumbling across Geek Pittsburgh was great, because Letizia writes about all kinds of interesting Pittsburgh-related wonderment. In his article about Mozelle Thompson, he mentioned two other under-celebrated local artists who were working in the mid-20th century – Matt Baker, one of the first African American male comic book artists, and Jackie Ormes, the first female African American comic strip artist.

Thank goodness Letizia wrote articles about both of these people, since the internet is terribly brief when it comes to info about them (here are his riffs on Ormes and Baker). I tracked down books about both (Matt Baker: The Art of Glamour edited by Jim Amash and Eric Nolen-Weathington, and Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist by Nancy Goldstein) and have been enjoying getting to know them.

Matt Baker, who was famous during the golden age of comic books (1940s/’50s) for his gloriously well-drawn ladies, was a quiet, cheerful man who dressed fantastically and worked hard – and was respected across the board, despite being a black man in an industry composed almost entirely of white males.

I found it quite interesting, actually, that he often drew the panels for stories penned by Ruth Roche (whom I intend to research) – a female author, and a black male artist. Quite remarkable at that time…! I’ll be hunting for issues of The Phantom Lady, and Canteen Kate, but I’ll be very lucky if I can identify Baker’s work – although his style is distinctive, he rarely got to sign his work and other artists mimicked his pencils (partially for continuity sake, and partially because he was so good!)

As for Jackie Ormes, she was a tiny little lady who penned several different comic strips during the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s for the big African American newspapers of the day – the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender. Her strips were known for humorously documenting daily African American life, and commenting on the politics of the day with biting insight. Her very well dressed, attractive heroins spoke their minds and met with success, in direct contrast to the way African Americans were depicted in the cartoons of white newspapers.

Next time I spend an afternoon with the microfiche at the Carnegie Library, I’ll be scouring old Pittsburgh Couriers for Torchy Brown in “Dixie to Harlem” or Patty-Jo ’n’ Ginger strips!

Since I’ve had comics on the brain for the last few months, I decided to finally visit Pittsburgh’s ToonSeum yesterday, where I learned about the science behind superheros and got to check out some of the original Superman, X-Men, Justice League, and Avengers artwork. Pretty cool stuff. They should really do a show about Baker and Ormes though!

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After ToonSeum, I trekked across the Andy Warhol Bridge to visit the Andy Warhol Museum. I haven’t felt compelled to do so sooner, for some reason. I recognize why Warhol is important, “Hurray!” for Pittsburgh artists of course, and it’s cool that he gets a whole museum to himself…but until life transpired to get me into that museum for just $1, I couldn’t be bothered to go.

You’re not allowed to take pictures in the museum, no not even of your kid playing adorably with the floating silver balloons in the Pillow Room, so here’s something awesome that I found on the Andy Warhol Bridge:

Andy Warhol Bridge, Jan. 2nd 2015

It was pretty fun, in the end, to explore the 7 floors (he gets SEVEN!) of Warhol’s museum. I saw lots of weird things, and a few really interesting things too. My favorite things I saw weren’t made by Warhol though.

There’s an exhibit about his The 13 Most Wanted Men mural, created for the 1964 World’s Fair, on the 2nd floor of the museum. It’s an interesting piece due mostly to the fact that it was almost immediately censured – it was covered by Fair officials with silver paint only days after it was revealed. The exhibit features some of the smaller Most Wanted Men paintings that Warhol made later that summer, as well as lots of documentation from the surrounding scandal.

A local organization called 1hood, partnering with Westinghouse High School, used the exhibit as a catalyst for generating conversation about the representation of young black men in media (something 1hood is all about improving), and the visiting artists created two new “Wanted Men” murals. These were on display as part of the exhibit (there is a reception going on tonight – I wish the weather wasn’t so hideous today, or I would go!) These were powerful and important pieces. I’m pleased to discover 1hood – they seem to be getting up to the best sort of mischief.

The other thing I loved at the Warhol was a tiny retrospective of Chuck Connelly‘s work called My America. It tried to capture 40 years of his work in a few small rooms, and left me wishing he could get 7 floors of a museum. Another Pittsburgh artist, his work mesmerized me. I wanted to get swallowed by this one (St. George and the Dragon)…

…which in reality is huge and viciously bright, with paint that sticks off the canvas a good few inches. Then there was this one:

And this one:

(…which is terrifying…)

I don’t know much about this Pittsburgh-born artist, but I intend to find out (there’s a documentary about him, apparently – I’ll be investigating that tonight!)

Phew. That’s the thread, for now. But it’s still unwinding and like a kitten I will follow it around the corner and under the stove.

For now, since we’re on the topic of Pittsburgh artists (heh), here’s my scribble, drawn yesterday:

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Responses

  1. To bring things full circle Matt Baker was born in Homestead and so was I. 🙂

    • Rad!


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