Charles Criner, the Heart & Soul of His Lithography Art
Looking into the heart, soul and character of a gentleman who also happens to be a renowned artist by the name of Charles Criner has been my husband’s and my great pleasure. Being able to also call him a friend enriches us beyond belief.
My husband was on the board at the Museum of Printing History now called The Printing Museum in Houston, Texas when Charles Criner was interviewed for a position at the MPH as an artist in residence. Thus I first heard about Charles from my husband who was impressed with his credentials but also his warm personality. It would be a few years later before I personally would become better acquainted with Charles.
My aunt (my father’s sister) had several degrees, one in education and one in art. She had a brief teaching history but primarily used her artistic talents in her homes…their primary residence and their vacation home.
Paintings adorned the walls and with the kilns in their basement, my aunt even created things like original ceramic cabinet pulls, etc.
As a widow, she once visited my mother, husband and me here in Houston while on vacation. Together we enjoyed visiting the variety of nearby art museums among other sightseeing venues. We had a glorious time and had not she died, she had definite plans to return for more vacations down here from Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she resided.
The reason that I am inserting this personal information into this post about Charles Criner’s art is because I learned a great deal from my aunt on that visit.
My aunt was a volunteer docent at the Milwaukee Art Center which is a beautiful art museum situated on the banks of Lake Michigan. When touring the Menil Museum here in Houston, there was a particularly ugly (in my opinion) painting. The most grotesque masks were on people’s faces as they were otherwise adorned in beautiful ball costumes while dancing in a most elegant setting.
My aunt was familiar with the artist and explained to me that this particular painting was executed reflecting the dark days of Hitler’s influence when countries were being taken over by that regime.
The artist was trying to portray people ostensibly going about their everyday lives…attending balls just like normal…but those ugly masks upon their faces represented their true feelings as to what was happening around them during the Nazi era.
That for me was an eye opener! Because of my aunt’s education and influence, I have never since looked at art in quite the same way.
What is the artist trying to portray with his/her talents? A painting or other work of art may not just be the simplistic lines on a sheet of paper or the random brushstrokes on a canvas…but in the hands of a master artist can convey much deeper meanings.
Background of Charles Criner
Charles Criner was born in 1945 and grew up living in the small town of Athens, Texas.
Prior to attending Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas (starting in 1964, and graduating with his art degree in 1968) he had never slept in a bed by himself but like his other 8 siblings learned early on how to share. Charles had also never traveled far from home. He grew up not knowing his father, but that did not keep him or his siblings from knowing love, support and encouragement from his mother and grandmother who were key figures in their lives.
A story often told relates to Charles’ early artistic talents being recognized when he was still a youth. Instead of joining with the majority of the other town’s residents in doing manual labor and harvesting peas from the nearby fields, Charles instead produced art for the trucks hauling that produce.
With early encouragement from his mother, grandmother and even people from his church for whom he also created art, a career in art was just about predestined for Charles.
Dr. John Biggers
Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas was originally called Texas State University for Negroes when Dr. Biggers first went there to head up the art department. His tenure would last for 34 years of teaching, inspiring and nurturing students in artistic expressions which addressed the roots of each student’s very core being.
The majority of his students had come from large families with similar backgrounds to that of Charles Criner.
Dr. Biggers, a renowned artist in his own right, became not only an instructor but a beloved mentor and father figure to his students. Sunday mornings many of his students would meet at his home perhaps sitting in his backyard with the sound of the waterfall splashing over rocks…or inside his home and studio if weather was inclement, and discuss not only art, but everyday life much as any family member would ordinarily do. With some of Dr. Bigger’s students, one of which was Charles Criner, lifelong friendships were developed and cherished.
Learning from the Masters
Dr. John Biggers learned from not only observing the works of past European master painters like Goya, El Greco and Botticelli but he actually lived for a while with the great master artists Charles White and Betty Catlett (Charles White’s wife) who was a sculptor.
In a video Charles Criner made of “Doc” Biggers, Dr. Biggers actually stated that the “Glory of God” passed over him by watching these two consummate artists create their works. He felt happy to do their dishes for them in slight repayment for their housing and mentoring him for a while. Forever after, Dr. Biggers felt good if his drawings were “solved in a Charles White manner.”
