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Issue Date:  December 14, 2007

-- Courtesy of the Boston Athenaeum

"Streetcar Madonna" by Allan Rohan Crite, watercolor, 1946
The spirit of the spiritual

Artist Allan Rohan Crite was keenly aware of the presence of Christ in the world


Allan Rohan Crite, a painter of everyday African-American life and the granddaddy of the Boston arts scene, died Sept. 6 at the age of 97. At his funeral in Boston’s Trinity Church, the Rev. Edward Rodman, a professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, eulogized Mr. Crite as a “lay theologian.” It is a particularly apt description of this generous, gentle and gracious artist whose works are suffused with a profound incarnational sensibility and informed by a vocabulary of worship that draws from the sacramental life of the Anglican communion.

In his introduction to Three Spirituals from Earth to Heaven, a book of pen and ink drawings on Negro spirituals published in 1948 by Harvard University Press, Mr. Crite wrote that spirituals are a “religious musical literature dedicated to the adoration and worship of almighty God.” Mr. Crite’s work as a storyteller, liturgical artist and illustrator of the spirituals reveals a similar genius, a religious visual literature that moves the viewer to gratitude and praise.

Allan Crite’s contribution to American art is unfortunately underappreciated. This was due, in no small part, to his adamant refusal to engage in self-promotion. His importance is difficult to gauge because his work is scattered throughout 105 public collections, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Chicago Art Institute and Washington’s Phillips Collection.

The Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Art has one of the largest holdings (over 450 objects) and recently opened a memorial exhibition of 54 drawings and paintings. The exhibit ranges from a watercolor done by the 14-year-old Crite to his last major project, a series of etchings done in 1995 to illustrate the Book of Revelation. Two other cultural institutions have concurrent memorial tributes to him. The Boston Athenaeum’s collection includes a number of important paintings from the 1930s; highlights of the Boston Public Library’s exhibit are stunning images of the Holy Family in Boston’s neighborhoods.

-- Courtesy of the collection of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists

"Fresco Vendor," watercolor on paper, 1940

Because he wanted his art to be affordable and accessible, Mr. Crite bought a lithograph press in the 1950s and began to reproduce and sell prints at a modest cost. For more than 30 years he produced weekly church bulletins for Episcopal churches, which anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 people looked at. He was a consistent and generous supporter of younger artists, offering them the same kind of professional guidance and mentoring he received in his youth.

Allan Crite was born in 1910 in North Plainfield, N.J., and was 1 year old when his parents moved to Boston. His talent was recognized early; he was 10 or 11 when a teacher got hold of his mother and told her to take him over to the Children’s Art Center. He practically grew up in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where he attended children’s classes and then studied at the museum’s school, graduating in 1936. Later academic work was done at Boston College, the Massachusetts College of Art and Harvard University, where he worked part-time for 20 years and where an academic prize is named for him.

Mr. Crite had a long, fortunate and remarkably productive professional life. He was a 19-year-old student when he was invited to join the Society of Independent Artists and was 24 when he sold his first major painting, “Settling the World’s Problems.” Favorable reviews led to him being the rare black artist to exhibit in local art galleries. After finishing school, he was hired by the Navy Department as a draftsman and illustrator; his 30-year career with the Navy gave him “a more secure financial basis” and freed him to do his artwork.

Mr. Crite’s interest in liturgical art was midwifed in the 1920s when a devout Catholic friend “thought he could bring me into the true religion, you might say. He knew I was an Episcopalian, so he figured it wouldn’t be too much of a job to move me over. I have a habit of not ‘moving’ unless I know what I’m doing. I had the normal education as far as the church was concerned -- the catechism classes and so forth. ... When my friend went to work on me, I had no defenses, in a sense. So I decided to really look into the church, see what it was all about in many ways. That meant I had to study its history, its raison d’être. ... And then I went into study of the liturgy.”

-- Courtesy of the collection of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists

"Self-Potrait," pencil on paper, 1933

During a 14-month postwar layoff from the Navy Department in 1949-50, Mr. Crite was associated with the Rambush Decorating Company, an architectural firm that specialized in ecclesiastical design. He called it “the nearest counterpart to a Renaissance studio that you could find.” During that time he designed the baldachino ceiling for the Franciscan Monastery in Washington and a 345-foot mural for St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Brooklyn. (The church was later destroyed in a 1972 fire.) He was actively involved with the Catholic and Anglican liturgical art movement in Boston and frequently lectured on the subject in seminaries.

One of the finest examples of his liturgical art is All Glory: Brush Drawing Meditations on the Prayer of Consecration, which was published by the Society of St. John the Evangelist in 1947. It grew out of an experience of assisting at Christmas Midnight Mass at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Cambridge. “At the consecration I had this sense that behind the altar there was this presence of the Christ Child and the Mother. It was a vivid impression -- I didn’t see anything like that; it was just something that I sensed.”

