BAIA BITS: Charles Sebree
Little Moments Where Knowledge Meets Art
He was initially viewed with suspicion. The year was 1934, and the Grant Park Outdoor Art Fair was in full swing in Chicago as artists promoted their works to a crowd of fascinated buyers, collectors, and casuals. Upon meeting a 20-year-old artist named Charles Sebree at the event, William McKnight Farrow, founder of the Black arts organization, the Chicago Art League, watched as the little known Sebree made an impact on all the wide-eyed art lovers he engaged. Farrow would later note the young artist’s work “caused considerable controversy among the artists there, as well as among the visitors” and that Sebree possessed “a peculiar talent for producing work of an emotional quality. And strange as it seemed to those of academic training, he sold everything he took there for display.”
Though regarded a suspicious newbie by Chicago’s more established Black art circles, art was not new to Sebree. After relocating from Kentucky to Chicago with his mother in 1924 at the age 10, Sebree’s art teacher at the city’s Burke elementary school soon regarded him a prodigy. During his teenage years, Sebree’s artwork attracted the attention of the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, a prominent venue for the exhibition of modern art. He also attended Saturday art classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with the likes of Margaret Taylor Burroughs, Eldzier Cortor, and Charles White.
In high school, Sebree met University of Chicago anthropology student, Katherine Dunham, and began dancing and doing set and costume design for Dunham’s popular dance productions. Upon graduating, he was employed by the Works Progress Administration’s Illinois Art Project before being drafted in 1942 and stationed at Camp Robert Smalls, north of Chicago. There, he met playwright Owen Dodson, and the two produced plays at the army camp including the Ballad of Dorrie Miller, depicting the Black naval attendant who saved the lives of shipmates at Pearl Harbor.
After the war, Sebree relocated to New York to work on his visual art and theatrical endeavors. In 1945, he received a Julius Rosenwald Fund fellowship and went on to cowrite what would become the hit Broadway musical, Mrs. Patterson, featuring Eartha Kitt. Consistently, his art would reflect a strong Modernist influence with his painted portraits commonly featuring performers and harlequins.
An important American painter, playwright, director, and set designer, Charles Sebree would spend the final decades of his life creating art in Washington D.C. before succumbing to cancer in 1985.
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Stephanie Robinson, Esq. is a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, a national media figure, author, former Chief Counsel to Senator Edward M. Kennedy, and former President and CEO of The Jamestown Project, a national think tank focusing on democracy. Ms. Robinson hosted her own national radio show, Roundtable with Stephanie Robinson, a popular weekly 30-minute, talk-radio program focused on culture, politics, and relationships that aired on TSN. For over half a decade, Ms. Robinson was Political and Social Commentator for the Tom Joyner Morning Show where she spoke to between 9 and 10 million people weekly, offering her perspective on the day’s most pressing social and political issues.
Robinson is co-author of Accountable: Making America as Good as Its Promise, (Atria Books, 2009). She is a nationally recognized expert on issues relating to social policy, women, race, family, and electoral politics. She was featured as one of the 30 Young Leaders of the Future in Ebony Magazine and was profiled in the book As I Am: Young African American Women in a Critical Age, by Julian Okwu. Robinson is a frequent speaker expressing her views in countless media outlets including the Associated Press, The Washington Post, C-Span, Fox News, NewsOne and NPR.
Stephanie was a Member of President Clinton’s first Mission to Africa regarding children orphaned by AIDS. Robinson, a magna cum laude graduate of the University of Maryland and the Harvard Law School, is a native of Steubenville, Ohio. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two sons.
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