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Meaning of “Trying to Catch Freedom” by Charles Criner

"Trying to Catch Freedom" Poster Print by Charles Criner
Posted: November 22, 2016 at 3:38 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

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“Trying to Catch Freedom”

Sometimes when it comes to art, things seem to evolve and such is the case with this particular piece of art created by the well-known artist Charles Criner.

Many people know him as the resident artist at the Printing Museum in Houston.  It is there that he has his studio and also conducts tours, teaches classes in lithography and more.

The particular photo featured above comes from a poster print.  It is one of many that were created and given out free of charge to students while visiting the museum. Many of Mr. Criner’s works of art became posters for Juneteenth celebrations. But this piece of art did not start that way. Continue reading to learn more.

Charles Criner in his studio at the Printing Museum in Houston

Charles Criner in his studio at the Printing Museum in Houston

Evolution of this Piece of Art

Below are direct quotes from Charles regarding how this work of art came to exist.

“Trying to catch freedom: was originally a 22″ X 30” black and white lithograph print.  The name of the print was “The Underground Railroad”.  I believe that I pulled an edition of forty prints. There was a few prints that was either too light or too dark to be part of the edition.  Those prints became original paintings.  I made them paintings by adding acrylic paint to them.”

"Underground Railroad" Lithography Print by Charles Criner

“Underground Railroad” Lithography Print by Charles Criner

The Underground Railroad

You can see the print above titled “The Underground Railroad” by Charles Criner.  Here is more explanation of how this print evolved into “Trying to Catch Freedom” from Charles:

“As I added and subtracted from the image, “Trying to catch freedom” emerged. The lady was already there. With a little alteration she emerged in the foreground and instantly became the dominant figure.

After I had finished painting her huge hands, I thought, this lady is picking something, maybe cotton but then I thought, no not picking but trying to catch something. The golden ball that symbolized freedom was given to her and the painting began to paint itself.”


More from Charles in his own words:

“After I had finished the lady trying to catch the ball that I labeled as freedom, the cotton begin to sprang up under her and behind her. It was great that I was able to use cotton. I wanted to include it but I wanted the lady to be involved with something else and the freedom ball gave me that opportunity.

I had used the quilt for the underground railroad print so I included it in this print also. I created slave symbols on the quilt to give it an important image in the art.”

"Trying to Catch Freedom" Poster Print

“Trying to Catch Freedom” Poster Print

From Slavery to Freedom

Before the Emancipation Proclamation, many slaves tried to achieve freedom by running away and taking the long and arduous as well as dangerous journey north to free states and or up into Canada. White abolitionists, as well as freed slaves and others, tried their best to help them.

Often traveling on foot or any other means possible by night and hiding out by day became a part of that story.

Reward for a runaway slave Source: By Wm. T. J. Richards (Special Collections, University of Virginia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The reward for a runaway slave Source: By Wm. T. J. Richards (Special Collections, University of Virginia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Many slaves could not read or write, and so oral histories were passed from generation to generation. Distinctive signs and symbols denoted safe places and designs on specially made quilts also served in this manner to aid their escape towards freedom.

Underground Railroad Quilt Codes

Many people collect quilts because they have beautiful designs and the fine hand stitching in their creation is valued. Others collect quilts because of their historical nature.

There were specific patterns built into the quilts which served as codes to the runaway slaves, and when tossed over a railing seemingly to air out, those quilts told a story.

Flying Geese worked into the design would have told the slaves to head north just as would the birds had done in the spring and summer months when temperatures were more moderate. Waterways would have been found along the way which could help hide scent and obliterate footprints if being pursued by bloodhounds.

A Bear’s Paw would have advised following the paths that bears frequented because there would have been access to food and water. There was, a risk in that, but it was also risky getting caught!

Runaway slave notices

Runaway slave notices By Contributors to the Daily Picayune (Above newspaper via copy at [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

All of the following patterns had specific meanings to the runaway slaves and to the people trying to help them with the use of these designs:
  • Star
  • Sailboat
  • Shoofly
  • Crossroads
  • Monkey Wrench
  • Britches
  • Double Wedding Ring
  • Log Cabin
  • Wagon Wheel
  • Drunkard’s Path
  • Broken Dishes
  • Dresden Wheel
  • North Star
  • Bow Tie
  • Tumbling Blocks or Boxes
  • Rose Wreath

Colors also had meaning.  Yellow, in particular, was welcoming just like leaving a light or candle in a window when it is dark.