He also did a 6 month fellowship in Africa. What he brought back from that experience inspired him greatly. Everything Dr. Biggers had learned he passed on to his students and truly felt that his students were “his greatest work.”
Not only did Dr. Biggers pass on standard art theory and techniques to his students, but he instilled a deep sense of the value of creating important art work …not just using their new found talents to paint pretty pictures.
Since most of his students were of African-American heritage and all during that generation had lived through the Civil Rights Movement, there were certainly stories to be told. With passing time, if those stories and experiences were not going to be illustrated, written about, photographed and otherwise documented, many would eventually be lost. Charles Criner, as well as some of the other art students, took this advice to heart.
Charles Criner and his Art
When Charles agreed to let me write an article about him and his artwork, he wanted my husband and me to view that video that was made of “Doc” Biggers filmed in Dr. and Mrs. Biggers backyard and also in the Biggers’ home studio. It was shortly before Dr. Biggers’ death in 2002.
It became so obvious to both of us as Charles was interviewing Dr. Biggers, that this was no normal interview. Yes, it was good and covered a lot of Dr. Bigger’s history as he became an artist and then taught art. The people who were influential in Dr. Biggers’ life made the story interesting.
We both sensed the love and admiration of Charles for “Doc” Biggers. We felt privileged to have seen that side of what helped influence the art that Charles creates. Writing about Charles without mentioning the huge part that Dr. John Biggers played in his life and career would have been negligent.
In many of Charles Criner’s lithographs and paintings, people’s hands are exaggerated in size. Because most of the people in a Criner piece of art come from working class people… those who worked in the fields picking cotton, peas, potatoes and so forth…those hands tell a story. That is the part of their bodies that did the work! And back-breaking work it would have been for the most part!
Just look at his piece, “Diva of the Pea Fields” displayed above. This hard working woman’s back and hands are exaggerated for purposeful effect.
Just like the painting of those people with the distorted masks on their faces dancing at a ball that I had viewed at the Menil Museum with my aunt, I now appreciate art like this much more than I might have without the understanding of what motivates an artist to create pieces like this.
Charles also often uses family members or people close to him for the faces in many of his pieces. His art is definitely personal and reflects many of the things that he was familiar with when growing up. From ladies in church to children playing on abandoned railroad boxcars in a field to people fishing (one of his great hobbies!) and more…each and every piece carries a story that is close to his heart and memory.
Like Dr. Biggers, Charles also had a chance to travel to Africa and came back feeling very moved by that experience. Yes, there is poverty and yet, the spirit and joyfulness of people’s spirits rise above their circumstances in most instances.
The art that was created from that travel experience is powerful and wonderful. Charles has done an Underground Railroad series of prints and he also celebrates Juneteenth with a series of lithographs made into posters. He has many years of experiences and memories from which to draw upon when creating new works of art.
I cannot speak highly enough of his talents and we are the proud owners of several of his lithographs which we highly treasure.
Houston Printing History
Knowing something about Charles Criner’s childhood days, his work history and his student days to the current time makes looking at or preferably owning his artwork even more interesting.
Charles also has an extensive show history and his works have been in multiple museum exhibits and are also in many private collections. He is represented by many galleries both in the State of Texas and beyond.
Charles Criner now graces the Printing Museum in Houston, Texas with his presence and expertise. Personally, we think that they are fortunate to have such an esteemed artist working there!
As the official Artist in Residence, Charles not only continues to create his own artwork using for the most part an antique 1830 Starwheel Oak Press, but he teaches lithography workshops, leads tours and and is there to help educate people about art printing techniques.
If you are lucky you will be able to see him working on a new lithograph, perhaps even be in the process of printing another one of his creations.
That is a rare treat as there are not that many presses of that vintage still in operation.
Since Dr. John Biggers thought of his students as his greatest accomplishment, Charles Criner has fulfilled that part of his dream with soaring accomplishments.
Hopefully you now have an idea of the heart and soul that goes into each and every piece of a Charles Criner work of art. If you enjoyed this you may like reading these other posts regarding this talented artist.
Location of the Printing Museum where you can find Charles Criner creating his art: 1324 W Clay Street, Houston, Texas 77019.