February 28, 2012


Harlem, New York has always been cool; but it continues to get cooler and cooler. What make it cool are the people who live, work and play there; and the culture that it has to offer. The music, dance, food and art are all fabulous; and there’s something to satisfy every taste.

Delights, such as the Apollo Theater, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Harlem Gospel Choir and The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture comprise just a ‘drop’ of what’s on offer. In terms of food, more on that later.

Dance Theatre of Harlem
Harlem Gospel Choir
Schomburg Center

Even former President knows how cool Harlem is. After he left The White House, he set up his office there.

Presidents Clinton and Obama in the Former's Harlem Office

The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural movement that primarily spanned the 1920s and 1930s. At the time, it was known as The New Negro Movement; and encompassed every genre of the Arts. One artist, who was quite prolific during the Harlem Renaissance, and beyond, was Charles Alston, who was painter, sculptor, illustrator, muralist and teacher.

Charles Henry ‘Spinky’ Alston was born in Charlotte, North Carolina in November 1907, the youngest of five children of a minister and a housewife. Charles’s father died when he was three years old; but he had already influenced Charles artistically, by the illustrated love letters, that he had written to Charles’s mother. Charles acquired a stepfather three years later, when his mother married Henry Bearden, and the family moved to New York City.  Later in life, Charles ended up becoming life-long friends with, and teaching painting, to his stepfather’s nephew, who lived across the street – Romare Bearden, who went on to become one of the most influential, African-American artists of our time.

Romare Bearden

Charles’s mother was also a gifted embroiderer, so he was surrounded by creativity. As a young boy, he recalls that his first art experience was playing with play and making ‘sculptures’. He said of that memory, “I’d get buckets of it and put it through strainers and make things out of it.”

Charles graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School, where he was nominated for academic excellence and was the art editor of the school's magazine, The Magpie

While in High School, In high school he was given his first oil paints and spent time at his Aunt Bessye Bearden's art salons, which stars like jazz musician, Duke Ellington, and poet, Langston Hughes, attended. Charles later designed album covers for Duke and book covers for Langston, to earn money while studying. Charles then matriculated to nearby prestigious, Columbia University – having turned down a scholarship to the Yale School of Fine Arts – where he double-majored in Fine Arts and History and graduated in 1929 and received a fellowship to study at Columbia’s Teachers College, where he obtained his Master's in Art Education, in 1931. While at Columbia, he worked on the university's Columbia Daily Spectator and drew cartoons for the school's humor magazine, Jester. He also hung out in Harlem restaurants and clubs, where his love for jazz and black music would be fostered.

While obtaining his master's degree, Alston was the boys’ art director at the Utopia Children's House, started; and he also began teaching at the Harlem Arts Workshop, founded by Augusta Savage in the basement of what is now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Utopia Children's House

During the Great Depression, Charles and sculptor, Henry Bannarn, directed the Harlem Art Workshop, which was funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project – becoming the first African-American supervisor of the project.  

Henry Bannarn
There, Charles began to teach the 10-year old, Jacob Lawrence, whom he strongly influenced, and who also went on to become an extremely powerful, artistic voice within the African-American community.

Jacob Lawrence

Charles shared studio space with Henry at
306 W. 141st St
, which served as an open space for artists, photographers, musicians, writers and the like. They became knows as The 306 Group. During this time Charles also founded the Harlem Artists’ Guild, with other artists, to work towards equality in WPA art programs in New York.

The 306 Group

As part of the WPA, Charles painted murals throughout Harlem. One of his best-known ones – entitled, Modern Medicine – was created by Charles and other members of The 306 Group, for the Harlem Hospital Center, where he met his future wife, Dr. Myra Adele Logan, a surgical intern at the hospital. Despite some opposition to the murals because of the numbers of African-Americans prominent in the design sketches, the Harlem Hospital murals project moved forward, with the financial support of Louis T. Wright, the first African-American physician to serve on the hospital's staff, as well as community support.

'Modern Medicine' Mural in Harlem Hospital

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Charles received funding to travel to the South to document rural African-American life through a camera lens. These photographs served as the basis for a series of genre portraits' depicting southern Black life. During this time, Charles also created illustrations for magazines such as Fortune, Mademoiselle, The New Yorker, Melody Maker and others; and he also became staff artist at the Office of War Information and Public Relations in 1940, creating drawings of notable African Americans. These images were used in over 200 Black newspapers across the country by the government to "foster goodwill with the black citizenry.”

In the late 1940s, Charles became involved in a mural project, commissioned by Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company, who asked the artists to create work involving African-American contributions to the settling of California. Charles worked with Hale Woodruff on the murals in a large studio space in New York, where they utilized ladders to reach the upper parts of the canvas. The murals were then transported to Los Angeles, where they were hung in Golden State’s lobby.