The videos shown here explain the different patterns.  They also describe the meanings of the various Underground Railroad Quilt Codes for those who wish to learn more.

Photo of artist Charles Criner in Houston's Printing Museum

Photo of artist Charles Criner in Houston’s Printing Museum

Slaves from Africa

Charles Criner continues with this explanation of his print:

“For the print entitled “The Underground Railroad” I created some people working at the top of the print. Suppose they were slaves just off the ship from Africa coming to America. I created a long line of small figures coming from boats onto dry land.”

“Trying to Catch Freedom” Print

More from Charles:

“As they crossed the top of the painting and went into the woods which occupied the opposite side of the painting, they emerged from Shot Gun houses that was lined along the left side of the painting. As they emerged from the bottom of the houses they became ladies working in the cotton field.”

Shotgun Houses

For people who may be unfamiliar with this term, it is a small house with a door in the front and one in the back.  It may only be one large room or may be divided into one or more rooms, but they are typically small and often without bathroom facilities.

Large Painting of "Trying to Catch Freedom" by Charles Criner

Large Painting of “Trying to Catch Freedom” by Charles Criner

Painting of “Trying to Catch Freedom”

Charles told me the following:

“Trying to Catch Freedom” was bought by the Federal Reserve Bank on Allen Parkway and is a part of their permanent collection. I also created a larger painting with the same name.  The painting is 8′ x 10′.

In addition to the slaves coming to America, I also added Sharks swimming up from the cold dark waters to the boats that occupied the slaves.

The 8′ x 10′ painting of “Trying to catch freedom” was bought by Pictures Plus in Houston.”

Meaning of Sharks in this Painting

Charles wrote the following:

“After I finished the large painting I looked at it and decided to create a beach with people being hauled from the boats onto it, then I remembered how many slaves jumped from the boats to the ocean rather than to be hauled from Africa.

Showing large size of painting with artist's brother Joe

Showing the large piece of art with artist’s brother Joe

There were Africans dumped into the ocean for many other reasons. However, in every case there was always Sharks. Every book that I have ever read involved sharks.

I don’t remember just why or how I decided to include sharks for the painting, but it is one of the most natural things that I had ever included in a painting. The water is painted in a little strip that comes from the extreme bottom of the painting to the top. I painted the sharks coming from the black deep water to the bottom of the ship where the slaves was entering the water.

The shark part of the painting was created in a very small space and looking at the painting you might miss seeing how they were created. But once you are aware, the shark portion becomes a painting by itself.

Personally, When I finished the painting it was dark. When I came into my studio the next morning and looked it, to see the painting of the sharks scared me. And even now I think about it sometime. The water is so deep and black at the bottom. The ocean stretches far below the bottom of the painting and the sharks seems to come from beyond death.”

By Government & Heritage Library, State Library of NC from Raleigh, NC, United States (Detail of a shark mural) [CC BY 2.0 ( or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Government & Heritage Library, State Library of NC from Raleigh, NC, United States (Detail of a shark mural) [CC BY 2.0 ( or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Travel aboard those slave ships took their toll, and many of the slaves died in the passage. They would have been tossed overboard for the sharks or other fish to eat. They were hardly dealt with in a kind manner. The captives were nothing more than a commodity worth some money to the slave traders.

And yet, once disembarking from those ships and if still alive, many hardships faced them in the days and years ahead while in servitude to others of which they had no choice.

The ocean breezes and glistening waters separating the slaves from their homeland would become just a memory for those fortunate enough to have survived the journey.

While the slaves had nothing in terms of possessions from their old world, they carried memories of traditions and passed them along verbally and in song while maintaining their innate dignity until at last they achieved their freedom.

You might be interested in reading this:

Charles Criner Art and Picking Cotton

Charles Criner, the Heart & Soul of  His Lithography Art

Charles Criner Art | “Man Coming Out of The Water”

Juneteenth Meaning & Charles Criner Art Posters

The location of the Houston Printing Museum and the studio of Charles Criner is at this address: 1324 W Clay St., Houston, Texas 77019.



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