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Elton Fax Biography - Selected writings

black university art africa

1909-1993

Cartoonist, illustrator, writer

Award-winning cartoonist, illustrator, and writer Elton Fax enjoyed a 60-year career as one of America's most celebrated black artists. He taught in colleges and universities, gave one-off lectures around the world, and became famous as a "chalk-talk" artist, illustrating his stories with spontaneous sketches; he was especially successful in his talks for children. Fax illustrated over 30 books and many magazine articles; his weekly cartoon strip "Suzabelle" was a favorite in several black newspapers of the 1940s. He was also a successful writer, traveling widely to collect material for his books on black culture and life, and earning praise for his sensitive word and picture illustrations of the people and places he visited. Fax was the recipient of many awards, including a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship in 1976 and a Chancellor's Medal from Syracuse University in 1990.

Elton Clay Fax was born on October 9, 1909, in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of Mark Oakland, a clerk, and Willie Estelle Fax. He attended Claflin College and then Syracuse University's College of Fine Arts, graduating in 1931 with a BFA. He married Grace Elizabeth Turner on March 12, 1929, and they had three children. Fax started out as an art teacher and lecturer at Claflin College, in Orangeburg, South Carolina, before becoming an artist and teacher with the Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA) in New York City between 1936 and 1940. He turned freelance in 1940 and concentrated on producing illustrations for the pulp magazines and children's books, but he also gave public talks and quickly developed his trademark "chalk-talk" style. He also began a weekly cartoon based on black history that appeared in several black newspapers.

Between 1953 and 1956 Fax and his young family lived in Mexico, where he sketched scenes and tried to represent the conditions for working Mexicans. He later toured Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, and other parts of South America. He notes in his article "It's Been a Beautiful but Rugged Journey" that he was troubled by being asked by United States embassy officials whether he had witnessed any communist activity. Fax, whose sympathy for the poor and exploited people of the countries he visited is evident in his drawings of the time, was invited to attend the 1959 Rome conference of the newly-formed American Society of African Culture (AMSAC) and afterwards toured Africa, providing sketches that were published in his first book, West African Vignettes.

In the following decades Fax continued to travel around the world, giving his illustrated talks and recording the plight of people in third-world countries such as Nigeria, Northern Sudan, Ethiopia, and elsewhere. The subject matter for his talks was often the civil rights struggle going on in the United States, yet he managed to remain on good terms with the State Department observers who monitored his visits to politically sensitive countries such as the U.S.S.R. By the 1970s Fax was able to begin publishing books on black history in the United States. The most celebrated of these is Garvey, a biography of the black nationalist Marcus Garvey, best know for his declaration: "Africa for the Africans."

Fax travelled widely in Asia, the Soviet Union, and Africa. He was a guest of the Soviet Writers' Union in 1971 and 1973 and continued to sketch scenes of working people around the world. As a guest of the Bulgarian Writers' Conference in 1982 he shared a platform with such luminaries as John Cheever, William Saroyan, and Gore Vidal. In the same period he continued to exhibit his work at important galleries, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. His work sometimes makes for uncomfortable viewing, though it is always more interested in dignity than degradation. Fax never faltered in his efforts to expose injustice and exploitation. He justified his efforts in direct terms: "[E]xclude a small number of high-salaried and widely-publicized athletes and entertainers; exclude also the few Blacks occupying highly visible and lucrative places in government and private industry; and what is left is a great mass struggling to attain and thereby fully realize the Great American Dream."

Selected writings

Books

West Africa Vignettes (self-illustrated), American Society of African Culture, 1960, enlarged edition, 1963.

Contemporary Black Leaders, Dodd, 1970.

Seventeen Black Artists, Dodd, 1971.

Garvey: The Story of a Pioneer Black Nationalist, Dodd, 1972.

Through Black Eyes: Journeys of a Black Artist in East Africa and Russia (self-illustrated), Dodd, 1974.

Black Artists of the New Generation, Dodd, 1977.

Hashar (self-illustrated), Progress Publishers, 1980.

Elyuchin, Progress Publishers, 1983.

