A.C. Hollingsworth – from comic books to paintings
The print was almost hidden, so small and fragile tucked behind large and heavy paintings leveled against a wall at the auction house. It could have easily been missed, except for alert and prying eyes like mine, always on the lookout for art that speaks to me.
I had gone through row after row of propped-against-the-wall paintings when I got to what looked like an inconsequential work of art near the end of my search. I had already combed the wall above the row and saw nothing – not one familiar name – that had captured my eye.
Then I pulled out the notebook-sized print from among its stack. It was a reproduction of an ink drawing of the heads of children. One was noticeably an Eskimo child whose face was framed by a furry cap. One child’s face was scratched in dark ink. Most were looking full-faced at me, others were silouhetted, and another looked upward from his perch at the top of the group.
At the bottom were round circles that resembled roses.
The children looked like a “We Are the World” UNESCO poster, with them as one big amalgam of connected beings. The previous owner had used cardboard as a backing – a no-no – so the print had faded to a light shade of beige.
At the bottom on the left was the artist’s signature printed in ink onto the reproduction, with the words “Artist Proof” written in pencil beneath it. To the right, the artist had signed the print in pencil: A.C. Hollingsworth – a name I instantly recognized as an African American artist.
I placed the print back in its place, sure that no one else would recognize the name or have any interest in the subject matter. Then I waited – endlessly, it seemed – through the sale of small items on the auction house tables, furniture, lamps and more before the print was finally sold.
Although I knew Hollingsworth’s name, I realized that I knew very little about him. Some of his works had come up before at New York’s Swann Auction Galleries sale of African American art. But who was he, exactly?
Googling, I learned that Alvin C. Hollingsworth was one of the first African American comic book illustrators (the first was Matt Baker in the 1930s and 1940s. The first woman cartoonist was Jackie Ormes, who wrote female-led comic strips for the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender from 1937-1956. Orrin Evans produced a single-issue black comic book in the 1940s).
Hollingsworth started drawing comics when he was a young child. His first, he said in a 1980 interview, were pictures of the Empire State Building (he was born in Harlem in 1928), and “superheroes would be leaping from building to building. I got my first job (in comics) while I was in junior high school. I couldn’t get paid because I didn’t have working papers. My father had to take off from work to go down with me to get working papers so I could get paid.”
At the age of 12, he was working as an assistant at Holyoke Publishing Company on its Catman Comics. He attended the High School of Music and Art and later got a degree in fine arts from the City University of New York.
Hollingsworth worked at several other comic books companies in the 1940s and 1950s, with most of the works being crime and horror stories. He produced the comic strip Kandy, about an independent black woman and the men who loved her, for the Smith-Mann Syndicate. Smith-Mann offered an eight-page Sunday comics section featuring black characters that was apparently sold to black newspapers, including the Pittsburgh Courier. It was not clear if the syndicate was part of the Courier. I could find little information it.
He also worked on a comic strip syndicated by the Associated Press called Scorchy Smith around the same time.
Working with writer and editor Roy Ald at Fawcett Comics in the early 1950s, he illustrated Negro Romance, one of the few comic books that showed African Americans as non-stereotypical, a seemingly far cry from most comics books at the time. Ald remembered Hollingsworth from years before when the young high-schooler had done pasteups and touchups, and ran errands at Fawcett, according to a History Detectives segment. Hollingsworth was the first African American artist hired by Fawcett, according to the segment.
The series only lasted for three issues – with 100,000 copies per issue – and very few known copies apparently are still around. Here are photos of copies of the other covers.
Hollingsworth turned to painting around 1955. His subjects included the civil rights movement, women, the life he knew in the city, jazz and more, and captured them as both abstract and representational art. He painted a series of murals for an apartment building in the Bronx, NY, called Don Quixote, along with lithographs mimicking them. I came across several of the Don Quixote lithographs on the web.
In 1963, he joined artist Romare Bearden, Hale Woodruff, Emma Amos, Norman Lewis and other African American artists to form the art group Spiral to show support through their art and exhibitions for the civil rights movement.
Hollingsworth also hosted a 10-part series for NBC in 1970 called “You’re Part of Art,” and illustrated several books. His 1970 children’s book “I’d Like the Goo-Gen-Heim,” about a child’s visit to the Guggenheim Museum in New York, was reprinted in 2009 after a copy was found at a library sale. He produced a series of paintings of the construction of the building as it was being erected in the 1950s.
Some of his letters, sketchbooks, catalogs, photos and other papers from 1960 to 1970 are housed at the Smithsonian. Here’s a list of his exhibitions and bibliography, and some of his comic illustrations here and here.
Hollingsworth was also a professor of art at the City University of New York for nearly 20 years, retiring in 1998. He died in 2000.
At auction, I was able to get the print for a pittance. It was a not perhaps one of his best, but it gave me an opportunity to actually learn more about him.