Everyone loves new talent. But discovering -- or rediscovering -- old and proven talent can be exciting, too. And that's what the Charles Sebree revival at Evans-Tibbs Gallery is about.
At 70, Kentucky-born and Chicago-bred Sebree has lived in Washington on and off since the late '40s, when he was invited here to design sets and costumes for a Howard University production of Owen Dodson's "Bayou Legend." Riding high at the time with a $1,000 Rosenwald Fellowship, he had already directed productions at New York's American Negro Theater, danced and designed costumes for Katherine Dunham in Chicago and Pearl Primus in New York, and illustrated Harlem Renaissance writer Countee Cullen's last book "The Lost Zoo."
There were other illustration projects for Theater Arts and Mademoiselle magazines. And there were many supporters for the prodigious young painter, illustrator, stage designer and dancer. "I guess Thornton Wilder discovered me," says Sebree. For some years after their meeting in Chicago, Wilder sent him a small stipend from time to time, and showed his work to Gertrude Stein.
In 1952 Sebree also tried his hand at writing, and his play "Mrs. Patterson," reworked into a musical, was premiered in New York featuring rising star Eartha Kitt. It was a banner year: His paintings were also shown at Saidenberg Gallery (Picasso's dealer) and he was included in a group show at the Museum of Modern Art. By 1961 Sebree had settled in Washington for good, teaching summer courses in art and design at Howard, designing costumes for productions there, and painting away. Almost every subsequent exhibition and major book on Afro-American art has included him.
But in the ensuing years, though well known among Washington's black community for his varied achievements, Sebree has received little attention in the establishment art world, at least in part because his paintings have rarely surfaced outside his 16th Street apartment, from which he has sold every last one of them to his network of devoted collectors. Local galleries have offered him shows, but he has chosen never to have one -- until now.
"Dealers always want to take so much," says Sebree. "But Tibbs is interested in our cause, and if I can help him, it would be a delight."
Though billed as a retrospective, Sebree's scant show at Evans-Tibbs is, in fact, more like an hors d'oeuvre, rousing an appetite for a far more thorough investigation of his life and work. But there are some wonderful paintings here: a touching self-portrait of the artist as a young man, paintbrush in hand, kneeling on the floor among his own works, dating from his student days at the Chicago Art Institute; the Picasso-like "Blue Jacket" from 1938; a sad-eyed sailor painted during his Navy days, compositionally bold and solid as a rock and texturally intriguing.
There are socially conscious drawings from a series on black World War II naval hero Dorie Miller (the subject of an Owen Dodson play), along with witty fantasy animals and -- most distinctive of all -- several tiny iconic, Klee-inspired heads (such as "Locket" and "Aztec") of the sort he continues to make today. Sebree appears to work best on a small scale, both here and in caricature-like watercolors that take high advantage of the heavily textured paper, as in "The Drink" and "Benji."
But if a real sense of his development is missing (apart from the catalogue), such shortcomings of scope are in no way the fault of Thurlow Tibbs, the idealistic young dealer who has set out to correct the inequities of art history by organizing traveling shows and publishing illustrated catalogues on Afro-American artists. Despite a three-year search that took him all over the country, Tibbs found that the owners of Sebree's works simply would not part with them. "Maybe later in life, when I go, people will loan them," Sebree says.
Meanwhile, these mostly small-scale figure paintings do offer a glimpse at the distinctive mix of influences, from African sculpture and from artists like Klee, Picasso and Modigliani, who were themselves profoundly influenced by African art. Given the current interest in primitivism, Sebree's work offers an intriguing example of how primitive and modernist styles have been recombined in the work of a highly accomplished contemporary American artist.
Despite a debilitating allergy to oil paint, which has led him to experiment with various media, Sebree continues to paint at the rate of three works per month. "I don't work as fast or as much as I used to, but I've never stopped," he says.
His show, which will travel to Detroit, Chicago and New York after it closes at Evans-Tibbs on Jan. 15, is at 1910 Vermont Ave. NW. Hours are Wednesdays and Thursdays, 6 to 8 p.m., Saturdays 2 to 5 p.m., or by appointment.