“If You Know, Teach”: Charles White as Teacher

Esther Adler January 11, 2019
Charles White. Drawing class. c. 1950
Charles White. Drawing class. c. 1950

There are only a handful of well-known artists across the 20th century who were generous and influential enough to leave behind a legacy not only through their art, but through their teaching. Among that group is Charles White. While still a young art student in Chicago, White was driven to share what he had learned with others. And later, during his 14-year tenure teaching drawing at the Otis Art Institute (now the Otis College of Art and Design) in Los Angeles, he approached teaching as another mode of representing African American history, humanity, and power—a way of extending the goals of his personal artistic practice.

Plus, he was really good at it. Just look at the large number of White’s students who continue to reference his work and his teachings today as they pursue their own art careers, including Kerry James Marshall, David Hammons, Richard Wyatt Jr., Judithe Hernández, and Kent Twitchell.

Kerry James Marshall first discovered White as a teenager, and he was immediately drawn to White’s technical virtuosity in depicting blackness. “In his notes to young artists, Leonardo da Vinci instructed novices to first find ‘a good master and copy his work. This way you will train your hand to good form,’” Marshall writes in the Charles White: A Retrospective exhibition catalogue. “I was lucky to find my exemplar early, and I diligently hewed to the task.”

Marshall went on to study with White at Otis, where he dedicated himself to figurative painting—unusual for an art student in the 1970s. Beyond formal affinities, Marshall credits White with helping him identify a greater sense of meaning and purpose in his work. White’s dedication to humanity was a goal he set for his students, too, and one Marshall took to heart.

Kerry James Marshall. Untitled (policeman). 2015
Kerry James Marshall. Untitled (policeman). 2015

For David Hammons, White’s commanding presence and accessibility offered immediate guidance: “He’s the only artist that I really related to because he is 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.”

In 1971, the two men exhibited together with a third artist, Timothy Washington, in Three Graphic Artists at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Hammons’s quote comes from that catalogue.) Although the local Black Art Council protested White’s pairing with two young and relatively unknown figures, White insisted on participating, partly as a way to support emerging artists.

David Hammons. Pray for America. 1969
David Hammons. Pray for America. 1969

White’s enduring commitment to public murals and to bringing art to underserved communities had a profound influence on Richard Wyatt Jr., whose own monumental painting City of Dreams/River of History can be found in Los Angeles’s Union Station. Wyatt came to know White as a 12-year-old—one of the youngest participants in the Tutor/Art Program that White taught on Saturday mornings (on top of his already busy teaching schedule and personal artistic and family commitments).

Richard Wyatt Jr. City of Dreams/River of History. 1996
Richard Wyatt Jr. City of Dreams/River of History. 1996
Richard Wyatt Jr. on Charles White

White’s drafting mastery and connection to community and accessibility helped shape Judithe Hernández’s own figurative drawings, and her engagement in the Chicano movement’s fight for equality for Mexican Americans. Her MFA thesis at Otis, a series of graffiti paintings reflecting Chicano iconography, channeled a desire to make work available to the community it addressed.

Judithe Hernández. Viva la Revolución! 1974
Judithe Hernández. Viva la Revolución! 1974
Judithe Hernández on Charles White

White’s images of dignity and monumental presence were a key influence on Kent Twitchell, who captured the heroic and inspirational qualities of his teacher in a life-size drawing. Twitchell had already completed a number of iconic Los Angeles–area murals, including The Freeway Lady, by the time he met White (it was Hernández who suggested the two connect), but found rare encouragement for his figurative practice at a time when many artists were turning to more conceptual, time-based, and performative work. With White’s support, Twitchell painted his mural Holy Trinity with Virgin on site at Otis in 1978. Fittingly, the building it graces is now Charles White Elementary School of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Kent Twitchell. Portrait of Charles White. 1977.
Kent Twitchell. Portrait of Charles White. 1977.
Kent Twitchell on Charles White

Charles White: A Retrospective is on view October 7, 2018–January 13, 2019. Buy tickets today.