Political Art

Sculptures of Charles Dickson

By Paul Von Blum


Sculpture has played a powerful role in the artistic heritage of Africa. Too often regarded as "primitive," and routinely consigned to museum "curiosity rooms" and natural history exhibitions, these works have nevertheless been sources of inspiration to many Western modern artists. Viewers familiar with Pablo Picasso, Amadeo Modligiani, Constantin Brancusi, Chaim Soutine, and others, easily discern the powerful influence of African sculpture in their artworks.

African Diaspora artists have continued this legacy of artistic excellence. Travelers in Haiti, Cuba, Belize, Barbados, Jamaica, and elsewhere in the region have frequent opportunity to see Afro-Caribbean sculptures that compare favorably with works found throughout Africa. Similar works are widely available in Panama, Surinam, Brazil, and other regions of Latin America. In the United States, moreover, sculpture has played a large role in the history of African American art since slave days. The efforts of Edmonia Lewis, Meta Fuller, Augusta Savage, Sargent Johnson, Richmond Barthe, Elizabeth Catlett, and Artis Lane, among many others, have added enormous distinction to American art history generally.

Los Angeles has been the site of a renaissance of African American sculptural art. From the 1960s to the present, Noah Purifoy, Betye Saar, John Outterbridge, Alison Saar, and others have added their personal visions to this body of art. Charles Dickson has been a key figure in this community for more than 30 years. He has worked in bronze, rare hardwood, ivory, lucite, styrofoam, and styrene plastic. Throughout his career, he has created a wide variety of works reflecting his African ancestry and his African American identity.

Born in 1947, Dickson grew up in South Central Los Angeles, when it was predominantly African American. As a young boy, he suffered from severe asthma. Following freqent medical appointments, Dickson and his mother would stop at major department stores where they looked at fabrics and other materials used by designers. This encouraged him to think about color and design problems. It also stimulated him to develop a strong aesthetic sense, reinforcing the foundation for his subsequent artistic productivity. These medical trips, furthermore, provided him a lifelong appreciation of other cultures.

Both of his parents supported his artistic ambitions. His father was a gourmet baker and his mother was a talented interior decorator of the family home. This creative family environment caused him, at the age of 12, to decide to pursue an artistic existence. Having created wood carvings since he was five years old, he continued to develop his talent in this direction. He began his formal training in junior high school, where he studied graphic art and prop design. Later, at Fremont High School, he studied industrial arts in order to continue his interest in woodcarving and learned about the complexities of woodworking.

His Fremont instructor, Anthony Wasson, quickly recognized young Dicksons’s talent. He introduced him to his first metal sculpture exhibition at Long Beach State University. It also led him to a summer scholarship at Otis Art Institute. There he met the legendary Charles White, one of the most influential figures in African American art in Southern California. He worked as an apprentice with White, who encouraged him to pursue an artistic career.

During his high school years, the Watts rebellion occurred in Los Angeles. Like others of his generation, his memories of police harassment and brutality and National Guard occupation pervade his consciousness. After his high school graduation, Dickson decided he was going to make his living as an artist. He continued to learn the craft of sculpture through a process of rigorous self-training. He observed and worked with others in the field, including John Outterbridge, another legendary figure in the African American artistic community. He supported himself by selling sculptural works and by producing jewelry, furniture, and cabinets.

Dickson also discovered the historical sources of his own creative work through such white artists as Michelangelo, Picasso, Giacometti, and Moore. Not surprisingly, he had never encountered African American art history during his academic studies, especially since many of his teachers had told Dickson and his fellow students that black people did little to enhance the cultural life of the United States. On his own, he found the wonderful, but neglected, tradition of African American sculpture. Most significant, he encountered the work of Richmond Barthe whose stunning bronze portraits of figures in African American history set the standard for sculptural excellence.

As a young artist, Charles Dickson moved to the multicultural Los Angeles community of Compton. An early work set the tone for the thematic focus of his entire career. "Black is Beautiful" (Figure 1), sculptured from ironwood in 1968, emerges from the black power movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Exquisitely carved, the work is the artistic manifestation of a broader ideology emanating from that vigorous era of racial reflection and social protest. His aim is to induce viewers to honor black women by creating a personal vision of the Black Madonna or Goddess, drawing on a multitude of ancient African traditions.