That book, a disciplined attempt to show “all the glory of the altar,” is rendered with “a great deal of attention to detail in regard to the etiquette of the Mass.” Like much of his other liturgical art, the book uses black people as biblical figures.

“I was using the black figure to tell the story of man,” Mr. Crite said. “So the black figure in this particular sense goes beyond, you might say, the parochial, racial idea. That’s just the story of Man being told with the black figure.”

-- Courtesy of the collection of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists

"Balloons," brush and ink on paper, 1933

In that sense, All Glory is a distillation of the characteristics that inform all of Allan Crite’s work, a remarkable consistency when one considers the various mediums he used and subjects he addressed. Underlying his intellectual honesty, scholarship, artistic precision and disciplined attention is a profound awareness of the presence of Christ in the world. Sometimes that is thematically explicit, such as a series of paintings of the Blessed Mother and Child -- the “Madonna of the Neighborhood” paintings -- in places around Boston and Cambridge. Mary and Jesus are painted in normal urban settings, waiting for a subway, traveling on a trolley, hovering over Harvard Square as if to codify the holiness of the ordinary.

Mr. Crite’s Christian sensibility is also present in his striking neighborhood studies, most of which were done in the 1930s and 1940s. Some of the paintings were commissioned by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project.

“The idea was to establish a record, just to show the life of black people in an ordinary setting -- to show them ‘just as people’ and not a social problem,” Mr. Crite said.

These works -- watercolors, oil paintings and drawings -- function as an implicit critique of what Mr. Crite saw as the stereotyped depiction of blacks. “The usual picture that one had -- at least that’s my impression -- was that the artist was strongly influenced by, you might say, the jazz person up in Harlem, or of the sharecropper in the deep South. There was nothing in between -- of just the ordinary middle-class person who goes to church, does the work, etc. What I decided to do back in those days -- and as a matter of fact I’m still doing it -- was just simply to record the life of black people as I saw them in the city where I lived.”

A 1999 exhibit at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum appropriately called Mr. Crite the “artist-reporter of the African American Community.”

“I made these drawings ... simply to show black people as ... human beings that had their loves and their distresses, their joys and happiness and sorrows -- just plain, ordinary people. So I made all these different street scenes with the horse carts, the vegetable man, the fish man; or people gossiping, children playing in the streets or the playground -- all of these sort of homely things.”

-- Courtesy of the collection of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists

"Plymouth Hospital,: colored offset print, 1977

His precise, lovingly rendered urban scenes are now haunting reminders of the textured, rich community life of Roxbury and the South End, neighborhoods that were severely impacted by Boston’s misguided urban renewal.

In addition to liturgical art and neighborhood paintings, Allan Crite’s third major work, begun in the 1930s, was illustrating spirituals. The spirituals were “an idea of fighting against the impersonality of slavery, or rather the de-personalization in an institution such as slavery. We could use the spirit of the spiritual today, because this age of technology that we have is nonhuman in many ways. We need to have something to express our humanity. The message of the spirituals was really just that, so it goes beyond an incident in history which we call ‘slavery,’ as far as this country is concerned.”

Allan Crite had a profound sense of our common humanity, a lived philosophy that evokes the Pauline language of the Mystical Body of Christ. “We are part of each other. So anything that happens to any part of us, we all feel. But the thing is, we think that we’re doing something to somebody ‘over there’ who’s different from me,” he said. “Actually what we’re doing is doing something to ourselves through that person. So if we do an injury to that particular person, we’re hurting. And if something happens to that particular person, we feel it. That probably accounts for, you might say, the extreme and sharp pain that a lot of us feel. We’re thinking we’re doing to somebody else, but it’s happening to us. That, in my opinion, is the real tragedy.”

In the exquisite “Is It Nothing to You?” a series of drawings made in 1948 on the Passion of Christ set against the background of the modern world, Mr. Crite observes that “Jesus carries his cross in the midst of mankind’s misery, yet men are so absorbed in their own distress that they fail to notice him.”

Allan Rohan Crite did notice him, in his suffering and in his glory. He was a man of faith who believed in God’s overarching care and providential designs, a faithful servant who produced a great harvest from the abundant talents he had received. Now he has gone to his reward, to participate fully in the “holy gaiety of the saints” that he allowed us to glimpse in his illustrated spirituals and in his luminous life.

Mr. Crite’s quotes are taken from the oral history interviews conducted by Robert Brown in 1979 and ’80 for the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian.

Rachelle Linner, a freelance writer and reviewer, lives in Boston.

National Catholic Reporter, December 14, 2007

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