Born to Gus and Ophelia Thrash, Dox was raised in a small cabin on the outskirts of Griffin, Georgia. After he left home at age fifteen, he spent some time “hoboing” around the country. Thrash’s adventures on the road are summarized in two prints, the upbeat Happy Journey and the dejected Played Out. He eventually made his way north to Chicago, picking up odd jobs and studying art through correspondence courses along the way.
Thrash enrolled in evening classes at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago in 1914, and remained there until 1917, when he joined the army and entered World War I. He fought in France with the American Expeditionary Forces, serving as a private in the 365th Infantry Regiment, 183rd Brigade, 92nd Division. The men in this all-black division were proudly known as Buffalo Soldiers, a nickname given by Native Americans to the African American troops who were sent to fight in the West in the 1870s.
Following his return to the United States, Thrash toured in vaudeville acts on the “Plantation Circuit.” He resumed classes at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago as well. For the first four years, he had worked during the day and went to school in the evening, but after the war he qualified for government funding and was able to attend for three more years as a full-time day student. School records indicate that in addition to taking painting, drawing, and design classes, Thrash received instruction in lettering, commercial art posters, decorative composition, and mural design. This curriculum was intended to equip a young artist with a wide variety of professional skills that would be useful in a freelance marketplace.
As he launched his career in the early 1920s, Thrash was well-grounded in the academic traditions of American and European art. Yet he heeded his contemporaries, the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, who drew from their own experience for inspiration.
He lived for a time in Boston and New York, but by the late 1920s had decided to make his home in Philadelphia. He enrolled in printmaking classes and studied with Earl Horter at the Graphic Sketch Club (now the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial), acquiring a new skill that would earn him a lasting reputation.
In 1931, Thrash had his first one-man exhibition in Philadelphia, held at the Southwest Branch of the YWCA on Catharine Street. Two years later, he participated in The Place of the American Negro in Art and Music, a forum and exhibition also held at the YWCA. One of his prints was also accepted for the Thirty-first Annual Philadelphia Water Color Exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts that year.
To provide employment for the millions who lost their jobs after the stock market crash in 1929, the federal government established the Works Progress Administration. This agency-later renamed the Work Projects Administration-sponsored the Federal Art Project, where Thrash signed on with the Fine Print Workshop division in 1937. During this time, he received a commission to paint a nursery rhyme mural in the children’s ward of Mercy Hospital, one of the oldest African American hospitals in Philadelphia. Archival records state that Thrash intended the mural to show “children of many nationalities” dancing around “the old woman who lived in a shoe, who had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.”
Not long after joining the Workshop, Thrash (along with fellow artists Hubert Mesibov and Michael Gallagher) discovered that gritty carborundum crystals, normally employed to remove images from lithograph stones, could also be used to roughen the surface of copper plates to make etchings. The three men then began experimenting with this new method of printmaking that they dubbed the “carbograph” (though now known as the carborundum print, for a brief period Thrash called it the “Opheliagraph” in honor of his mother, who had recently died). The process was quickly adopted and adapted by other members of the Workshop, but the compelling imagery and rich chiaroscuro of Thrash’s own carborundum prints have ensured that it is his name that is most closely linked with this innovative method today.
In 1938, the largest exhibition to date of work produced by Pennsylvania’s Federal Art Project artists opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and included the first carborundum prints exhibited publicly-Thrash’s self-portrait Mr. X, Mesibov’s Smoker, and Gallagher’s Anthracite.
Dox Thrash continued to make a name for himself when, in 1940, Alain Locke chose fourteen of his prints for an exhibition at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago (the event was held on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the proclamation of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution). A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard College and a Harvard University Ph.D., the Philadelphia-born Locke was the first African American to be awarded a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford University in England. He went on to enjoy a long and distinguished career as a professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., but he is best known today as a leading spokesman of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s. He became aware of Thrash’s artistic accomplishments in 1938, and chose works by the artist not only for the Exposition in Chicago, but for several of the other important exhibitions of African American art that he helped organize.
Yet while African American artists continued to gain acclaim, widespread racial discrimination was a grim reality of the day. It found its most hideous expression in the lynching of hundreds of innocent blacks during this period. Along with many others who were outraged by the country’s failure to outlaw lynching, Thrash used art to bring the stark horror of this hateful practice to the attention of the public, particularly in works such as After the Lynching (late 1930s). Anti-lynching protests such as his set the stage for the civil rights activism of the 1960s.
In the early 1940s, Philadelphia Museum of Art director Fiske Kimball and prints and drawings curator Carl Zigrosser took an active interest in the efforts of the Fine Print Workshop, acquiring some 75 prints produced by Thrash and other African-American artists for the WPA.
Street sweepers, ship fitters, waitresses, mothers–Thrash liked to portray the hard-working men and women he saw around him every day. During the months before the United States entered World War II, the printmakers in the WPA workshop were encouraged to make prints of subjects that could be used to promote the defense industry. As a veteran of an earlier war, Thrash made use of the new agenda to honor the contributions of African Americans to the war effort.
In August of 1945 he was hired by the Philadelphia Housing Authority as a house painter, and the following year, he began his ten-year membership at the Print Club of Philadelphia (now The Print Center), where he participated in experimental printmaking workshops. The largest print exhibition of his career was mounted at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. not long after.
In the late 50s, two of Thrash’s prints were shown in the exhibition Federal Art Project: Twenty Years After at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The artist also retired from the Philadelphia Housing Authority during this time.
The early 60s saw his participation in several community events; he displayed his work and spoke to students in North Philadelphia at Paul Laurence Dunbar Public School, and took part in both the Ford Foundation’s Great Cities Improvement Program and an exhibition at the Wharton Settlement House in North Philadelphia, where he served on the board.
On April 19, 1965, after judging a children’s poster contest at the Hawthorne Housing Projects on Catharine Street, Thrash suffered a heart attack and died. He is buried in the United States National Cemetery in Beverly, New Jersey.
Dox Thrash boldly confronted cultural history through his art, whether presenting a portrait of a strong individual, an unflinching image of racial violence, or a frank celebration of the female nude. His work documents the black American’s evolving identity in the 1930s and 1940s, addressing contemporary issues regarding race, history, gender and modern art.