Dox Thrash House
Although the Dox Thrash House was listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 2013, it is in disrepair following a partial demolition, years of vacancy and neglect. One grassroots initiative, The Black Futures Campaign, is seeking to raise $100,000 to buy the building and convert it into a “community-centered hub of arts” that will preserve the physical fabric of what was Thrash’s residence, but do so in a way that also celebrates his legacy as a nationally significant Black artist. Their success will mark another important step forward in expanding how the City of Philadelphia approaches preservation of historic places, thus ensuring that the stories we tell through the buildings we save are truly representative of the city’s diverse history and culture.
Dox Thrash (1893–1965)
Dox Thrash was an artist and printmaker who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago after serving in World War I as part of the famed Buffalo Soldiers regiment. He moved to Philadelphia in 1925 and settled in the Sharswood neighborhood which, at the time, was an active community of Black artists, intellectuals, and professionals. His house was a short distance from the Pyramid Club, a social club founded by prominent members of the Black community, as well as the Point Jazz Club, the Checker Club, and other venues where the likes of John Coltrane were performing.
Upon arriving in Philadelphia, he worked as a janitor which allowed him time to pursue small commissions on the side. He also continued to refine his skills at the Graphic Sketch Club (now the Samuel S. Fleischer Art Memorial) where he would experiment with and combine different techniques like etching and lithography.
A pivotal moment came during the Great Depression in 1937 when he joined the Fine Print Workshop of Philadelphia through the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. His experimentation continued and, with two other artists, he invented a process known as carborundum printmaking: using carborundum crystals to make etchings on copper plates. While the technique was quickly adopted by others, Thrash — who called them “Opheliagrahs” after his mother — remained better known for his unique style which drew heavily on a dramatic play of light and shadow, also known as chiaroscuro. He was recognized for his use of imagery drawn from the daily life of Black Americans with subjects ranging from stark portraits to more playful genre scenes, featuring both the rural landscapes of his childhood in Georgia and the urban environments in which he lived in as an adult.
Over the next few years, he became a well-known regional artist with exhibitions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and, frequently, just up the street at the Pyramid Club where he cultivated an influential network of Black creative professionals. National acclaim soon followed: Alain Locke, a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, recognized in Thrash’s work resonance with the concept of “The New Negro Movement,” espoused by Locke and other figures like W.E.B. DuBois, which called for Black artists to fight racist depictions of Black people in art and media by positively portraying Black identity and its expression of daily life.
In World War II, Thrash produced a series of prints of Black laborers; many featured defense industry workers. During this time, Thrash himself was victimized by racism, being denied a job at the Philadelphia Navy Yard to paint insignias on aircraft due to his race. Throughout the 1940’s and 50’s, he continued to practice his art and see his pieces included in local and, occasionally, at national exhibitions. The Philadelphia Museum of Art holds fifty works by Thrash and mounted a major retrospective in 2001 titled “Dox Thrash: An African American Master Printmaker Rediscovered.”
Learn more about Dox Thrash and the efforts to preserve his home: