“I’m intensely interested in space, form, color, the things that challenge all contemporary artists. It would be wonderful if I could just sit back and do it esthetically. But, I have to react to the other thing. I’m part of it, I have no choice. I think I’ve gotten to the point where it isn’t satisfying to do another handsome, decorative abstraction. Painting has become so impersonal. I have a need to relate to humanity in a more direct way.”
Charles Alston was born in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1907 to the Reverend Primus Priss Alston and Anna Elizabeth Miller Alston. Alston’s father, who nicknamed him Spinky, died when Alston was three. His mother subsequently married Harry Bearden, uncle of Romare Bearden. In 1915, the family moved to Harlem, but Alston continued to spend summers in North Carolina until he was fifteen. As a teenager, Alston painted and sculpted from life, mastering an academic-realist style, and in 1925, he was offered a scholarship to the Yale School of Fine Arts but decided to attend Columbia University instead. Alston received his BA with a concentration in fine arts in 1929 and continued on for a master’s degree at Columbia University Teachers College, where he became increasingly interested in African art and aesthetics. While in graduate school, Alston taught at the Utopia Children’s House, where he became mentor to a young Jacob Lawrence. He received his MA in 1931.
Having finished graduate school in the midst of the Great Depression, Alston remained in Harlem, one of the city’s hardest-hit communities. in 1934, he co-founded the Harlem Art Workshop. When the Workshop needed more space soon after, he found it at 306 West 141st Street. Aided by funding from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), “306” (as it was known) became a center for the most creative minds in Harlem. Regulars included Bearden, Lawrence, Augusta Savage, Richard Wright, Robert Blackburn, Countee Cullen, Ralph Ellison, and Gwendolyn Knight. In 1935, Alston became the first black supervisor in the Federal Art Project when he was assigned to direct the WPA’s Harlem Hospital murals. The paintings he designed—influenced by the work of Mexican muralists, jazz music, and the prevailing social realism of the 1930s—were approved by the Federal Art Project but rejected by the hospital’s administration for what they saw as an excess of subject matter relating to African Americans. After protests and extensive press coverage, the muralists were allowed to proceed. In 1936, two of the works were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA). Two Rosenwald Fellowships at the end of the decade enabled Alston to travel throughout the south and to work with Hale Woodruff at Atlanta University. During World War II, Alston worked as an artist for the Office of War Information, served in the US Army, and was also a member of the board of directors for the National Mural Society. In 1944, he attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn for a year, and in 1949, he and Woodruff created murals for the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance building in Los Angeles. Entitled Negro in California History, the project comprised two works—Exploration and Colonization (1537-1850) by Alston and Settlement and Development (1850-1949) by Woodruff.