In 1965, William Zorach—at the time, one of the greatest sculptors in the world—made a profound and beautiful discovery. Her name was Tina Allen, an artistically talented ten-year-old from Hempstead, N.Y. who Zorach first met when on vacation in the island-nation of Grenada. Given Allen’s parents divorced when she was young, for four years she lived with her mother in Grenada. Soon after, Zorach, who was also based out of New York, began mentoring Allen.
The prodigious daughter of Gordon “Specs” Powell, a session drummer for CBS Records who played in “The Ed Sullivan Show” band, Allen started painting at five-years-old and, by high school, had sculpted a bust of Aristotle. She began winning art competitions and receiving honors, and soon recognized that sculpture was a more natural and fulfilling process for her than painting.
Upon receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of South Alabama in 1978, Allen became an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer and began hosting a local television show on the arts in Mobile, Alabama which ran for a decade. She moved to New York City and attended the Pratt Institute and the New York School of Visual Arts before winning, in 1986, a Boston-based commission to sculpt a memorial statue of the Black union organizer and labor activist, A. Philip Randolph. Her victory would put the art world on notice and launch a three-decade career producing works marked by compelling representations of African American historic figures and culture.
Allen created and received commissions for over a dozen sculptures of such prominent Black figures displayed in public spaces as Sojourner Truth, George Washington Carver, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Alex Haley, Frederick Douglass, Sammy Davis Jr., Dr. Ralph Bunch, Marcus Garvey, Betty Shabazz, Dr. Charles R. Drew, and Tupac Shakur. Still, for every iconic figure she sculpted, Allen was known to produce a sculpture of a prominent local leader given she consistently pushed to shine a spotlight on everyday heroes.
In a 2003 interview, Allen told National Public Radio, “I’m looking at myself as speaking about the heart and soul of a people and making sure they’re not forgotten, making sure they don’t feel ignored.”
The talented Tina Allen died on September 9, 2008 at age 58 of a massive heart attack brought on by pneumonia. Collectors of her art include Hilary Rodham Clinton, Muhammad Ali, Denzel Washington, and Robert DeNiro.
Fittingly, Allen has not been forgotten or ignored.
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