Soviet People as I Knew Them, Progress Publishers, 1988.

At a Glance …

Born Elton Clay Fax on October 9, 1909, in Baltimore, MD; married Grace Elizabeth Turner, March 12, 1929 (deceased); children: Betty Louise, Virginia Mae, Leon. Education: Syracuse University, BFA, painting, 1931. Religion: Protestant.

Career: Claflin College, Orangeburg, SC, teacher of art, art history, and history, 1935-36; Harlem Art Center, New York City, teacher of life drawing, 1936-41; City College (now of the City University of New York), New York City, teacher of watercolor painting and art history, 1957-58. Lecturer in high schools and community centers; held residencies at Purdue University, Princeton University, Fisk University, Western Michigan University, University of Hartford, and Texas Southern University. Specialist-grantee for U.S. Department of State in international cultural exchange program to South America and the Caribbean, 1955; delegate to Second International Congress of Society of African Culture in Rome, Italy, 1959; State Department lecturer in East Africa, 1963; guest writer of Soviet Writers Union, 1971, 1973; participant in Union of Bulgarian Writers Conference in Sofia, Bulgaria, 1977. Notable exhibitions include: National Gallery of Art and Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Kerlan Collection, University of Minnesota; and National Museum, Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Awards: Women's Civic League Contest, gold medal, 1932; MacDowell Colony fellow, 1968; Coretta Scott King Award, American Library Association, for Seventeen Black Artists, 1972; Louis E. Seley NACAL gold medal for painting, 1972; Rockefeller Foundation fellow, 1976; Syracuse University, Chancellor's Medal, 1990.

Illustrated Works

Tommy Two Wheels, Friendship Press, 1943.

Dr. George Washington Carver: Scientist, Messner, 1944.

Melindy's Medal, Messner, 1945.

Upton Arithmetic–Grade 4, American Book Co., 1945.

Sitting Bull: Champion of His People, Messner, 1946.

Story Parade Treasure Book, John C. Winston, 1946.

Skid, Houghton, 1948.

Buffalo Bill, Messner, 1948.

Melindy's Happy Summer, Messner, 1949.

Avalanche Patrol, Random House, 1951.

A Present from Rosita, Messner, 1952.

Rustlers on the High Range, Random House, 1952.

Famous Harbors of the World, Random House, 1953.

Almena's Dogs, Farrar, Strauss, 1954.

Cotton for Jim, Abingdon, 1954.

Genghis Khan and the Mongol Horde, Random House, 1954.

Trumpeter's Tale: The Story of Young Louis Armstrong, Morrow, 1955.

Love of This Land, Christian Education Press, 1956.

Terrapin's Pot of Sense, Holt, 1957.

Mateo of Mexico, Friendship Press, 1958.

Otwe, Coward, 1960.

The Na of Wa, Coward, 1960.

The Sky God Stories, Coward, 1960.

Tales from the Story Hat, Coward, 1960.

Taiwo and Her Twin, McGraw-Hill, 1964.

More Tales from the Story Hat, Coward, 1966.

Paul Cuffee: America's First Black Captain, Dodd, 1970.

The Seven Wishes of Joanna Peabody, Lothrop, 1972.

Take a Walk in Their Shoes, Cobblehill Books, 1989.

Periodicals

"It's Been a Beautiful but Rugged Journey," Black American Literature Forum, Autumn 1986, pp. 273-288.

Sources

Books

Driskell, David C., Elton Fax: Drawings from Africa, Fisk University Press, 1968.

Periodicals

New York Times Book Review, August 20, 1972, pp. 5, 18.

On-line

"Elton Fax Papers," New York Public Library Digital Library Collections, http://digilib.nypl.org/dynaweb/ead/scm/scmgfaxe/@Generic__Bookview (October 8, 2004).

"From 'Under Cork' to Overcoming: Black Images in the Comics," Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memoribilia, www.ferris.edu/news/jimcrow/links/comics/ (October 8, 2004).

—Chris Routledge

Jan Fearnley (1965-) Biography - Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Work in Progress, Sidelights [next]

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