Golden State Mutual Mural

In 1950, Charles left commercial work to return to his own artwork, becoming the first African-American instructor at the Art Students League, where he remained on faculty until 1971. That same year, he exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art   Three years later, he landed his first solo exhibition at the John Heller Gallery, who represented artists such as Roy Lichtenstein – exhibiting there five times from 1953–1958. In 1956, he became the first African-American instructor at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), where he taught for a year before going to Belgium on behalf of MOMA and the State Department. In 1958, Charles was awarded a grant from and was elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

In 1963, Charles co-founded Spiral with Romare Bearden and Hale Woodruff. Spiral served as a collective of conversation and artistic exploration for a large group of artists who "addressed how Black artists should relate to American society in a time of segregation." This group served as the 1960s version of the 306 Group, and Alston was described as an "intellectual activist."
The 1960s Civil Rights Movement heavily influenced Charles’s artworks, which focused on inequality and race relations in the United States.  It was during this powerful movement, that he created a bronze bust of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, which, in 1990, became the first image of an African American displayed at the White House. In 1968, Charles received a Presidential appointment, from Lyndon Johnson to the National Council of Culture and the Arts. New York Mayor John Lindsay appointed him to the New York City Art Commission in 1969. He was made full professor at City College of New York in 1973 where he had taught since 1968. In 1975, he was awarded the first Distinguished Alumni Award from Teachers College. 

Bronze Bust of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Charles Henry Spinky Alston died in 1977, in Harlem, after a long bout with cancer. He lived and remained an active member of this thriving, cultural community until the end of his life.  Romare Bearden described Charles as, "...one of the most versatile artists whose enormous skill led him to a diversity of styles..." Romare also described the professionalism and impact that Charles had on Harlem and the African-American community: "'Charles was a consummate artist and a voice in the development of African-American art who never doubted the excellence of all people's sensitivity and creative ability. During his long professional career, Charles significantly enriched the cultural life of Harlem. In a profound sense, he was a man who built bridges between Black artists in varying fields, and between other Americans.” Writer, June Jordan, described Charles as "an American artist of first magnitude, and he is a Black American artist of undisturbed integrity.” I would definitely have to agree.

Charles Alston Painting
Charles Alston Painting

Charles Alston Painting

Sylvia Woods, the "Queen of Soul Food," is the founder and owner of the world famous Sylvia's Restaurant, located in the historical village of Harlem, since 1962. People have been lining up for decades to enjoy her mouth-watering, forget-your-diet, cuisine; and as my friend and Harlem Resident, Valerie Graves, recently said of her, “The Queen has still got it!” For more information on her world-famous restaurant, click here.  Sylvia has published several cookbooks, including Sylvia’s Family Soul Food Cookbook, from which I cook fro friends and family, to rave reviews, from time to time. Try this gorgeous Peach Cobbler recipe from the cookbook!

Peach Cobbler
By Sylvia Woods, “The Queen of Soul Food”
Serves 12

¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 29-ounce cans of peaches, drained
1 ½ cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
⅓ cup all-purpose flour
Biscuit dough (recipe below), unbaked.
1. In a heavy 4-quart pot over low heat, melt 3/4 cup butter. Add the peach halves, 1 1/2 cups sugar, and the vanilla. Bring to a simmer, and cook for 1 minute. In a small bowl combine the flour with 3/4 cup water; stir until smooth. Add to the peaches, and stir well. Simmer until the peach liquid is thickened and smooth, about 3 minutes.
2. Cool the peaches to room temperature. Cover with plastic wrap, and chill thoroughly, at least one hour.
3. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 2-inch-deep, 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Prepare the biscuit dough.
4. Flour a work surface, and roll out two-thirds of the dough into a 15-by-19-inch rectangle. Lightly dust the top of the dough with flour, and fold the rectangle into thirds. Place the dough in the baking dish, and unfold. Allow a 1-inch overhang around the edge of the pan, and trim off any excess. Spoon the chilled peach filling evenly onto the dough. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons sugar, and dot with 2 tablespoons butter. Roll out the remaining dough into a 9-by-13-inch rectangle. Place it over the peach filling, and press or crimp edges to seal them. Pierce top of dough several times with a fork.
5. Bake for about 1 1/2 hours, or until crust is a deep golden brown, and filling is set (it will barely jiggle when the pan is tapped). If necessary, rotate the dish during cooking to brown the crust evenly. Serve at room temperature with vanilla ice cream.
Biscuit Dough
5 cups all-purpose flour
½ cup sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
1 ¼ cups milk
½ cup solid vegetable shortening (British friends, use Trex)
4 large eggs
In a large mixing bowl combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Mix well. Make a well in the center and add the milk, shortening, and eggs. Mix the wet ingredients by hand, and slowly work in the dry ingredients. The finished dough should be soft, but not sticky. Adjust the amount of flour as necessary.

Sources: Wikipedia, North by South, CharlesHenryAlston.org, NY Times, Google, Bing 


  1. I just finished writing a paper on Charles Henry Alston for my Modern Art History Class. This was a very good blog to read! There is not much information about Alston and very few famous works which is sad because he was one of the founders of the Harlem Renaissance. Keep up the good work!

  2. this is very nice to see ............
    this is very informative


  3. this is very nice to see ............
    this is very informative