A small-scale sculpture from 1981 intensified the artist’s dedication to recognizing and championing his own roots. "Ancestral Reflections" (Figure 2A) incorporates the tradition of three-dimensional African artwork, combining ebony wood, ivory, amber, and gold. Elegantly crafted and highly detailed, it again highlights a strong female figure. "Ancestral Reflections" also offers the same perspective to his fellow African Americans. The reverse side of the sculpture (Figure 2B) is a mirror, encouraging viewers to look closely at themselves.

"Hair Braider’s Cabinet" (Figure 3) reflects the meticulous detail found in the finest African sculptures. Providing an Afrocentric focus to traditional artistic iconography, he based this carving on a woman who taught the art of hair braiding. Hair braiding in African American communities, especially among females, is a matter of enormous significance and personal pride. Furthermore, this sculpture suggests that hair braiding is an art worthy of immense respect.

In the late 1970s, John Outterbridge, then the Director of the Watts Tower Art Center, asked him to contribute to the annual Festival of Masks. Dickson produced what he called "neo-tribal" masks. Some of his finest efforts in this genre emerged from the local Kwanzaa Festival promoting black cultural unity. He created multi-colored styrofoam masks combining a variety of materials including knobs, buttons, and beads. Figure 4 showcases five of the Kwanzaa masks. Wild and fanciful, the works go even further in linking African American life with the ancient culture and traditions of Africa. The artist reports that children, in particular, expressed delight when they recognize a specific mask and correlate it to the corresponding Kwanzaa principle.

Various examples of Dickson’s sculptures are more conventionally realistic in form. His 1983 bronze portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King (Figure 5) is reminiscent of the works of Richmond Barthe. Like Barthe, Dickson uses art to honor major figures of African American resistance. Created for Curtis Junior High School in Carson, California, this effort expresses a strong likeness of the martyred civil rights leader. Dickson’s hope is that his sculpture’s presence in a school setting will catalyze more responsible educational activity.

In 1991, Dickson produced his Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial (Figure 6) for a Watts shopping center, ironically the first monument in that community to the slain civil rights leader. The hand, pointedly extending upward and outward, and the hummingbird emerging from it represent symbols of unity.

Occasionally, Dickson produced artwork with even more openly political content. A dramatic example is "Flag" (Figure 7), created in 1980. Representing further technical advances in this cloth sculpture, the piece is a public expression of African American alienation in contemporary society. He replicates the flag’s stripes by gluing red, white, and blue canvas strips to a larger canvas back. These stars and bars signify the physical and moral incarceration of millions of African Americans entrapped in racism and poverty. Dickson uses "Flag" to highlight an unnerving historical irony: thousands of black soldiers fought and died for the U.S. flag in foreign wars, only to return to a land of second class citizenship and egregious lack of opportunity.

Most obvious, the map of the United States is superimposed on a much larger map of the African continent, suggesting that African Americans should be extremely reluctant to abandon the primary source of their own cultural identity.

In the late 1980s, Charles Dickson developed a new sculptural technique that has enabled him to create large-scale works rapidly and to transport them easily because of their relatively light weight. Using plastic material found in passenger compartments of commercial airliners and automobile dashboards, he heats the resilient plastics with blow torches with temperatures up to 1,300 degrees. He then shapes them around his desired figures, filling the molds with molten urethane core. He calls this technique High Impact Styrene Plastic Urethane Foamcore (HISPUF). Amazingly, Dickson sculpted "Uprooted" (Figure 8) in two weeks for an 1989 exhibition at the California Afro-American Museum in Los Angeles. The work is a massive 13-foot tree trunk depicting African people violently removed from their homelands and forcibly transported across the Atlantic, with millions of casualties in the process.

Dickson also wants his work to serve as a reminder of the continuing consequences of slavery. Contemporary racism is rooted in that regrettable historical era and few African Americans are willing to merely forgive and forget.

Recently, Dickson extended his identity as a public artist with a Los Angeles metro rail commission in El Segundo. In that effort, he has reflected community concerns by communicating the connections between nature and the aerospace industry represented in that region. This project has enabled him to formulate imaginative sculptural reliefs in a complex architectural setting. His most passionate objective is to continue work on the transformation of his Compton studio into a major working space and gallery, a "peaceful environment" open to the public.