Exquisitely rendered in Charles White’s signature style, Brother John Sellers is a majestic demonstration of the artist’s skills and techniques as a draftsman. Given White’s appreciation of black culture, and especially its music, his powerful drawings of African-American figures made the perfect album covers for jazz records. In 1954, the Vanguard record label released an album entitled Brother John Sellers Sings Blues and Folk Songs and chose White to draw the cover art. The powerful image produced by White depicts a highly emotive African American man as he sings. The figure’s face is filled with emotion and subtle power, and his clothes fall loosely on his body in an almost Renaissance style. The drawing is beautiful in its own right, but it also manages to speak directly with the music of the records themselves. Buyers of this record could easily imagine the tunes of Brother John Sellers coming out of the figure’s mouth. The album covers also brought the artwork of Charles White directly into people’s homes, as opposed to seeing these drawings in a museum or gallery setting. Without a barrier of glazing in between them, viewers were able to appreciate and study the intricate nature of these drawings.
Born on the South Side of Chicago in 1918, Charles White would develop a highly successful career as a master draftsman, printmaker and painter. Though lesser known to the public during his lifetime, recent critical acclaim came in the form of a recent major retrospective of the artist’s work organized by the Art Institute of Chicago, which later traveled to the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Throughout his career, Charles White was committed to creating powerful images of African Americans, and some of his most iconic works depict figures such as Langston Hughes, Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman among many others. The artist explained of his artistic inspiration: “My work takes shape around images and ideas that are centered within the vortex of a black life experience, a nitty-gritty ghetto experience resulting in contradictory emotions: anguish, hope, love, despair, happiness, faith, lack of faith, dreams” (C. White, quoted in Three Graphic Artists: Charles White, David Hammons, Timothy Washington, Los Angeles, 1972, p. 5).
In addition to his role as a prominent artist, Charles White was also hugely influential as an educator and mentored a whole generation of artists. During his lifetime, White held a number of faculty positions, but it was at the Otis Art Institute that he made his mark as an educator. David Hammons, who was a pupil of White at Otis, recalled the major impact he had on him, and many of his contemporaries: “I never knew there were “black” painters, or artists, or anything until I found out about him…,” David Hammons has stated. “There was no way I could have got information from my art history classes…. He’s the only artist that I really related to because he’s black and I am black, plus physically seeing him and knowing him. Like, he’s the first and only artist that I’ve ever really met who had any real stature. And just being in the same room with someone like that you’d have to be directly influenced” (D. Hammons, quoted in E. Adler, “Charles White, Artist and Teacher,” in S. K. Oehler & E. Adler, Charles White: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago, 2018, p. 152). Another of White’s pupils, Kerry James Marshall, stated, “I have always believed that his work should be seen wherever great pictures are collected… He is a true master of pictorial art, and nobody else has drawn the black body with more elegance and authority (K. J. Marshall, “A Black Artist Named White,” in S. K. Oehler & E. Adler, Charles White: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago, 2018, p. 15).