Born in Georgia in 1893, Dox Thrash quit school in 4th grade, but pursued art education through correspondence courses. He left home at 15 to join the great migration north, ending up in Chicago, where he worked odd jobs and attended night classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. When World War 1 broke out, he joined the army, serving with the Buffalo Soldiers on the front lines in France . Gassed in the final days of the war, and suffering from shell shock, Dox convalesced at a hospital in France. After recovery, he returned to Chicago, where government funding for veterans allowed him to finish his studies at the Art Institute. “After my art education was completed, I was lured back to the open road, hobo-ing, working part the time on odd jobs. Such as, bell boy, dining car waiter, private car porter, massager in bathhouses, black face comedian in carnivals, small town circuses, and vaudevilles. With the idea of observing, drawing and painting the people of America, especially the “negro”.” It was these images of a childhood in the rural south, hard times in the urban north, and his later patriotic war work, that formed the core of Dox’s oeuvre.
He eventually settled in Philadelphia in 1926. He worked as a janitor, spent his free time designing logos and posters, and taking night classes in print making at the Graphic Sketch Club (now the Fleisher Art Memorial), an art club set up in 1898 by local businessman Samual Fleisher to bring free art classes to low income neighborhood children (still continuing today). In 1932 he showed his work at the Graphic Sketch Club’s 33rd Annual Exhibition. The following year, the Philadelphia Tribune called him “one of the city’s most talented artists.”
Later that year, Dox had work accepted for the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art’s annual water color exhibition. This was a big step in Dox’s career as PAFA was not only Philadelphia‘s premier art school, but one of the best in the country (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts: American Art & Victorian Splendor).
As the depression worsened, Dox’s sign painting business and veteran’s pension helped him survive. In 1937 he became the first African American assigned to Fine Print Workshop, part of the WPA’s Federal Art’s Project, and one of the few programs that was racially integrated. It was here that he co-invented the process of carborundum mezzotint, “I got some of the carborundum powder they used in grinding lithograph stones and rubbed it into a copper plate with an old flatiron. I got a queer rough surface. Well, this fellow Mesibov looks over my shoulder, and says, ‘Hey, I bet you could work lines into that.’ I took a burnisher (a knife-like tool) and sketched a nude.” The PMA owns this pen and ink drawing by Dox of tools used to make mezzotint prints:
Thrash was the first artist invited to join Philadelphia’s Pyramid Club, founded in 1937 for the “cultural, civic, and social advancement of Negroes in Philadelphia.” It was the only exhibition space that was owned, operated, and controlled by African Americans in Philadelphia. It held concerts by musicians such as Marian Anderson and Duke Ellington, and speakers including Martin Luther King Jr.. Dox participated in the organization’s annual art expositions from 1941–1957.
By the late 1930’s Dox’s work had reached a national audience, and his painting “The Scrubwoman” was hung by Eleanor Roosevelt in the Whitehouse. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has 29 of his works (although not always on display).
With the onset of World War 2, Dox became one of the first artists in the Fine Print Workshop to take up the patriotic theme mandated for the Federal Art Project by Washington.
In his patriotism, he left the workshop to get a job as an insignia painter at the Navy Yard, but was turned away because of his race. “On May 26, 1942, I applied at the Philadelphia Navy Yard Labor Board for an application as an insignia painter in the airplane department. This position was posted as being open for competitive examinations. I was informed that this job was not available for members of my race. It was made very clear to me that there were other positions that I might be accepted for but not this one. It was also stated to me that it made no difference whether I was a veteran or not, and that his word was final. I was also told that even if I filed an application that I would never get as far as the examination. I did however obtain an application blank and am filing same with the Philadelphia Labor Board at the Navy Yard, but am writing you this to say that I am vitally interested in the outcome of thiswar and am not concerned in racial prejudices. I want to serve in the capacity for which I am best fitted, that is why I asked for this blank. I shall expect to at least be given a chance to competewith others for the job.” He eventually got a job in another Philadelphia shipyard. After the war, he was employed as a house painter by the Philadelphia Housing Authority.
He purchased this home in 1945 at 2340 West Columbia Avenue (now Cecil B. Moore Avenue), and kept an apartment studio down the block. The house has been purchased by preservationists, who are currently looking at ways to turn it into both a memorial to Dox and a community resource.
Dox died in Philadelphia in 1965, and is buried with his wife, Edna, across the river in the United States National Cemetery in Beverly, New Jersey.